The key figure in acceptance of the Catholic religion by the indigenous peoples of Mexico was the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose story goes back to 1531, just twelve years after Hernan Cortes first set foot on Mexican soil. On December 12, 1531, as the story goes, a poor Indian named Juan Diego was walking along in a desolate area north of Mexico City, seeking water for his uncle. Suddenly, on a hillside, he saw a vision of a beautiful woman, who directed him to a spring of fresh, cool water. A few days later, in the same spot, the vision appeared again to Juan Diego. This time, she instructed him to go to Mexico City to tell the high church officials to build a church in her name on that site. Of course, the ecclesiastical officials did not believe the poor Indian. Why would the Virgin Mary appear to someone so lowly? They asked for proof. When Juan Diego returned to the hillside and the Virgin appeared again, he asked her for a sign. Suddenly he saw some beautiful red roses, even though roses do not normally bloom in that area in December. He gathered them into his rough Indian tilma (blanket) and took them to Mexico City. When he opened his tilma for the high church officials, they fell to their knees in veneration and amazement. There, imprinted on the humble Indian blanket of Juan Diego, was the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, exactly as Juan Diego had seen her. It is said that the image is so perfect in detail that one sees in the pupil of the Virgin's eye the image of Juan Diego.
Today, thousands of devout Catholics make pilgrimages each year to the huge Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, in the northern part of Mexico City, to view from a discrete distance the image of the Virgin imprinted on Juan Diego's blanket and to worship with Catholics from around the world. Pilgrims may also worship at a small shrine on the very hillside where Juan Diego first saw the vision.
Rich and poor alike venerate the Virgin of Guadalupe. One can see her image in small shrines in humble homes in the most remote villages. Her image can also be found in virtually every cathedral and church in Mexico, as well as in parochial schools, businesses, markets, buses, taxis, and many homes. December 12, the day of Virgin of Guadalupe, is an official national holiday, observed with pilgrimages, processions, special masses, fiestas, and Indian dances in front of some churches. In a sense, the Virgin of Guadalupe represents the essence of Mexico, the fusion of two cultures, Catholic Spain and indigenous Mexico.
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