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La Virgen De Guadalupe From San Diego To Guatemala

Children in Mexico and Guatemala wear indigenous dress to celebrate La Virgen de Guadalupe on Dec. 12
Jill Replogle
Children in Mexico and Guatemala wear indigenous dress to celebrate La Virgen de Guadalupe on Dec. 12

My mother-in-law is visiting from Guatemala, so we went Sunday to an outdoor Mass and celebration for La Virgen de Guadalupe, one of Mexico’s most adored figures and a source of national pride — even among those who aren’t religious. Chicano communities in the U.S. also take great pride in la Virgen.

The image of the dark-skinned Virgin in a blue shawl dotted with white stars, rays of light beaming out from her silhouette, is ubiquitous in many border communities and throughout Mexico. She adorns blankets, candle jars, T-shirts and -- as a tattoo -- many, many bodies.


I know what you’re thinking: what does my Guatemalan mother-in-law have to do with a Mexican Mary? While Guatemalans aren’t quite as obsessed with the image of La Virgen, most know well the story of her appearance to Juan Diego.

In a nutshell, the legend goes, a glowing image of Mary, in native Mexican dress, appeared to the peasant Juan Diego in 1531, as he was walking near his village in central Mexico. She spoke to him in Nahuatl and asked him to build a church in her honor. After the meeting, he opened his plain cloak and found it miraculously imprinted with the image of the girl.

The cloak is displayed in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, and is a major pilgrimage site for Catholics, especially from Latin America.

Guatemalans take pride in La Virgen’s manifestation to a poor man not far from their homeland. And they celebrate her day, Dec. 12, in much the same way Mexicans and Chicanos do. But there are a few cultural exceptions.

The celebration we went to this past Sunday took place in Chicano Park, in San Diego’s historic Mexican-American stronghold, Barrio Logan. It started out with Aztec dancers making an offering of incense and dance before a mural of La Virgen. It’s painted on one of the concrete pillars holding up the highway that casts its shadow over the park.


My mother-in-law seemed a bit confused as to why this was happening at a celebration of La Virgen and wanted to know when Mass was going to start. My husband told her about Tonantzin.

Tonantzin is a title given to various female deities in Aztec mythology. While the Spanish priests were on their mission to convert Native Americans to Catholicism, Tonanztin and La Virgen de Guadalupe became one, at least in the imagination of some indigenous people. For some, it was a way to keep worshiping their deities while pretending to go along with the new imposed religion.

For the priests the syncretism proved useful in winning over the natives — millions converted to Catholicism in the following years.

A more traditional Mass did follow the Aztec dancers, along with songs from a group of adorable kids dressed in traditional Mexican dress — the girls in embroidered shirts and colorful, woven skirts; the boys in sand-colored simple shirts and pants, the kind of clothes the 16th century Juan Diego might have worn.

In Guatemala ladinos, or mestizos, also dress their kids in indigenous clothing to celebrate La Virgen de Guadalupe. But some feel the tradition is offensive: t-shirt wearing ladinos playing dress-up once a year with the clothes their modern Maya peers wear every day.

That didn’t stop us from dressing up our baby girl for the fiesta in a corte and huipil in the style used today by the Maya Kekchí from Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, where my husband’s family is from. But we're proud of her mixed heritage and embrace her roots and culture from all the places she’s from.