Yesterday was December 12th, Guadalupe’s Feast Day, and I lit her retablo with its fiery red lights that sits in the one dark corner of the living room. This Lady unites all peoples and is often called the “Mother of the Americas.” As I gazed up at her dark Indian face sculpted out of wood, cloaked in a blue green garment and held aloft by what appeared to be a young Indian boy, a profound yearning to honor her once again sprung out of the deepest recesses of my heart, much as I imagined the spring that had once bubbled out of the barren ground at Guadalupe’s feet…
I had first discovered Guadalupe while living in Tucson Arizona. In the rural desert chapels I often found small statues of the Black Madonna behind the churches, some with candles or flowers spread around on earthen ground as offerings. What I found peculiar was that some of these small statues were black while others clearly Indian. I wondered what this could mean. Inside, magnificent images or statues of Mary adorned the altars. It was in the streets of downtown Tucson that I first began to answer my own question. Images of Guadalupe appeared on candles, cloth, mugs, and retablos that had made their way up from Mexico to be sold during the street fairs. It occurred to me that some of the statues I had found behind the Catholic churches in rural areas must have been statues of Guadalupe.
Guadalupe’s story, although differing in details is a simple one. In 1531 a poor Indian peasant had a vision of a Lady, also Indian, who appeared out of a cloud and was surrounded by a mandorla of light on the hill of Tepeyac (located outside of Mexico city). Birdsong accompanied the vision. She spoke to him in Natuatl, his native dialect asking him to tell the Bishop to build her a chapel on this hill. Juan Diego duly went to the Bishop with the story but was not believed. The Bishop needed a sign. Juan’s uncle suddenly became deathly ill and Juan went again to Mexico City for help and once again the Lady of Light appeared to him on the way telling him that his uncle was healed. Juan related the Bishop’s request for a sign, but the Lady already knew and told him to gather Castilian roses, jasmine and other flowers, none of which could grow on the barren rocky hill of Tepeyac. She arranged the flowers in his cloak or tilma and instructed Juan to take them to the Bishop. When Juan opened the cloak before the Bishop on December 12th, the fresh heavily fragrant flowers fell to the floor. More astonishing was that on the rough fabric of the woven agave tilma was an image of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Light. The Bishop was convinced and a chapel was soon built on the spot. Curiously, this chapel was built over a shrine to the “Mother of the Gods” who the Indian people called Tonantzin. It is said that many miracles continue to occur here and that a clear spring appeared after one of the Lady’s miraculous appearances. The image of Guadalupe on Juan’s cloak is presently housed in the Bascilica of Our Lady (Mary) in Mexico City, and is one of the most visited holy places in the world.
It wasn’t known until recently that the image had originally included a crown that had been removed. (The frame surrounding the image had been lowered so the erasure was obscured). Guadalupe’s picture has also been modified in other ways; the Mandorla, the stars on her cloak, the moon under her feet and the angel supporting her were apparently added later. Even more interesting was the fact that when infrared imaging was done it was noted that the original image was neither cracked or flaked while later additions – the gold leaf, the silver of the moon – showed wear. The upper two thirds of Guadalupe’s image show no imperfections.
The absence of the original crown on Guadalupe remains an intriguing mystery. Although it is obvious that the image was deliberately tampered with to transform Guadalupe into the Virgin Mary (she eventually became a Catholic saint), I always believed the two figures were not the same. Since early childhood I had loved Mary first as the loving mother I never had, and more recently as a more distant presence surrounded by stars and galaxies. Guadalupe seemed to me to be a more earthly presence, although most certainly divine. Images of her were almost always placed outdoors in natural surroundings. Once I dreamed that I followed Guadalupe’s blue -green light through the forest in a state bordering on ecstasy. Perhaps my Native American heritage has biased my thinking and my heart but I cannot ignore the intuitive sense that this Lady is the Mother of the Americas, and indeed, to Indians at least, she is a figure that unites all peoples, and for me this includes all animals and plants and the natural world as a whole.
I bought my retablo in Mexico after living in Tucson, fascinated by the peyote- like flowers, and the ayahuasca leaves that adorned the outside of the little shrine. My Guadalupe wears a necklace of coral that belonged to my mother, part of a rosary (I removed Christ on the cross) that belonged to my father, an Indian petrographed stone that belonged to my brother, a small deerskin bag that contains a lock of baby hair belonging to my oldest grandson, a single peregrine falcon’s feather that I associate with my youngest grandson, a crystal necklace of mine that reflects her crimson lights and finally a Native American Spirit Bear made out of mother of pearl. Above Guadalupe’s retablo I have placed a pair of deer antlers, and many kinds of bird feathers adorn the small shelf beneath her along with a stunning beaded antelope made by the Huichol Indians of Mexico. During the winter I light her every morning just after making my fire in the stove, and her comforting warmth and presence has helped me deal with increasingly harsh winters, bare and treeless granite mountains, and monochromatic gray or snow – laden skies.
Yesterday was unseasonably mild and I wandered through the mixed deciduous and conifer forest on my property with my two small dogs and stopped to rest at a place where I imagined Guadalupe might once have appeared… I marveled once again that we were mid way through December and rich bare ground still lay under my feet. A solitary woodpecker chirped from an old snag. I was standing at the edge of a clear spring that bubbled out of the ground surrounded by a copse of fragrant balsam trees. Lush green sphagnum moss carpeted the edges the slender ribbon that wound its way down the mountain like a sinuous serpent on the way to the sea. Asking a nearby balsam for the tree’s permission, I bent and broke off a balsam twig to place on my small altar beneath Guadalupe’s retablo after I got home, imagining that Guadalupe would appreciate the fragrance. When I heard a slight rustling in the forest behind me, I turned slowly to gaze into the dark luminous pools of the old doe’s eyes fringed with black lashes… losing myself in her eerily serene beauty. I knew this deer; she came in each evening to feed. So Guadalupe had made an appearance after all I thought happily, and this time she wore her animal skin!