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The politics of sainthood

19 July 2019

In our second extract from a new book of indigenous saints, Sheila Varghese considers doubts about the existence of a Mexican saint


Sculpture of St Juan Diego in the Old Basilica of Guadalupe, one of the most visited Roman Catholic shrines in the world

Sculpture of St Juan Diego in the Old Basilica of Guadalupe, one of the most visited Roman Catholic shrines in the world

IN 2001, the nearly ten million indigenous Mexican Indians felt honoured and vindicated when Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin was canonized as the Americas’ first indigenous saint. Their fight against centuries of racial discrimination in a land that had been their ancestors’ and their home for as far back as they could remember seemed over.

However, when the official portrait of the sixteenth-century Chichimeca Indian was unveiled, there was bitter disappointment and a sense of betrayal. For the picture of the saint, reproduced by an artist from hearsay and local legends, showed the saint as a light-skinned, full-bearded man who looked nothing like an indigenous Mexican, but more like their Spanish conquerors.

As Fausto Guadarrama López, a writer in the Mexican Mazajua Indian community who has long spoken on behalf of the indigenous people of Mexico, put it: “This is disturbing. First we win a moral victory. Then we get this image with Western features. Are they trying to conquer us again through this image?”


WHO was the real man behind this misrepresentation? Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin was born in 1474 in Cuauhtitlan. A native of Mexico, he converted to Catholicism together with his wife in 1531 following the arrival of the Franciscan missionaries in Mexico in 1524. He is believed to have had four visions in December 1531. The visions were of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who appeared before him as a dark-skinned Indian at the hill of Tepeyac, which is now within Mexico City. When the local Spanish bishop, Juan de Zumárraga, demanded proof of the apparitions, a miraculous imprint of the image of the Virgin Mary is believed to have been found on Juan Diego’s rough cloak.

Following the apparitions, Juan Diego was permitted to live next to the hermitage erected at the foot of the hill of Tepeyac, and his life thereafter was spent serving at the shrine there. The Basilica of Guadalupe, one of the world’s major centres of pilgrimage for Christians of all traditions, as well as for non-Christians, is said to house Juan Diego’s tilma (mantle or cloak). Juan Diego died in 1548 at the age of 74.


THE life story of Juan Diego is found in an ancient document, the Nican Mopohua (meaning “Here it is told”), said to have been composed around 1560, about 30 years after the events themselves. The manuscript is said to have been held in the library of Real Universidad de México until 1847, when it disappeared. The original text has not been seen since; however, an informative thesis on an early manuscript dating from 1649 is to be found at the New York Public Library, and of this there are several Nahautl transcriptions and Spanish and English translations.

The Nican Mopohua describes in poetic language the four apparitions Juan Diego experienced. It relates how after each appearance he went to the bishop to relay the message he had received, asking that a place of worship be built at a specified location. The bishop remained aloof and disbelieving, asking for a sign. Finally, during the fourth apparition, which was in winter, Juan Diego was instructed to collect some flowers that were surprisingly growing among rocks. The flowers were placed in his cloak, which, when presented to the bishop, revealed upon it an image of the Virgin Mary. This cloak is said to be the one still preserved today in the chapel at Tepeyac.


NOT unlike the lives of other inspired and holy people, including Jesus himself, doubts have been cast by some scholars on whether Juan Diego ever existed, despite the historical evidence and the unwavering faith of the peoples of Guadalupe. Critics have argued that, because Catholicism was losing ground in the Americas to other Christian denominations, and the violent Indian rights movement led by Zapatista rebels, the Vatican, in an attempt to reach out to Mexico’s Indians, canonized Juan Diego, an indigenous Mexican.

At the forefront of critics of the Guadalupe miracle and the historicity of Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin has been the researcher the Revd Stafford Poole. While not doubting the holiness of Juan Diego, Poole questions if he ever existed at all. He calls the tradition “pious fiction” and prefers to think of it as an outstanding example of the way religious devotion and national identity can be fused together.

The historian David A. Brading, author of a highly sympathetic study of the Guadalupe miracle, says: “There is no historical evidence whatsoever that such a person actually existed.” He holds that the Guadalupe tradition carries a theological truth that cannot be discerned by “ill-judged questions about historicity, but only by thinking of the image the way Eastern Orthodox Christians think of icons and the way that Catholic theologians now regard many of the miraculous Gospel stories about Jesus’ birth”. He calls the story of the visions of Juan Diego “a sublime parable”, and says, “To canonise Juan Diego makes as much sense, and as little, as to canonise the Good Samaritan.”

Miguel León-Portilla (b.1926), a Mexican anthropologist and historian, and a prime authority on Nahuatl thought and literature, holds that “effectively many people were already flocking to the chapel of Tepeyac long before 1556, and the tradition of Juan Diego and the apparitions of Tonantzin (Guadalupe) had already spread.”


THE chief problem as seen by Poole and Brading is that, whereas the Guadalupe portrait and devotion surrounding it clearly date back to the mid-1500s, it was not until 1648 that Miguel Sanchez, a Creole priest, published the account. The same account, told more simply and movingly in Nahuatl, appeared a year later in a book produced by a friend of Sanchez. There is also the the Codex Escalada, or Codex 1548, a parchment discovered in 1995 by a Jesuit, Xavier Escalada, and published in 1997. Consequently, the investigations carried out by scholars at the Vatican do not agree with the Poole and Brading theories.

That indigenous people have primarily used oral traditions as a way of preserving their history needs to be part of this argument. Documentation of oral traditions is generally a later happening. All of the above leaves us with at least two important questions. First, can what Poole calls “pious fiction” be changed by centuries of devotion of an indigenous people into what Brading terms “a sublime parable”? And, second, can the Church insist on historical fact as an absolute? After all, the historicity of the Christ of Christianity has been challenged time and again.


Personal reflections

MEXICO is still at the forefront of political debate. As late as 2016, in the US elections, the building of a wall to keep Mexicans out became an election pledge. In this climate of political and social hopelessness, Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin’s importance to the people of Mexico, and all those who feel powerless, cannot be underestimated. He speaks alike in accents that common people going about their business, in the marketplaces and in the tea houses, and those in seats of power in Mexico, can understand. It is the age-old truth: God raises up saints from the most unlikely of places and people.

In February 2016, Pope Francis, on his visit to Mexico, spoke of Juan Diego, “a poor indigenous man” who felt worthless, but to whom a sacred mission was entrusted. As Héctor Zagal, the novelist, wrote: “The great saint of Mexico will be an Indian, who in these times of neoliberal economics would be selling gum on the street and would be written off as an idler by the bourgeoisie.”


Sheila Varghese was born in Bangalore and comes from a Kerala Syrian Christian background. She has worked in theological and neo-literate education; with the Bible Society translations department; as a columnist and special correspondent for newspapers in India; and with social services in the UK.

This is an edited extract from Every Tribe: Stories of diverse saints serv­ing a diverse world, edited by Sharon Prentis and published by SPCK at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9).

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