The Virgin of Guadalupe spreads her garment of compassion for all people in travail.
Ryan Christopher Jones for The New York Times
By Davíd Carrasco
After the ‘please, please, please let us in,’ ” she said, “comes the other thing, the creative energy that is carried inside them.”
The she in this passage was Toni Morrison speaking in November 2006 at the Louvre museum in Paris where she curated The Foreigner’s Home, a show about the pain and rewards of displacement, immigration, and exile.
Let me repeat Toni Morrison’s words one more time, speaking about immigrants: “After the ‘please, please, please let us in,’ ” she said, “comes the other thing, the creative energy that is carried inside them.”
One example of this potent combination of “please let us in” and “the creative energy that is carried inside” is the story of and devotions to an immigrant mother of Mexico, Our Lady of Guadalupe.
We bring spirit and saints that speak to our quest for wholeness.
I delivered this talk on December 6, which most of us identify as one more day in the march toward Christmas break or as part of Hanukkah or “the holiday season.” But Mexican immigrants and Latinx citizens bring another meaning to this season, filling it with spiritual power. We bring more than hunger and hands, determination and drugs, baseball and bongos, family and fortitude. We bring spirit and saints that speak to our quest for wholeness.
The other gift we bring to this season is the Virgin of Guadalupe who had to beg to be let in and then, when refused, persisted and showed her great beauty, divine beauty, and her boundless love and political wisdom. For December 12 is Guadalupe Day, and all over this country, and the world, people celebrate the first appearance of La Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico.
In 1531, 10 years after the arrows and shields had been laid down in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, when Indian peoples were dying in heaps, permeated by European diseases and spiritual depression, indigenous Juan Diego was walking at dawn by the hill of Tepeyac. A beautiful bird song called him to climb up the hill where, in a field glowing with quetzal feathers, emeralds, and gold, the brown-skinned Virgin Mary of Guadalupe appeared and spoke to him in his native language—Nahuatl. The Virgin told him to go to the bishop to build for her a little chapel on this hill in native lands so that she could “manifest, make known and give to people all my love, compassion, aid and protection . . . for all the various people who love me, cry out to me, who trust in me, who seek me.”
Inspired, Juan Diego walks into the city to the bishop’s house and reports to the other Juan, Juan de Zumarraga, that the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe has commanded a chapel of love and affirmation be built outside the city in native territory. The haughty Spanish bishop dismisses him, for the Virgin Mary’s first appearance in Mexico would surely be to a Spaniard and not an Indian. Juan Diego returns to the hill and laments to the Virgin, “Don’t send me, I am a man of no account, a back frame, a piece of rope, a wing, a nobody, and nobody will listen to me.”
She answers, “I could send a valuable noble but you, my most abandoned one, are in the hollow of the mantle, in the crossing of my arms and my love will be mediated through you.” She sends him back to the bishop.
Juan Diego reports to the bishop who tells him, skeptically, “Bring me a sign to convince me that the heavenly Lady” had appeared to Juan Diego. Juan Diego returns to the sacred hill. She tells him to climb to the top where, in December, flowers have broken through winter’s cloak and are blooming out of season. She wraps the flowers in his Indian cloak. He takes them to the bishop’s palace and while unraveling the cloak, with flowers falling to the ground, the image of a dark-skinned Virgin Maria of Guadalupe appears, driving the bishop to his knees as he weeps for shame and joy. The text states, “Absolutely this entire city with no exception was deeply moved and came to see her precious image.” Her chapel is built out on the distant hill where her beautiful image is enshrined and is visited the second week in December by eight million people asking her heart of love to be transferred to theirs.
There are two messages that this story has for our time. The first is that love, divine love, has to beg to be let in—and it appears in the form of a woman of color to a man of the lowest social standing whose life is saturated, then, and for centuries after his death, with sacred illumination.
This sacred reach, the extent and span of Guadalupe’s love to people in travail was recently expressed in Rudolfo Anaya’s Elegy on the Death of César Chavez, where he writes:
César is dead,
And we have wept for him until our eyes are dry,
Dry as the fields of California that
He loved so well and now lie fallow. . . .
For César has fallen, our morning star has fallen, . . .
Yes, the arrogant hounds of hate
Are loose upon this land again, and César weeps in the embrace of the La Virgen de Guadalupe, still praying for his people . . .
Rise mi gente Rise.
The love of Guadalupe extends even into the afterlife, but as a means of agency for living.
Guadalupe love would permeate and work to transform all forms of prejudice against all groups.
The second message that crosses our borders is that she spreads her garment of compassion for all the peoples, all the different groups of peoples in the land. God asks us through Guadalupe to defend and protect all the peoples in travail. In contemporary terms, Guadalupe love would permeate and work to transform all forms of prejudice against all groups. She does not defend one group alone: Guadalupe overwhelms all the born-again fascisms, anti-Semitism, anti-Arabism, anti-gayisms, anti-Latino Americanism, anti-African Americanism, anti-undocumentedisms.
Yet you notice she has color, and what of that. It’s ambiguous color.
Mexicans aren’t quite sure whether she is Indian or Mestizo, red or brown. If we were to ask her how dark or light she was, she might answer:
I am dark,
Darker than the other dark
I am the dark inside the dark
How light am I
I am light
I am lighter than the other light
I am the light inside the light
What colors am I
I am colored
I am more colorful than the other colors
I am the colors inside the colors.
This is the Guadalupe version of what Morrison calls “the other thing.”
She is both a foreigner and a home and heart in which all of us can dwell together in all the borderlands of our lives, in our nightmares and in our hopes. Isn’t it strangely wonderful that the story of this Brown Mother, Guadalupe—whom my daughter calls “the number one Mother”—migrates to us with a pedagogy of the heart.
Davíd Carrasco is the Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America at Harvard Divinity School. He is editor-in-chief of the award-winning three-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures, and in 2009, he completed a new abridgment of Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s memoir The History of the Conquest of New Spain (University of New Mexico Press).