"How 'Our Lady' Became a Potent Symbol of Santa Fe"
Everywhere you look in Santa Fe, she is there. Her likeness emblazoned on T-shirts, key chains, earrings, aprons, nightlights, posters, murals, tiles, pillows, magnets and more. She is the ubiquitous Our Lady of Guadalupe, an incontrovertible icon of Santa Fe and, perhaps, the entire Southwest.
As the 480th anniversary of her appearance nears, to be commemorated with feasts and fiestas on Dec. 11 and 12 at Catholic churches and American Indian Pueblos alike, it seems time to revisit the story behind the Virgin de Guadalupe, and delve a little deeper than the “In Guad We Trust” bumper stickers that are seen on a daily basis in Santa Fe. How has she become such a popular image for the city, and why?
The story goes that on Dec. 9, 1531, an Aztec Indian named Juan Diego saw a vision of a young woman on Tepeyac hill near Mexico City on his way to church. He heard “…singing on the little hill, like the song of many precious birds…”1 and someone calling his name. After climbing to the top, the woman revealed herself as the Holy Virgin Mary and asked Juan Diego to be a messenger for her. She said that he needed to find the Catholic Bishop of Mexico and ask him to build a church on the exact spot where they were standing.
Off Juan Diego went. Three times he visited the bishop and shared the Virgin’s message, and each time the bishop dismissed him as a lowly peasant, unconvinced. On his final attempt, Juan Diego was sent away to obtain proof of the apparition. On Dec. 12, when Juan Diego was trying to find a priest to visit his dying uncle, the Virgin appeared to him again. She assured him that his uncle would be healed, and told him to gather some fresh roses on the hill where he had first seen her. He gathered up the roses--they were somehow in glorious full bloom in the cold season--placed them in his tilma (or cloak), and headed out once again.
Upon his fourth visit to the Bishop, Juan Diego said “She sent me to the top of the little hill where I had seen Her before, to cut some different flowers there…And She told me that I should give them to you from Her, and that in this way I would prove it…Here they are; please receive them."2 Juan Diego opened his tilma and the roses spilled out, revealing a perfect, miraculous image of the Virgin on the fabric (Diego’s cloak can still be visited behind the main altar in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City).
Gail Delgado, Director of the Santuario de Guadalupe in Santa Fe, the oldest extant shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe in the United States (established in 1777), has witnessed a deep devotion to the Virgin, even by non-Catholics. “She was the only apparition of Mary who provided proof of her existence through an image. There were other accounts where people said they saw her, but they were unable to provide proof of their encounter,” she notes.
In and around the Santuario, the reverence for her image and message is apparent in the retablos painstakingly painted by local artist Arlene Cisneros Sena; in the altar screen, or reredo painted by Jose de Alzibar that was transported, piece by piece by burro from Mexico City in 1783 and then stitched together in Santa Fe; and in the recently erected statue by Mexican artist Georgina Farias that also made its way up the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, even after it was sidelined in border customs for a bit.
According to Santa Fe resident and author of Guadalupe: Our Lady of New Mexico, Jacqueline Orsini Dunnington, the Virgin has become a popular figure in Santa Fe and the Land of Enchantment for several reasons, each building upon the Virgin’s miraculous appearance.
One of the more philosophical reasons is mankind’s need to believe in a divine figure. Another has both a historic and geographic context: her likeness came up the way of the Rio Grande from Mexico, with one of the first documented accounts occurring in 1663 when Padre Juan Ramirez traveled from Juarez to Socorro with an image of her in his saddlebag. (It didn’t hurt that this representation of Mary showed a woman with darker hair and skin, like most of the female population in the region at the time.)
And finally, a much more mundane explanation of her popularity is the advent of the industrial revolution. With new printing processes and her devotee’s desire to spread easily accessible images of Christianity and Catholicism, she literally spread to all corners of the earth, being reproduced on just about every imaginable man-made item (Dunnington notes she has 84 Guadalupe T-shirts, no two-alike, in her ever-growing collection).
While the mass-produced images of Guadalupe create differing opinions about what is considered sacred and what is thought to be the over-commodification of a consecrated symbol (not to mention the strong feelings of ownership that are brought to light now and then by the use of the image in artistic works like that of Alma Lopez), there is no denying the staying power, visual impact and expansive reach that Our Lady’s image has had in the City Different.
Learn more about Santa Fe’s Santuario de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, and its upcoming Guadalupe Fiesta by visiting their website here.
To learn more about the Pueblo of Pojoaque’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Feast, call the pueblo at (505) 455-2278.