Images are very important for national identity in Mexico. Two of the most important, and my favourites, are the eagle-serpent-cactus combo that is on the flag, and the Virgen de Guadalupe.
The image on the flag I have already mentioned in my blog about Mexico City. It represents the culmination of the journey made by the Aztecs to find a new home. The eagle sat on the cactus devouring the serpent was the sign they had been looking for to set up shop and end their nomadic lifestyle. Thus, Mexico City was born.
The image of the Virgen de Guadalupe on the other hand is a post-Hispanic image, and one with an equally interesting and magical story to tell.
The story goes that Juan Diego, an indigenous peasant saw a vision of a young woman on 9 December 1531 while he was in the hills above Mexico City. The lady told him to build a church on the spot. When he related this to the bishop he was asked for proof of the vision. Juan went back and saw the lady again. He explained that the bishop needed cold, hard evidence of the encounter and the lady told him to take back some of the roses growing on the hillside.
When Juan returned he opened his poncho to the bishop. The roses fell away and instead there was a picture of the young lady in the vision. This iconic image is now one of the most popular religious and cultural pictures in Mexico, and the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City is one of the most important Catholic sites in the world.
Both Miguel Hidalgo (in the War of Independence) and Emiliano Zapata (during the Mexican Revolution) carried flags bearing her image. Guadalupe Victoria, the first Mexican president, changed his name to honour the Senora.
Buses, shops, houses, balloons, candles and a myriad of other items (in varying degrees of tastefulness) proudly display the image. And there are roadside shrines everywhere dedicated to her, lovingly maintained with flowers, bunting and candles.
The story is particularly interesting as Juan was an indigenous peasant, and the Virgen wears traditional Mexican dress rather than European clothes. The image represents the mix of European-brought religion with indigenous tradition, and thus is seen as a symbol of unity of Mexico’s rich culture.
Celebrations of the Virgen occur on December 12 – the day that Juan Diego returned to the bishop with the roses. This was the very day that Ned and I crossed the border into Mexico from the USA. A nice coincidence.