Statue of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe
Barrio Duranguito, December 2017
Today, December 12, 2017 marks 486 years since Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego, a Nahuatl-speaking man in his late 50s. I have loved la Guadalupana my entire life. She has comforted me. Given me peace. Reassured me. She has healed me from my most profound wound. She has been my spiritual mother.
As a child my father put me to bed telling me about the miraculous apparitions she made to Juan Diego and the incredulity of Bishop Juan de Zumárraga. I went to sleep dreaming of the rocky hill where she appeared, Tepeyac, visualizing it as the mountains up the street from where I grew up. When I looked at the stars as I stood in the backyard under the mulberry tree, I saw the stars on her cloak. When my mama and daddy and I went to mass on her special day, December 12, we watched the matachines dance to the boom, boom, boom of the drum. "Mija, yo era matachin cuando era chavalito. Bailaba descalso," he would tell me with a laugh. As the matachines shook their rattles to the rhythm of the drum, I imagined him barefoot, with black hair and brown skin, his skinny body dancing for la Virgen.
For years, I took my students to the Basilica at Tepeyac where we stood on the modern moving walkway staring up at the ancient tilma with the image of the Virgen that had survived centuries and even a bombing attempt. On the grounds of the basilica, we sat on benches among the beautiful vegetation and walked up to the old chapel at the top of the hill. Each time I visited, it was magical. Each time I stood gazing on her image that was imprinted on Juan Diego's cape, I cried, standing there among the many who had come to honor her.
It was there at Tepeyac that she appeared, as described in the Nican Mopohua, written by Nahua scholar Antonio Valeriano (1521-1605), who was a contemporary of Juan Diego. Valeriano described Guadalupe: "su vestidura era radiante como el sol; el risco en que se posaba su planta flechado por los resplandores, semejaba una ajorca de piedras preciosas, y relumbraba la tierra como el arco iris. Los mezquites, nopales y otras diferentes hierbecillas que allí se suelen dar, parecían de esmeralda; su follaje, finas turquesas; y sus ramas y espinas brillaban como el oro." When I first read this as a 20 year old student at UT Austin, sitting in the quietness of the Benson Latin American Collection, I was stunned that, like my own Chihuahuan Desert mountains, Tepeyac was adorned with the beautiful mesquites and nopales.
One year on a trip with my students, suffering from pneumonia and a fever, I sat at Tepeyac wondering why she was so profoundly a part of lo mexicano. It came to me: together Guadalupe and Juan Diego symbolized the divine and the earthly in communion and with the most ancient symbols. Together they were the plumed serpent Quetzalcoatl, a concept we can trace back in Mexico for over 2,000 years. For hundreds of years, scholars have argued that she could not have said "Guadalupe," the name of an beloved Virgen in the medieval kingdom of Castilla, because she spoke to Juan Diego in his language, Nahuatl, that does not contain the letters "g" or "d." While numerous Nahuatl names have been proposed for what she actually called herself, the majority include the word "coatl," snake. My maestras and maestros have taught me that the snake represents the Earth because the snake crawls on its belly along the surface of the Earth. Juan Diego's Nahuatl name was Cuauhtlatoatzin, the eagle who speaks. The eagle, flying high in the heavens, represents the divine, that which is not earthly. Together, the snake and eagle, signify the earthly and the divine coming together. And the duality was even more significant to me because the Juan Diego, the mortal man, was the divine while Guadalupe, our divine Mother, was the earth.
At the Basilica 2006
Because of my deep love for Guadalupe, I always wondered why my birth mother was also Guadalupe. I didn't wonder in everyday terms why she had that name= she was born on December 11 and I know countless Mexican baby girls have carried that name since the 1540s. I wondered in a more mystic way why a woman who, to me growing up, was the anti-thesis of a mother would carry the name of my most beloved spiritual mother.
Growing up, especially beginning in adolescence, I was angry at Guadalupe. I couldn't understand how a mother could give her child away. Rather, her children since my sister and I were twins. As I grew older, I understood it intellectually and even agreed that it had been a good decision in my life to be raised and adopted by my great aunt and uncle who provided me with stability and love. Yet, despite my rational understanding, in my heart I was angry, resentful, and injured that my own mother had not wanted me.
When I was 14, she contacted me through her sister, saying she wanted to meet me. I said no. I was too angry and injured. She was murdered when I was 21. I have regretted not meeting her my entire life.
In my forties, I met her older sister. I hadn't known much about her life after she gave birth to us. I know she left town and moved to another border city. She couldn't have any more children. I learned from her sister that she led a tortured life, that she had been deeply hurt by her father and changed her last name to cut all ties with him. I learned that they had never found her killer. Her sister gave me letters that Guadalupe had written to her. In each letter, she asked about me and said she loved me. My heart began to open a bit.
Guadalupe Fernandez, my mother
One December 12, in my early fifties, I was invited to the home of a well-known writer. She had created a chapel on her land and installed a beautiful stained glass Virgen de Guadalupe there. I walked up to the altar in the chapel, carrying red roses to offer her and I prayed. In the silence of my prayer, I heard a voice. "I'm sorry. Forgive me." I knew it was Guadalupe. I stood with the words in my heart, eyes closed. As I left the chapel, I became nauseous. By the time I reached the next stop, the home of some friends, I was very sick and spent half an hour in the bathroom throwing up yellow, acidic bile. All the anger and hatred that I had carried for decades was expelled from my body. From that night onward, my heart cracked wide open to allow her in. The following day, I pulled out a photo of my mother that I kept in a drawer and put it with the other family photos. I told her that I loved her. I knew that La Guadalupana had healed my most profound hurt by showing me how to love my other Guadalupe, my 19 year old mother who never forgot me.
On December 12 of each year, I honor both my Guadalupes, my mothers.