During a brief trip to Mexico City in 1962, President John F. Kennedy attended mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. What at first may appear to have been little more than a gesture of good will and an expression of faith from the US’s first Catholic president was, in fact, a distinctly political act that came only after careful consideration on the part of officials from both nations. This is hardly unusual, however, as the Virgin of Guadalupe, her cult, and her shrine at Tepeyac long held deep political meanings. Kennedy’s visit, then, ought to be understood as one part in the larger history of the Virgin’s role as a symbol in Mexican politics.
The presidential visit to the Basilica came at a delicate time in US-Mexican relations. Adolfo López Mateos sought to position Mexico as a power within the Western Hemisphere in opposition to similar efforts by Brazilian and Cuban leaders. To accomplish this, Mateos espoused a form of panamericanism that distanced Latin America from the United States. At the same time, he found it necessary to uphold the alliance between Mexico and its northern neighbor, a relationship which Mexico leveraged when attempting to increase its own influence. The conflict between the US and the new Cuban government, which caused anti-American demonstrations to erupt in Mexico City, further complicated this matter. Kennedy’s administration, meanwhile, saw Mexico’s strategy of aligning itself with the Third-Worldist movement as a threat to US power in Latin America, a region in which the country already faced substantial challenges. Because of this, both nations were motivated to maintain good relations. Even the idea of a US diplomatic trip to the Mexican capital proved somewhat complicated, however, due in part to the risk of left-wing protests, a concern which caused debate within the state department regarding the choice of city in which Kennedy should arrive. On Mexico’s part, Mateos’s government targeted prominent leftists for arrest in order to ensure that such protests would not occur. When Kennedy finally did visit, a mass of Mexican Catholics greeted him with cries of “¡Cristianismo sí, comunismo no!” (Christianity yes, Communism no!), a phrase meant as an answer to the leftist slogan “¡Cuba sí, Yanquis no!” (Cuba yes, Yankees no!). With this final point, it is clear that Kennedy’s stop at the Basilica was part of a larger diplomatic project with political meanings inseparable from the religious concerns of Mexican Catholics at the time.
Having established the visit’s place within the larger political landscape of Mexico’s relationship with the US, it is important to understand the Virgin’s own role in Mexican communities during the 1960s. Published mass schedules show that various religious services were carried out regularly at churches other than the Virgin’s own shrine and on dates far from her feast day. January 1960 even saw a massive group of a reported 50,000 people, including children, travel to the Basilica on pilgrimage. Going beyond the purely religious, an article in El Informador emphasizes the part she played, associated as she was with indigenous heritage and Mexican nationality, in the Mexican War of Independence. By focusing on the religious aspects of said conflict, the author ultimately manages to argue that the second stage of the war, “más que un movimiento de separación política con España, fué un movimiento de separación ideológica con el liberalismo que se entronizaba en España” (more than a movement of political separation with Spain, was a movement of ideological separation with the liberalism that was enthroned in Spain). This places the Virgin and the Catholic Church at the center of the revolution, with all the political associations that come with such a seminal event in the nation’s history. North of the Rio Grande, a Spanish-language newspaper article from 1960 associates the Virgin with the formation of a new Mexican race out of two existing races and with the nation’s independence before declaring Mexico’s anticlerical policies in the 1920s to have been “una afrenta y motivo de verguenza [sic] para nosotros mexicanos” (an affront and motive for shame for us Mexicans).  Across Mexican communities, the Virgin’s veneration enjoyed widespread popularity, a fact which, mixed with her historical relevance, made her a useful political symbol.
The attribution of political meanings to the Virgin was by no means a 1960s innovation. Indeed, the scholar Francisco de la Maza, in his 1953 book on guadalupanismo (a term used to refer to the cult), consistently references a historical connection between veneration of the Virgin and Mexican patriotism. While his work is out of date with current interpretations of the subject matter, coming from a time when master narratives were still in fashion, it is at least useful in identifying the Virgin of Guadalupe’s symbolic meanings at the time the author was writing his book and in gaining some understanding of how widely she was venerated. One retable from Tampico in the 1940s includes text thanking the Virgin for the survival of sons in World War II. Rather than more traditional imagery, it depicts the Virgin in the sky over a violent battlefield, thus tying her directly to the realities of the struggle. In the 1920s, veneration of the apparition became one of several important “liturgical novelties” used to fill “gaps in the ritual year” caused by anticlerical policies regarding public worship, and several sources from the same period reference an expanded version of the well-known Cristero cry of “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” ([Long] Live Christ the King) that includes “¡Viva La Virgen de Guadalupe!” ([Long] Live the Virgin of Guadalupe) or a similarly worded reference to the same figure. During the revolution of the 1910s, the Zapatistas took up the Virgin as a symbol of their own movement, wearing her image on their hat bands. Going back further still, historian and former seminary president Stafford Poole makes a point of tracing the Virgin’s history to her supposed apparition before Juan Diego, only to find little evidence to support the traditional narrative. What he instead finds is a story which possibly originates from earlier oral traditions, but which proved particularly useful for criollos wishing to define their own identities in opposition to the peninsulares that sat atop the casta system. As a Mexican symbol, the Virgin carried political meanings for centuries prior to the Kennedy visit.
Understanding the history of the Virgin and the immediate political concerns Kennedy and Mateos faced at the time of the trip, it is possible to return one’s attention to 1962 and more fully understand the context surrounding the visit. Kennedy was not merely attending mass at a major Catholic shrine or a making a stop at a monument to an important heritage site, though the Basilica served both roles. Rather, he visited a space dedicated to a symbol whose meaning changed as she was claimed by various groups with different ideologies over the course of several centuries. In carrying out diplomacy in the capital, Mateos and Kennedy both pursued their own goals, the former wishing to maintain US support to secure Mexico’s place in the politics of the Cold War, and the latter attempting to maintain key allies in a region in which its power was being challenged. The mass of Mexican Catholics who went to see Kennedy loudly declared what the US president’s presence at the shrine meant to them. The Virgin’s political associations would go on to change again in different places and at different times throughout the century, but, in that moment at least, Mexican Catholics defined her shrine as a site at which to express an anti-Communist form of Christianity and reaffirm their national relationship with the United States.