Like many marvelous structures and phenomena in Mesoamerica, the story of the Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadalupe begins with an indigenous wanderer stumbling upon a site of future significance. A native named Gualpa also stumbled upon a chunk of silver while hunting which led to the discovery of a silver vein at Potosí. Why is this recurring theme key to understanding the Catholic Church and evangelization of natives in Mexico? It was not enough to replace the idols of the indigenous. The Franciscans faced opposition from a long-standing and unique polytheism unlike any other on Earth. In order to evangelize the American natives the Spanish needed extreme tactics to erase their idolatrous ways of life from the Western Hemisphere.
There is doubt as to the existence of an indigenous version of the Virgin. One reason is because the label Tonantzin does not refer to a specific deity but the feminine aspect of any goddess. Tonantzin Tlalli Coatlicue, for example, is a maternal goddess of life and death with her full name to display the Nahua linguistic process of identification. During the conquest Spaniards forced the indigenous to accept Mary as their mother god, or their new Tonantzin. They replaced the reported place of worship at Tepeyac with the first Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The natives were made to publicly comply with their conqueror’s religion. The persecution of the native priests made it necessary for them to comply publicly.
Another reason contributing to the doubt attribute to this miraculous apparition comes from the record of the event itself. Miguel Sánchez wrote the first account in Spanish in 1648. However, Luis Laso de la Vega, the vicar of Guadalupe, recounted the most popular apparition story in his Huei tlamahuicoltica, written in Nahuatl. Many considered the Nahuatl record a contemporary document and thus more authoritative. Neither of these records were written anytime close to the recorded life of Juan Diego.
To the Spanish the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe symbolized her favor toward converting the indigenous to Catholicism. Therefore, it was divinely ordained that the Spaniards should convert the Americas. The question concerning her apparition and the authenticity of Juan Diego’s story remains. In fact, Jeanette Favrot Peterson argues that the Nahuatl verb moextitzino is a reverential form of the verb neci, meaning “to appear” and was used ambiguously in the sixteenth-century to describe public displays sponsored by wealthy patrons. Peterson argues “… the Virgin Mary as Guadalupe was said to have appeared in Mexico to help vanquish paganism; thus, the conquest was justified as due punishment for native idolatry.” The Spanish had their apparition and their justification for continuing conquest in the Americas. Our Lady of Guadalupe spoke in Nahuatl and revealed herself to poor, humble, and virtuous natives. Today Juan Diego is venerated as a saint for his connection to Mary and his faith. He is forever commemorated through this tale and the erection of the basilica in Mexico City.