A Short History of Tonantzin, Our Lady of Guadalupe:
A bride of light between cultures
By Griselda Alvarez Sesma © 2009

The fragrance of copal incense with its ribbons of prayerful smoke rising through the air triggers ancestral memories. The sound of the conch and the rhythm of the huehuetl (the drum), call me to join the dancers whose energetic dance steps causes the coyolli (the ankle seed pod rattles), to jingle like falling rain on hard packed earth.

Hundreds of dancers fill the avenue, descendants of the Mexica (the original name for the Aztec), mingle with other Indigenous Mexicans: Matachines, Tarahumaras, Cucapa, Kumiai, and Paipai. Many travel from far away to make their offering to Tonanztin, Nahuatl (the language of the Mexica) for "Venerable Mother," La Virgen Morena-the Dark Virgin, Coatlaxopeuh, Our Lady of Guadalupe, every 12th of December.

This reverential and joyous celebration marks La Virgen Morena's four miraculous appearances from December 9 to 12 in 1531 on the hill of Tepeyac near present day Mexico City to a Mexica named Cuauhtlatoatzi (Talking Eagle), who became known as Juan Diego after his conversion to Catholicism.

According to both oral tradition and official versions, a beautiful Mexica woman appeared to Juan Diego and speaking to him in Nahuatl, asked him to tell the bishop that her name was La Virgen de Guadalupe and that she wanted a church built on Tepeyac. When Juan Diego was not believed, as proof of his story, she instructed him to fill his tilma (cape) with roses and take them to the Catholic bishop yet again with instructions to build a church on that same site. When Juan Diego opened his cloak to show the bishop the flowers , instead of roses, the image that we know of today as Our Lady of Guadalupe was miraculously imprinted upon the cotton fabric. That tilma is now enshrined at the Catholic Basilica in Mexico City.

The devout Catholic will tell you that Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to a peasant by the name of Juan Diego in a demonstration of faith for the conquering Spaniards.

Ask a mestizo or Indigenous person and they will tell you that Our Lady of Guadalupe is really Coatlaxopeuh, another name for Earth Mother Tonantzin, to whom offerings were made on that same hill of Tepeyac hundreds of years before the arrival of the Spaniards.

They will tell you that Tonantzin/Coatlaxopeuh appeared to Cuauhtlatoatzi to inspire hope in a people who were being oppressed by the Spanish and, later when the Church acknowledged Our Lady of Guadalupe as the Patroness of Mexico, to allow the people to continue to honor her in safety.

To many people, she is not either/or, but rather one: TonantzinGuadalupe. Her blend of Indigenous and European features represents the beauty and sacredness of both cultures—not just those of the dominant society. Her face is the face of today's Mexican, Chicano, Mestizo.

For those of us who are even somewhat familiar with Mexica symbology, Our Lady of Guadalupe's attire is full of Mexica cosmology: her robe is red meaning wisdom; she wears a black belt representative of pregnancy, of new beginnings; her blue/green cloak of stars brings to mind the Mexica goddess of the stars, Citlanilicue. And She appeared to Cuauhtlatoatzi on four different days, clearly marking the sacred number four: the Four Winds, the Four Directions. Of course, to the Spaniards and many in the Church, then and now, the symbolism was and is quite different.

Our Lady of Guadalupe continues to be revered and passionately believed in. From early resistance to Spanish rule in the 1800s, civil rights marches in the United States to today's Zapatista Movement in Mexico, her image continues to be carried on banners to bring awareness to the plight of farm workers, women, undocumented immigrants, and the continued theft of lands and rights from indigenous people. Her faithful devotees, Catholic and otherwise, turn to her with deep belief in her powers to help and to heal. Statues and paintings of Her grace the altars of many traditional healers, curanderos and curanderas.

Elders tell that She has been holding the divine feminine energy until such time as the descendants of the Mexica set aside the beliefs imposed upon them by the Spanish and bring forth into the light of the Sun the ancestral teachings and the restoration of women's place of honor in the community.

This teaching was brought clearly to mind during a Solstice gathering in Tecate, Baja California a few years ago. A male danzante, ceremonial dancer, removed a female danzante's water container from the altar and began to carry out the duties that had been entrusted to her.

This breach of protocol was noted and once the ceremony was over, the ceremonial tender made a powerful point in asking that apologies be offered to the female dancer and keeper of the Water. He went on to say that it was no longer acceptable to dishonor women as has been done in the past as a result of accepting non-traditional beliefs and values. He reminded everyone that in keeping with traditional belief in Ometeotl, the Mexica concept of masculine and feminine energies as co-creators in harmony and balance, women were to be respected and given their true place in the home, community and most especially in ceremony; that this was now the sacred task of the true warrior so that our Mother Earth, our families and communities may be restored to wholeness.

It is with a spark of mutual recognition that during my travels, non-native women have come to my platicas, my heart-to-heart talks, either wearing shawls with Our Lady's image, carrying a special photograph of her, or asking questions because they recognize Her from the statue on my altar. They speak about dreams where she has appeared to them—they with no previous knowledge of her existence, now devotees.

Perhaps that is why she chose to appear to Juan Diego as a woman of both European and Indigenous features. So that at some distant time in the future, it would help us recognize our spiritual connections in order to move beyond the fear of separateness and disparities that exist as a result of differences of culture and race and gender.

I believe that in the same way that she called me as a child to return to the way of the Medicine, She is calling all of us back.

December 12 is the special day to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe—our Madrecita, Our Little Mother. At home we may light a candle and place offerings of copal and chocolate in front of her statue. In the public square, those of us who follow the Mexica spiritual tradition join our brothers and sisters in an all night vigil of prayer, dance, offerings and song. As we salute the Four Winds and dance in the ceremonial circle, we will honor those who have gone before and kept the traditions alive through the centuries. The sacred feathers in the copilli, the ceremonial headdress worn by the dancers, will draw down the energy of the cosmos into Mother Earth Tonantzin to help her heal.

Nearby, children will play and laugh, faces smeared with the traces of candy and the cinnamon of churros, the delicious deep fried pastry covered with sugar and cinnamon.

The sound of mariachi music adds to the feeling of a fusion of cultures and beliefs. If you wander the crowded street you will see a handful of people travel on their knees down the hard pavement to the entrance of the church in gratitude for answered prayers. And, in spite of quiet official church disapproval, the local parish priest will invite the Indigenous ceremonial dancers to participate during a special mass for TonantzinGuadalupe.

Inside the church, for a few moments Mayan copal will blend with European frankincense, quetzal feathers will dance on the air, and elders with bundles of aromatic rosemary plants will cleanse the People's spirit. The two cultures, reconciled in this moment, acknowledge the uncommon bond of love for the Woman Who is Cloaked with the Sun; the bridge of Light between peoples.

About the author: Griselda Alvarez Sesma, visit her web site, is Mestizo, of Yaqui/Mexica heritage, was born in Baja California. She has studied traditional healing with several indigenous healers from Mexico as well as the United States, principally with the noted elder, Yaqui/Lacandon Maya Medicine Man, Tezkalci Matorral Kachora of Mexico. She is Adjunct Professor at Arizona Western College in Yuma, Arizona where she teaches "Exploring Native American Healing Traditions."

News From Indian Country May 18, 2009