The Triumph of the Virgin of Guadalupe

Quetzalcóatl and Guadalupe: The Formation of Mexican National Consciousness 1531-1813

by Jacques Lafaye, translated by Benjamin Keen, with a Foreword by Octavio Paz
University of Chicago Press, 336 pp., $22.00

Perhaps it is as well to begin with the story, since—rather oddly—Jacques Lafaye, the author of this fascinating book, never actually gets around to telling it. Between December 9 and December 12, 1531, the Virgin Mary appeared to an Indian called Juan Diego on the hill of Tepeyac (now in the northeastern suburbs of Mexico City) and commanded him to tell the bishop of Mexico, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, to build a church there. The bishop was not convinced, and, being an enlightened Renaissance European, demanded proof. The Indian duly returned with winter roses from Tepeyac, and as he laid out the cloak which enfolded them, it was seen to be miraculously painted with an image of the Virgin, since venerated throughout Mexico as the Virgin of Guadalupe.

So much for the story. But the story itself is only a beginning, and not really, in the strict sense, even that. In fact behind the story lie other stories, which trace their origins to both sides of the Atlantic. It so happens that in pre-conquest Mexico Tepeyac was a site devoted to the cult of Tonantzin, the mother-goddess. What better site, then, for the establishment in post-conquest Mexico of the cult of the Virgin Mother? But by whom, and when, and why? And why, among all the potential Virgins who had manifested themselves in Spain, that of Guadalupe, rather than, say, of the Pilar, or of Los Remedios? Why, too, did bishop Zumárraga in his later years go to considerable pains to explain the absence of miracles in the evangelization of Mexico—this very man who, in countless engravings and medallions, would one day be depicted with the miraculous apparition of 1531? And what has the apostle St. Thomas to do with all this, and, even more strangely, with that mysterious figure in the Aztec pantheon, Quetzalcóatl, the plumed serpent, the rival (and victim) of Tezcatlipoca, the smoking mirror?

Some of these questions were answered in an admirable little book by Francisco de la Maza, El Guadalupanismo Mexicano, published in 1953. But the answers lead into such important regions of Mexican history, and of the Mexican national mentality, that they deserved a more elaborate and extensive treatment than de la Maza was able to give them, and it is this that Jacques Lafaye has now provided. His book, published in France in 1974, and now excellently translated by Benjamin Keen, is likely to establish itself immediately as a classic of Mexican history, but it is also of exceptional interest for all those concerned with the now fashionable histoire des mentalités, and with understanding the ways in which a “national consciousness” develops. It is a work of great learning, deployed with subtlety and skill, although, it must also be said, with a certain indirectness and allusiveness which at times make heavy demands on the reader.

Lafaye is a brilliant explorer of byways, and although the byways lead back to the highways, those who attempt to follow his frequently circuitous route …

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