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 may sometimes find themselves trailing in the rear. It would, for instance, have helped the reader to have set out the story of Juan Diego and the miraculous apparition, rather than assuming a prior knowledge of it. Here, as elsewhere, too much background information is taken for granted, and this may prevent the book from getting as large a readership as it deserves. This would be a pity because, as Octavio Paz says in his introduction, it is an intellectual adventure to follow Lafaye in his analysis of the Quetzalcóatl and Guadalupe myths, and to watch his reconstruction of what itself was an extraordinary piece of original construction, the collective consciousness of an independent Mexican nation.

The achievement of this consciousness was, as Lafaye makes clear, a slow and complex process. It is worth recalling that there was considerable uncertainty, at the time when the inhabitants of New Spain achieved their independence from old Spain in 1821, over what they should call their fledgling nation. “New Spain” itself, smacking as it did of colonial dependency, was clearly out of the question. Hidalgo, the hero of the independence movement, had styled himself “generalissimo of America,” but neither “America” nor “North America” seemed exactly right, and could well prove offensive to an influential neighbor. A further possibility was “Anáhauc,” the name by which the Mexica under Montezuma called the lands that they dominated. “Mexico,” as applied to a nation and not to a city, had to discover itself before it could be sure of its name.

The process of self-discovery, so skillfully unraveled by Lafaye, began within a few years of Cortés’s capture of Tenochtitlan in 1521. Every society must fashion a past for itself in order to develop a sense of present identity, and the elements of that created past help in turn to determine its future. Lafaye’s book is essentially an attempt to show how the inhabitants of New Spain in the generations after the conquest set out to create a past which would give them a firm place in the grand design of the universe. It was a task anxiously and, at times, frenetically pursued, as might be expected of a ruling caste which, through the very act of conquest, had perpetrated a violent rupture with the past of the society it had vanquished, but which had also, by the fact of emigration, turned its back on the society from which it had sprung, that of metropolitan Spain. The Mexican experience is yet one more illustration of how colonial situations by their very nature are bound to complicate the already complicated task of achieving a satisfactory self-image, and how spurious history is part of the price to be paid for self-respecting national independence.


Part of the fascination of Lafaye’s book, however, lies in its revelation of how the spurious elements in a spurious history are predetermined by inherited assumptions and expectations, so that the scriptwriters are themselves half unaware participants in a drama that they do not fully control. He sets out to do this—and the device is at first sight confusing, though it has its own logic—by dividing his book into three distinctive sections. The first is a study of the society of New Spain over the three centuries from conquest to independence. But this is not a conventional account of the political and social development of colonial Mexico. It is, rather, a selective coverage of the history of those ideas and elements in the life of colonial Mexico—especially the relations of creoles to Indians and creoles to Spaniards—which bear on his main theme, the growth of a Mexican national consciousness. This provides the context for a study and analysis, in the second and third parts of the book, of the origins and the manipulation—conscious and subconscious—of two distinctive but related myths which played a vital part in that growth: the myth of the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe to Juan Diego in 1531, and that of the preaching of the gospel in Central America during the first years of the Christian era by St. Thomas, doubting Thomas himself.

It is only because of what we have learned in the first section that we can fully grasp why the collective consciousness of Mexican society—Indian as well as creole—should have fallen under the sway of these two particular myths, and why in its initial stages Mexican nationalism should have manifested itself so overwhelmingly in religious and devotional forms. For twentieth-century man the relationship of European and non-European, of black, brown, and white, is automatically regarded as essentially a racial question. This makes it hard to appreciate that, for the early sixteenth-century European, it was primarily a spiritual question. This is a point admirably made by Lafaye, as he describes the extraordinary eschato-logical atmosphere of millenarian expectation which surrounded the discovery and early colonization of America.

The belief that the history of Renaissance Europe can be subsumed in the triumph of rationalism and secularism dies hard. It is not only the great figures of classical antiquity who cast their long shadows over late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Europe. A long shadow is also cast, as we have come to appreciate, especially from the work of Marjorie Reeves,* by the more ambiguous figure of a later age, the twelfth-century prophet and preacher, Joachim of Fiore. With his doctrine of the threefold division of human history, culminating in the age of the Holy Spirit, and the renovatio mundi, he and his followers exercised a profound influence over later generations, and not least over the Franciscans who sailed from Spain to Mexico in the 1520s. These first missionaries to mainland America saw themselves as divine agents in a providential unfolding of history, in which the conversion of all mankind would be the prelude to the end of the world.

This projection of the millenarian hopes of Renaissance Europe onto sixteenth-century America meant that the empire of Montezuma was overthrown, and New Spain conquered and settled, in a climate of expectation which itself did much to shape the future course of Mexico’s development. The extraordinary sequence of events, leading to the surrender of Montezuma and the collapse of the Aztecs before Cortés’s handful of soldiers, cried out for explanation both by the conquerors and the conquered. The Aztecs needed to explain to themselves the cataclysmic defeat of their gods, who had hitherto led them from triumph to triumph; and they had to do this in the wake of the elimination of their own priestly caste—a circumstance which left the field wide open for a new and unofficial popular priesthood, that of the “sorcerers” (nigrománticos). The conquerors for their part needed to explain why they were where they were, and with whom they had to deal, for these were unknown peoples who unaccountably seemed to have escaped God’s notice, apparently never having received the benefits of the preaching of the gospel.


The process of explanation, and, with it, of fabrication, began at the very moment when Cortés settled down to describe for the benefit of the Emperor Charles V his famous encounter of 1519 with Montezuma. It is often said that one of the reasons for Montezuma’s extraordinary “surrender” was that he identified Cortés with the plumed serpent Quetzalcóatl, whose return from the East to a Mexico from which he had been expelled many centuries earlier was prophesied for the year One Reed, or 1519, the very year of Cortés’s appearance. Lafaye prudently hedges a bit on this, accepting the existence among the Mexica of the belief of Quetzalcóatl’s return at this moment, but arguing that it did not long survive Cortés’s landing on the coast.

Even this may be going too far. Cortés’s account of Montezuma’s words looks like a tissue of ingenious fabrications, drawing liberally on Biblical sources, and especially on the Judeo-Christian theme of the coming of the Messiah. To have Montezuma enunciating the messianic theme was highly convenient to Cortés at this particular moment, but might be thought to do some violence to Montezuma’s own sense of the world. Did Cortés build up his story on the basis of a local legend of the expected return of a god, as Lafaye seems to imply, or was the whole story the exclusive product of ingenious—and baffled—Western minds?

The first clear identification of Cortés with Quetzalcóatl comes from a Nahuatl account relayed by that great sixteenth-century Franciscan ethnographer, Bernardino de Sahagún, and in evaluating it one has to bear in mind how the seismic events of 1519-1521 totally transformed the spiritual landscape of the Aztecs. Very quickly they were seeing those events through the distorting mirror of the barely understood religion of the conquerors. To understand how treacherous it is to rely on these post-conquest native sources, one only has to read the words of another friar, Diego Durán, quoted by Lafaye: “When I questioned another old Indian about Quetzalcóatl’s exile, he began to tell me the content of chapter 14 of Exodus….”

We shall never know for certain whether pre-conquest mythologies created messianic expectations which prepared the path for Cortés. But in any event the existence or nonexistence of such expectations among the inhabitants of Central America is of less importance for Lafaye’s purposes than the historical necessity of the Quetzalcóatl prophecy for victors and vanquished alike in the years following the conquest. For the victors, as Lafaye says, the prophecy offered proof of their providential role: the Spaniards had the comfort of knowing that they were expected, and consequently that their conquest and colonization of these unknown lands fitted into the Creator’s grand design. For the vanquished, on the other hand, the prophecy offered some consolation for what now seemed a predestined defeat, with Quetzalcóatl, the great forerunner, serving as a vital connecting link between a discredited past and an uncomprehended present.

In this way, therefore, Quetzalcóatl was launched on his great post-conquest career, a mediating figure between past and present, between Indian and Spaniard. Once launched, he began to acquire other forms, displaying again that capacity for metempsychosis which had been one of his distinguishing traits before the Spaniards ever set foot in Mexico. As Franciscan influence in Mexico gave way to Jesuit influence Quetzalcóatl-Cortés gave way to an even more intriguing figure, Quetzalcóatl-St. Thomas.

Why St. Thomas? It so happened that the Spaniards, as they examined the temples, the images, and the codices, thought they detected signs and symbols which appeared to them of undoubtedly Christian or Jewish origin. Particularly notable and mysterious was a kind of cross found in Yucatán. What better indication that at some remote period Christianity had indeed been preached to these benighted peoples? If so, the great dilemma would be resolved, and the statement of the Psalmist, as applied to the apostles, would be amply confirmed: “Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world”—an affirmation whose veracity remained in doubt as long as it was thought that Christianity had, for some inexplicable reason, given America a miss.

Once this point was settled, it remained only to hit on the right apostle, and this was easily managed, especially in view of the happy confusion of India and the Indies. “Send me where you will, O Lord, but not among the Indians,” St. Thomas was said to have pleaded, and he duly got his deserts. Once his American journey was ascertained, it was simple enough to draw on Indian “memories” of Quetzalcóatl as a bearded white man, and make the obvious equation: Quetzalcóatl = St. Thomas.

Lafaye traces in loving detail the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century treatment of the St. Thomas story by the intellectuals of New Spain, a society which displayed a quite extraordinary capacity for ingenious exegesis. But its companion myth, that of the Virgin of Guadalupe, gave them, if anything, even greater scope for the display of theological expertise. Here again, as with St. Thomas, the waning of Franciscan influence seems to have brought a decisive change. The Franciscans, partly because of their millenarian beliefs, were hostile to the argument of a prior evangelization of Mexico. They were also hostile, as Zumárraga’s behavior suggests, to the growth of a cult of the Virgin at Tepeyac, fearing that a confusion of the Virgin Mary with Tonantzin would destroy their attempts to establish Christianity in Mexico on solid foundations. They were of course right: it was a syncretic religion that took hold of the Indian consciousness; and the Tonantzin-Guadalupe equation, much more than the Quetzalcóatl-St. Thomas equation, greatly furthered the process.

But the Virgin of Guadalupe was not exclusively the cult figure of the Indians. By the early seventeenth century she was already making substantial headway among the creole population. In 1629, when Mexico City was threatened by floods, the despairing citizenry bore her image in procession from Tepeyac to the cathedral. There seems to be some discrepancy between Lafaye and Francisco de la Maza as to her success in flood control. Lafaye, quoting the late seventeenth-century Jesuit Father Florencia, tells us that the image delivered the capital from the menace of the floods, and that Guadalupe was then proclaimed the city’s “principal protectress” against inundations. La Maza, on the other hand, assures us that her image was ineffectual, and that this was not only the first but also the last time that it was resorted to for this purpose, although eighteenth-century preachers made the Virgin of Guadalupe patroness against floods, perhaps as a counter to the Virgin of Los Remedios, whose responsibility was to produce water rather than remove it.

Be this as it may (and it is a point that a little more investigation might have settled one way or another), one major setback would hardly have been sufficient to deflect the Virgin of Guadalupe from her increasingly triumphant course. She was launched, as it were, into orbit by Miguel Sánchez, a preacher and theologian, whose book on her, published in 1648, is the first account to refer explicitly to the “apparition” of 1531. Sánchez did something more. He equated her with the “woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet,” in the book of Revelation. This at once gave a whole new dimension to the Virgin of Guadalupe, for if the woman in Revelation was interpreted as a prefiguring of the primitive church in Europe, Guadalupe prefigured the primitive church in America. By acquiring its own Virgin, seventeenth-century Mexico acquired its own exclusive answer to her Spanish colleagues and rivals, and in consequence a separate spiritual identity.

Given the nature of colonial society described by Lafaye in the first part of his book, it is not surprising that Guadalupe’s cause was taken up with enthusiasm by Mexican theologians and writers in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The increasing friction between colony and metropolis, the attachment of the creoles to what they had come to regard as their patria—a land of eternal spring as eulogized by local poets in baroque extravaganzas—required spiritual patrons which they could genuinely call their own. Between them, the Virgin of Guadalupe and St. Thomas fulfilled this purpose admirably, and they possessed the additional advantage of conferring respectability on a number of unrespectable aspects of the pre-Christian past—a past which was now coming to be seen as too precious to be jettisoned en bloc, precisely because its very uniqueness gave additional force to the sense of collective identity.

It is no coincidence that in 1680, for the first time, the figures of Aztec gods and emperors made their appearance on the triumphal arches erected to greet a new viceroy arriving from Spain. The dichotomy Christian-pagan, so powerful in the first two centuries of the history of New Spain, was beginning to yield a little ground to a new and increasingly powerful dichotomy, that of Mexican-Spaniard. In the process creole, mestizo, and Indian were brought closer together (at least in theory) as common heirs to a mythical past. Tonantzin-Guadalupe, Quetzalcóatl-St. Thomas were admirable multipurpose deities for a new nation in the making—a nation neither entirely Spanish nor yet entirely Nahuatl, neither entirely Christian nor entirely pagan.

It is this acquisition of spiritual independence, as an essential preliminary to the acquisition of political independence, which Jacques Lafaye traces in his absorbing book. The amount of mental effort devoted by these largely forgotten writers and preachers of colonial Mexico to the elaboration of implausible religious and historical hypotheses may well strike the modern reader as an absurd diversion of intellectual resources. Yet at the same time there is something moving about the often tortured struggle of New Spain’s colonial elite to fix the identity of their own society and set it within an acceptable historical scheme.

They were not, of course, alone in this undertaking; the search for a collective identity can hardly be said to have stopped at the northern border of colonial Mexico. But there were features of Mexican civilization—and notably the survival of a large indigenous population—which gave an extra complexity to an inevitably complex process. There were features, too, of Spanish civilization which helped to ensure that the debate would be conducted within a very distinctive frame of reference. The great achievement of Lafaye has been to show how myth in this complex setting was used by, and used, the mythmakers. We can now appreciate, as never before, all the resonances of that triumphant cry of Mexican national independence: Guadalupe assumpta est.

This Issue

May 26, 1977