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Tonantzin: Holy Mother of Guadalupe

Posted by on in SageWoman Blogs


For the past hundred years in the early hours of December 12, traditional Aztec dancers, devout Mexicans, and Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples all over the Americas rise early to honor Tonantzin, the Holy Mother of Guadalupe. December 12 is her Feast Day. She is known as the Holy Mother of the Americas and combines sacred symbols of the Aztecs with the image of Mother Mary brought by the European settlers. Regardless of her conflicted and ambiguous history, it is without question that the Guadalupana is a revered and adored Divine Mother with reverential followers across many ethnic and national identities.

Many know the story of Juan Diego to whom the Divine Mother appeared in 1531 in Mexico, and of the miracle of the roses he carried to a Christian priest in the deep of winter in his tilma that later revealed an image of what has been primarily conceptualized as the Christian's Mother Mary. Today, Diego's tilma hangs in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, which is a site visited by millions of people annually. The tilma has been bombed, exposed for centuries to light and air, and touched by thousands of human hands, yet it endures unscathed.

Most people are also aware of the Spanish Inquisition's genocide endorsed by the Catholic church of the Indigenous peoples of South and Central America and into the territories of the southwestern United States. Three hundred years ago the Inca scholar, Guaman Poma, wrote about the oppression of the Indigenous peoples by the Spanish in the 1700s, and his drawings offer powerful testaments to the enslavement of his people by the European invaders. Considering this history, how did the Holy Mother of Guadalupe capture the hearts of so many of the Indigenous people of these geographic areas--and beyond? The often published, and utterly absurd, story attributed to the Guadalupana's popularity argues that the Aztecs believed the Spanish explorer Cortes was the return of their deity Quetzalcoatl--as if the Native people are going to buy that one! So what was it?

A closer look at the Indigenous side of the Holy Mother of Mexico's history reveals many clues about why the adoration of Her runs so deep, and not just for some Native people. First of all, Tonantzin is the ancient Aztec Serpent Goddess who is a deity in their creation story.Tonan is a Nahuatl name for mountains, places of symbolic and literal power from Earth Woman. The late Laguna Pueblo scholar, Paula Gunn Allen, writes that the Mexica worship a version of Her named Toci who is "depicted as a warrior woman who held a shield in one hand and a broom in the other, a foreshadowing of her granddaughters who would fight for and help win the independence of Mexico."

The Nahuatl man, Juan Diego, was climbing a hill sacred to his culture when he heard his own language spoken to him by a woman deity, an experience that would be culturally familiar and supported by ancient beliefs. Up to this point, the Aztec people had fervently rejected Christianity because of the strangeness of centralizing a male deity as a creator, among other obvious reasons. But after Diego's vision was told and retold orally and written in Nahuatl, its power quickly swept through the Aztec people and Our Lady of Guadalupe was born.

The Guadalupana is a mix of Indigenous and European religious symbols: she wears a gown of stars, is  surrounded by flickering flames, has dark brown skin, and she stands upon a dark crescent moon. She is a Divine image of a racially mixed people. Her appearance to Juan Diego in 1531 asserted that despite colonization, the Divine Creatrix would prevail. Author Mirabai Starr writes in Our Lady of Guadalupe (Sounds True 2008) "She is not the whitewashed Virgin of the institutionalized church. She is the radical, powerful, engaged Mother of the People."

On the morning of December 12, many Indigenous peoples of Mexico, Central & South America, and throughout the American southwest will be honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe in their original languages and customs, calling Her by names ancient and unknown to the rest of the world. Many will be joining the reverential followers in spirit, praying to the Holy Mother in our own language, with words that transcend tyranny and loss. Through our sanctifying this day with even a moment of honor for Her, we reinforce the universal truth that Beauty and Love endure, above all else, and that the presence of the Divine Mother is Eternal and Unstoppable.

The power of the Aztec dancers resounds with this message: Hers is the name that remains forever.




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Dr. Mays is a professional writer with a doctoral degree in Native American Studies who has taught at the college level for nearly two decades. She is committed to educating about Indigenous cultures, especially about practices that specifically relate to women, in order to raise awareness about current issues in Indian Country, dissolve stereotypes, and create healing among all communities.


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