Updated: Dec 13, 2019
This text comes from our fifth-grade book, From Sea to Shining Sea: The Story of America.
Though, by 1531, Cortés and the new Audience were in power, all was not well in New Spain. The conquest and three years of cruelty had made many Indians think that the God the Spanish priests told them about did not love them. To many Indians, Jesus was the white man’s god; they thought he did not care about the brown-skinned natives. Bishop Zumárraga loved his Indian flock. How could he convince them that God loved them as well as he loved the Spaniards? Many evils, many cruelties were still part of life in New Spain. What could he as bishop do to stop them?
One cold day in December of 1531, Bishop Zumárraga, busy at work, received a visitor. Before him knelt an Aztec man, clad only in a loincloth and a cloak called a tilma, made from cactus fibers. The bishop received many visitors, so this man was not unusual. Perhaps Fray Juan was only half listening as the man, named Juan Diego, told his story.
Juan Diego said that he had set out from his village at break of day to hear Mass in the city. Passing by the hill called Tepeyac, a hill he had passed many times before, Juan Diego heard the singing of birds. He was most surprised, for at that time of the year one did not hear songbirds. He stopped, and looked east toward the hill. Suddenly the singing ceased and, instead, he heard a voice calling his name: “Juanito, Juan Diegito,” it said.
Juan Diego said he felt no fear, but climbed to the hilltop from where the voice came. There he saw a most beautiful lady dressed in garments that shone with the brightness of the sun. Then the lady spoke, and beautiful was the sound of her voice. “I am the Virgin Mary, Mother of the true God who created all things,” she said. “Go tell the bishop of Mexico that I wish a church built here on this hilltop in my honor. From this church I will show the people of this land that I am merciful to all who call upon me in faith.”
Bishops cannot believe everything they are told, and Juan Diego’s story sounded fantastic. Perhaps this Indian had made up the story because he himself wanted a church built and was afraid to ask for it himself. But Bishop Zumárraga was not harsh to Juan Diego, telling him, “Come again another time, my son. When you come I will give further thought to what you have to say.” Then dismissing Juan Diego, the bishop turned again to the affairs that had occupied him since morning.
Juan Diego was disappointed by his meeting with the bishop. At sundown he returned to Tepeyac hill, where the resplendent Lady awaited him. Falling on his knees, Juan Diego told the Lady that he feared the bishop did not believe his story. “I am a lowly man,” he told the Lady. “Send someone else, someone important, to give your message to the bishop. Me he will not believe.” The Lady, however, said she had chosen Juan Diego, and it was he who must go. Gladly Juan Diego obeyed. The next day, Sunday, he said, he would return to the bishop and deliver the Lady’s message.
After Mass the next day, Juan Diego went to the bishop’s palace. As on the previous day, he waited long before he could get in to see the bishop. Juan Diego, with tears in his eyes, told the bishop of the Lady’s request. It seemed to Zumárraga that Juan Diego was not a liar; still, he could not be certain that the Virgin had appeared to the Indian. “You must bring me a sign that the Virgin has appeared to you,” he told Juan Diego. When Juan Diego left his presence, the bishop ordered two of his servants to follow him. They set out after Juan Diego, but as they approached the hill of Tepeyac, they lost sight of him. Angry that he had escaped them, the servants returned to the bishop. “That Indian is a liar,” they said. “Do not believe him.”
Meanwhile, Juan Diego had climbed the hill of Tepeyac. “Return here tomorrow,” the Lady told him, “and I will give you a sign that will convince the bishop. I will richly reward you for your service to me.” Juan Diego promised to return the next day. He then returned home.
But reaching his home, Juan Diego found that his uncle, Juan Bernardino, had fallen sick. The next day, Monday, Juan Diego spent caring for his uncle; he did not return to Tepeyac hill as the Lady had commanded. That night, Juan Bernardino was so sick that he feared he would die. He asked Juan Diego to fetch him a priest who could give him the last rites. Full of sorrow, Juan Diego set out Tuesday morning for the city to find a priest to minister to his uncle.
Approaching Tepeyac hill, Juan Diego tried to take a different way than the one he normally took. He was afraid the Lady might see him and delay him from fetching a priest for his uncle. But the Lady saw him, and descending the hill, asked him, “Where are you hastening to, my son?” Juan Diego told her of his uncle, and promised that he would return to her tomorrow. “Now,” he said to the Lady, “I must find a priest who will hear my uncle’s confession and absolve him.”
The Lady was not angry with Juan Diego. Instead, promising him that his uncle was already healed of his sickness, she told Juan Diego to climb to the summit of the hill. He obeyed her, and at the place where the Lady had first appeared to him, Juan Diego found many varieties of beautiful roses. Imagine his surprise at this sight, for Juan Diego knew that no roses grew in December. Filling his tilma full with fragrant blossoms, Juan Diego brought them to the Lady. Removing the roses from the tilma, the Lady again replaced them. “Take these roses to the bishop,” she told Juan Diego. “They are the sign he asked for. Seeing them he will know that I have appeared to you and that he must do as I requested.” Full of joy, Juan Diego continued his journey to the city. He was certain the bishop would this time believe him.
The day was already growing old when Bishop Zumárraga heard a frantic knocking at his door. Opening it he found two of his servants, their faces pale with astonishment. “That Indian, Juan Diego, has returned,” they told the bishop. “Seeing he had something wrapped up in his tilma we asked that we might see what it was. When he opened his tilma, lo! it was full of roses, fresh as if they had been plucked in the spring. We tried to touch them, but every time we reached our hands toward them they disappeared into the cloth.” Hearing this marvel, the bishop ordered his servants to bring Juan Diego into his presence.
Entering the bishop’s chamber, Juan Diego fell on his knees. “I have returned, lord bishop, with the sign you requested,” said Juan Diego. He opened his tilma and a flood of roses fell to the floor. To Juan Diego’s surprise, the bishop and all those in the room fell to their knees. The bishop wept as he prayed, “Lady, forgive me for not fulfilling your request.” Juan Diego wondered what all this could mean; then looking down at his tilma, he understood. For on the rough white cloth he saw the image of the Lady, just as she had appeared to him on Tepeyac hill.
The next day, Juan Diego led Bishop Zumárraga and others to Tepeyac hill so they could see the place where the Lady had requested her church be built. When Juan Diego asked the bishop’s permission to return to his village to see how his sick uncle fared, Zumárraga gave him his blessing, but said he should not return alone. Surrounded by those who had come with him to Tepeyac hill, Juan Diego returned to Juan Bernardino. The great bishop, friend of God and the king, was paying a great honor to poor, lowly Juan Diego! The Lady had worked another wonder. She had exalted the humble and made the great the companion of the lowly.
When they all reached the village, they found Juan Bernardino recovered from his sickness. The Lady, he told them, had appeared to him as well and had cured him. “She said I must go to the bishop to tell him that she wished her image should bear the name, Our Lady of Guadalupe,” said Juan Bernardino.
Bishop Zumárraga fulfilled his promise and erected a church in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Tepeyac hill. There he placed Juan Diego’s tilma that bore the image of the Lady. In this image, the Lady appears dressed not as a Spanish woman, but as an Aztec princess. She stands before the sun, her two hands pointing, in Aztec fashion, toward the heavens where her Son, Jesus, reigns as king. The Aztecs understood the message. They were no longer to worship the sun god but the more powerful God of the Christians. They also understood that the Lady and her Son loved the Indians as well as the Spanish. Millions of Indians, who had feared the Spaniards’ God, now accepted baptism and became Christians.
Our Lady had answered Bishop Zumárraga’s prayers.
A Concert of Music from 16th and 17th Century Spain
Performed by Hesperion XXI, directed by Jordi Savall