On a December morning in 1531, an Aztec man hurries past the hill Tepeyac in Mexico. One recognizes Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin as Aztec, not only by the color of his skin, but by the Tilma he wears. As with all Aztec men, this cloak with its material and decoration, outwardly expresses the innermost identity of his person. This humble, meek, yet learned man did not yet realize that the simply woven tilma of hemp fiber he wears would forever change the course of Mexico’s history.
As Cuauhtlatoatzin hastens on, he recalls this place as the sanctuary where his fellow Aztecs would pray to their goddess Tonanzin. In sanctuaries and on altars throughout the region, tens of thousands of human sacrifices were made yearly to their severe gods, before the Spaniards conquered and now inhabited their beautiful and bountiful land, and, through cruel and inhumane slavery, subjugated their people.
Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin or “one who speaks like an eagle” in the Nuhuatl language, was a learned man of both the new Spanish culture, as well as his ancient religion, his name bearing the truth of his spirit. And while many respected this hard working farmer, it was a difficult life being thrust between these two worlds: would he need to abandon one in favor of the other? The tense peace in the land that some believed would erupt over time was fueled by what the Aztecs saw in these conquerors. Their savage conduct seemed no less harrowing than the brutal battles and sacrifices that were the Aztecs’ fading way of life. These men walked in the name of their God of Love, yet showed no love through their oppression.
Missionaries and Priests
There were others, however, who followed the Spaniards to “New Spain”, as they dubbed Mexico, showing compassion for the Aztecs. The Franciscans, missionaries who followed the rule of St. Francis, did in fact reflect the nature of the Loving God, defending the natives from government exploitation, while sheltering and teaching them. Cuauhtlatoatzin and his people came to admire these gentle servants, some embracing their teachings. The secular clergy resented the intrusion of these missionaries and joined forces with the government. This close association between the brutal government and the secular clergy induced a negative attitude toward the Church in the lower classes, although that was all about to change.
The Vision on Tepeyac
"Juanito, Juan Dieguito!" Amidst the chorus of what seemed like celestial birds, Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin heard a voice calling in his native Nuhuatl. As he ascended the hill to answer the call, he came face to face with a mestiza maiden of inexpressible beauty, who beckoned him closer. The landscape surrounding the maiden had miraculously transformed into sparkling rays of rainbow mist, and the foliage of the mesquite bushes and cactus shone like emeralds, their leaves like gold.
Juan Diego was no stranger to the mystical life, possessing deep spirituality even in his former way of religion, despite its austerity and brutality. Recognizing this woman as not only royalty, but also being otherworldly, Juan Diego prostrated himself, and a tender conversation ensued.
“I ardently desire that here they build me my sacred little house, a ‘Teocalli’…because I am your merciful mother, yours and mother of all who live united in this land, and all of mankind. There I will listen to their cry, their sadness, so as to curb all their pains, their miseries and sorrow, to remedy and alleviate their sufferings.” Juan bowed very low and replied: "My Lady, my Little Daughter, I am going to fulfill your venerable desire, your venerable word, for now I depart from you, I your poor little Indian."
How could a little farmer convince the Bishop of his encounter with this Queen of Heaven? Nevertheless, Juan Diego was determined to bring this message of love to the Bishop, knowing that her words were of hope to the Aztecs and to all people. Was she not an Aztec herself? Filled with hope, possessing the strength of his namesake, and in spite of his lowly stature, Juan Diego was determined to persevere to allow her message to be made known.
Perseverance was certainly what was needed, as the Bishop, listening to Juan Diego’s account turned him away, ushered by the jeers of the Bishop’s attendants. The Bishop himself was less skeptical than his associates were, requesting Juan Diego’s return at a later date. Being new to his post, Bishop Zummarraga, realized the need to tread lightly, and commissioned prayers of his own to the Queen of Heaven, to intervene to prevent an uprising, to reconcile the Spanish and the natives and to bring peace. He asked that he would receive roses native to his homeland of Castile Spain as a sign that his prayer would be answered.
Returning to Tepeyac, Juan Diego implored the Celestial Queen for a sign that the Bishop might believe, and she agreed. But on the day he was to receive this sign, the uncle with whom he lived fell gravely ill, and Juan Diego set out in search of help. Attempting to bypass Tepeyac, the Virgin greeted him where he stood, and he told her of his uncle’s affliction. The Virgin reassured him with these words: “Do listen, do be assured of it in your heart, my littlest one, that nothing at all should alarm you, should trouble you, nor in any way disturb your countenance, your heart, for am I not here, I, your Mother? Are you not in the cool of my shadow? In the breeziness of my shade? Is it not I that am your source of contentment? Are you not cradled in my mantle? Cuddled in the crossing of my arms? Let not the sickness of your uncle cause pain. Be assured that he is well.”
Feeling a peaceful reassurance at the loving words of his mother, Juan Diego was ready to continue his mission. The Lady then instructed Juan Diego to again ascend the hill where they had first met, and pick the flowers he would find there. Even though it was December, and no flowers would be blooming because of the frost, Juan Diego did as he was directed. Upon reaching the summit, he found, typically where weeds and wild bushes grow, fragrant flowers in full bloom, roses of Castile. Gathering the blooms up into his Tilma, Juan Diego carried them to the Lady, who arranged them in his Tilma, tying the corners to secure them. The Bishop would have his sign.
Juan Diego hurried confidently to the Bishop, joyful in his realization of what this sign would mean: a temple built in his Queen’s honor, and a consolation and triumph for all Aztecs. What Juan Diego had no idea of was what his tilma would actually reveal.
...to be continued....
Click here for part two.