Tonantzin Tlalli Coatlicue & Our Lady of Guadalupe
Updated: Dec 13, 2022
The fragrance of copal incense with its ribbons of prayerful smoke rising through the air triggers ancestral memories. The sound of the conch and the rhythm of the huehuetl (the drum), call me to join the dancers whose energetic dance steps cause the coyolli (the ankle seed pod rattles), to jingle like falling rain on hard packed earth. Hundreds of dancers fill the avenue, mingling with other Indigenous Mexicans: Mexika, Yaqui Matachines, Tarahumaras, Cucapa, Kumiai, and Paipai. Many travels from far away to make their offering to Tonanztin Tlalli Coatlicue, (Nahuatl) to Mother Earth, La Virgen Morena -- the Dark Virgin, Coatlaxopeuh, Our Lady of Guadalupe, every 12th of December.
This reverential and joyous celebration marks La Virgen Morena’s purported four miraculous appearances from December 9 to 12 in 1531 on the hill of Tepeyac near present-day Mexico City to a Mexica man named Cuauhtlatoatzi (Talking Eagle), who became known as Juan Diego after his conversion to Catholicism.
According to the Catholic Church and the Nican Mopohua, a 17th-century account written in the native Nahuatl language, a beautiful Mexica (Aztec) woman appeared to Juan Diego over the space of four days and, speaking to him in Nahuatl, asked him to tell the bishop that her name was La Virgen de Guadalupe and that she wanted a church built on the hill of Tepeyac. When Juan Diego was not believed, as proof of his story, she instructed him to fill his tilma (cloak) with roses and take them to the Catholic bishop again, with instructions to build a church on that same site. When Juan Diego opened his cloak to show the bishop the flowers instead of roses, the image that we know today as Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared miraculously imprinted upon the cotton fabric. That tilma, the subject of debate as to its origins, is now enshrined at the Catholic Basilica in Mexico City.
Ask a Mexican Indigenous person, and they will tell you that Our Lady of Guadalupe is Coatlaxopeuh which is another name for Tonantzin Tlalli Coatlicue, Our Mother Earth, to whom offerings were made on that same hill of Tepeyac hundreds of years before the arrival of the Spaniards. They will tell you that Coatlaxopeuh appeared to Cuauhtlatoatzi (Juan Diego) to inspire hope in a people who were being oppressed by the Spanish and, later, when the Church acknowledged Our Lady of Guadalupe as the Patroness of Mexico, to allow the people to continue to honor Tonantzin in safety.
For other Mexicans, and for many Chicanos, she represents one more aspect of colonization. That her "miraculous" apparition was and is a story promoted by the Catholic Church to justify oppression and to convert Indigenous people is supported by the following excerpt from the Florentine Codex of 1590, which shows how early Spanish friars feared the Indigenous Mexican's devotion to Tonantzin Tlalli:
"Near the mountains there are three or four places where they used to perform solemn sacrifices, and people from far away came to attend these. One of these is here in Mexico, where there is a little mountain that is called Tepeácac, and the Spaniards call it Tepeaquilla, and now it is called Our Lady of Guadalupe. In this place there is a church dedicated to the mother of the gods, whom they called Tonantzin, which means “our mother.” There they performed many sacrifices to honor this goddess. And they came to them from all regions of Mexico from more than twenty leagues, and they brought many offerings. Men and women and young boys and young girls came to these festivals. There was a large gathering of people on those days, and all of them said: “We are going to the festival of Tonantzin.”
And now that the church of Our Lady of Guadalope is built there, they also call her Tonantzin, the missionaries taking advantage of the [fact that] they call our lady the mother of God Tonantzin. No one knows exactly where this establishment of this Tonantzin came from; but what we do know is that the word means that ancient Tonantzin, and this is something that must be remedied, because the very name of the mother of God, Sancta María, is not Tonantzin, but rather Dios Inantzin. It seems this satanic invention [was] to alleviate idolatry under the error of this name Tonantzin. And now they come from very far to visit this Tonantzin, as far away as before, the devotion of which is also suspicious, because everywhere there are many churches of Our Lady, and they don’t go to them, and they come from faraway places, like in old times."
For others, She is not either/or, but one: TonantzinGuadalupe. Her blend of Indigenous and European features represents to them the beauty of both cultures — not just those of the dominant society. For many, her face is the face of today’s Mexican/Chicana and especially of those who are reclaiming their indigenous culture and spirituality.
It is said that the painting itself is imbued with Mexica symbology and that Indigenous cosmology was woven into Our Lady of Guadalupe’s attire: her robe is red, meaning wisdom; she wears a black belt representative of pregnancy, of new beginnings; her blue/green cloak of stars brings to mind the Mexica goddess of the stars, Citlalicue. She appeared to Cuauhtlatoatzi on four different days, marking the sacred number four: the Four Winds, the Four Directions. Of course, to the Spaniards and many in the Church, then and now, the symbolism was and still means something quite different. Could this be an early form of cultural resistance?
Our Lady of Guadalupe continues to be revered and passionately believed in. From early resistance to Spanish rule in the 1800s to civil rights marches in the United States to today’s Zapatista Movement in Mexico, her image continues to be carried on banners to bring awareness to the plight of farm workers, women, undocumented immigrants, and the continued theft of lands and rights from indigenous people. Her faithful devotees, Catholic and otherwise, turn to her with a deep belief in her powers to help and heal. Statues and paintings of Her grace the altars of many traditional healers, curanderos, and curanderas.
In years past, I've heard friends say that She, in this aspect of the divine feminine, has been holding the ancient Indigenous feminine energy of Tonantzin until such time in the future when the descendants of Mexica and other Indigenous Peoples of Mexico could safely set aside the beliefs imposed upon them by the Spanish and bring forth into the light of the sun, ancestral teachings and the restoration of women’s place of honor in the home and community.
This understanding was brought to mind during a Solstice gathering in Tecate, Baja California, a few years ago when I joined a Calpulli to dance in honor of Huitzilopochtli, which is held on September 29th and which the church celebrates as Archangel Michael’s day. A male danzante, a ceremonial dancer, removed the olla filled with water which was my Palabra, my assigned duty, from the altar and began to carry out the duties that had been entrusted to me. This breach of protocol was noted. Once the ceremony was over, the ceremonial leader made a powerful point in asking that apologies be offered to me as the keeper of the Water and to all the other women present. He went on to say that it was no longer acceptable to dishonor women as has been done in the past due to accepting non-traditional beliefs and values. He reminded everyone that in keeping with the contemporary Mexica philosophy of Ometeotl, with its concept of masculine and feminine energies as co-creators in harmony and balance, women were to be respected and given their rightful place in the home, community, and most especially when we are in Ceremony; that this was now the sacred task of the true warrior so that our Mother Earth, Tonantzin Tlalli Coatlicue, along with our families and communities could be restored to wholeness.
During some of my travels, it has been with a spark of recognition that non-Native, non-Catholic women have come to my pláticas, my heart-to-heart talks, wearing shawls with Our Lady of Guadalupe's image, carrying a photograph of her, or simply asking questions wanting to know more because they recognized her from seeing online pictures of my altar on which a large statue of Guadalupe sits. They have told me about dreams they have had where she appeared to them — they, with no previous knowledge of her existence, now devotees, albeit not in a religious, Catholic way.
I do not believe (any longer) that the apparition happened, as the Catholic church claims. Yet, I also respect the beliefs of friends and family who believe in her, whether as Our Lady of Guadalupe, Tonantzin Tlalli Coaltlicue, a balance of both, or as another aspect of the divine feminine. I see that, in a Coyote-like fashion, the narrative put forth by the church has become a catalyst for Mexicans and Chicanos to look deeper into earlier, pre-Cuauhtemoc, roots.
Perhaps, unintentionally, the alleged miraculous appearance of La Guadalupe to Juan Diego, depicted as a woman of both European and Indigenous features, planted seeds that would, sometime in the future, help us recognize our spiritual connections to move beyond the fear of separateness and disparities that exist as a result of differences of culture, religious dogma, and race and gender.
I believe that in the same way that She called me to return to the way of our ancestral medicine when I was a child of 6 years, appearing to me as a beautiful Mexican woman wearing a rebozo with stars that moved across its dark blue background, that she, Tonantzin Tlalli Coatlicue (appearing as Guadalupe), is calling all of us back to encourage us to do our part in restoring the health of our mother earth, our environment, and promote understanding and peace between our diverse communities.
At home, on the evening of December 11th, we may light a candle and place offerings of flowers, copal, and chocolate in front of her statue or painting. In the public square, those who follow the Mexica spiritual tradition will join brothers and sisters for an all-night vigil of prayer, Danza, offerings, and songs to her, who is Tonantzin Tlalli Coatlicue, who was always honored at the hill of Tepeyac. As we salute the Four Winds and dance in the ceremonial circle, we honor those who have gone before us, the courageous people who kept traditions alive through the centuries despite the threat to their life if discovered. The feathers in the copilli, the ceremonial headdress worn by the dancers, will draw down the energy of the cosmos into Mother Earth, our beautiful Tonantzin Tlalli Coatlicue, to help her heal from the many ways she is dishonored.
Nearby, children will play and laugh, faces smeared with the traces of candy and the cinnamon of churros, the delicious deep-fried pastry covered with sugar and cinnamon. The sound of mariachi music adds to the feeling of a fusion of cultures and beliefs. If you wander the crowded street, you will see a handful of Catholic pilgrims on their knees on the hard pavement, slowly making their way to the church entrance in gratitude for answered prayers.
And, despite quiet official church disapproval, the local parish priest will invite Indigenous ceremonial dancers to participate during the special December 11-12 mass for Our Lady of Guadalupe. Inside the church, for a few moments, Mayan copal will blend with European frankincense, quetzal feathers will dance in the air, and elders with bundles of aromatic rosemary plants will cleanse the People’s spirit. The two cultures, reconciled at this moment, acknowledge their bond of love for the Woman Who is Cloaked with the Sun/Huitzilopochtli, a bridge of Light between peoples.
La Patrona de Mexico, Lupita, La Morena, Our Lady, Tonantzin Tlalli... Our Lady of Guadalupe is beloved, and the story of her apparition is controversial as there is ample evidence that she originated in Spain.
I feel it is important to deepen one's knowledge of all aspects and perspectives about her history in Spain and Mexico. We shouldn't be afraid of asking questions about the stories we heard growing up. Nor of changing our minds about our beliefs as we learn, reflect, and deepen our knowledge of our collective history. Equally important is having respect for one another and one's unique spiritual journey.
“The Spirit is greater than all differences between languages, peoples, races, places, times. Even greater than the difference between life and death.”
—Luis Valdez, Founder of Teatro Chicano.
"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." —F. Scott Fitzgerald
See also, Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Origins and Sources of a Mexican National Symbol, 1531-1797 by Stafford Poole, C.M, Excerpt at Project Muse PDF
Additional reading and different perspectives:
Creating the Virgin of Guadalupe: The Cloth, the Artist, and Sources in Sixteenth-Century New Spain by Jeanette Favros Peterson.
Originally published in 2017 in News from Indian Country. Revised & Updated 12/09/22.