Tonantzin Tlalli & Our Lady of Guadalupe: A bridge of light

Updated: Dec 14, 2018

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 causes 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, Matachines, Tarahumaras, Cucapa, Kumiai, and Paipai. Many travel from far away to make their offering to Tonanztin Tlalli, (Nahuatl) for Mother Earth, for 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 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, a beautiful Mexica (Aztec) woman appeared to Juan Diego 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 yet 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, which is 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 really Coatlaxopeuh, another name for Tonantzin Tlalli Coatlicue, 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 Tonantzin/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 some, she represents an overlay of oppression; the result of colonization. For others, She is not either/or, but rather 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.

For those who are familiar with Mexica symbology, Our Lady of Guadalupe’s attire is filled with Indigenous cosmology: 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 is quite different.

Our Lady of Guadalupe in both of her expressions continues to be revered and passionately believed in. From early resistance to Spanish rule in the 1800s, 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 deep belief in her powers to help and to heal. Statues and paintings of Her grace the altars of many traditional healers, curanderos and curanderas.

I have heard friends say that She has been holding the divine feminine energy until such time as the descendants of the Mexica could safely set aside the beliefs imposed upon them by the Spanish and bring forth into the light of the Sun the ancestral teachings and the restoration of women’s place of honor in the community.

This teaching was brought clearly 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 that 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 sacred duty, from the altar and began to carry out the duties that had been entrusted to me. This breach of protocol was noted and 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 as a result of 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 in ceremony; that this was now the sacred task of the true warrior so that our Mother Earth, Tonantzin Tlalli, 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 women have come to my pláticas, my heart-to-heart talks, wearing shawls with Our Lady’s image, carrying a photograph of Her, or simply asking questions wanting to know more because they recognized Her from seeing pictures online 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 strictly religious manner.

Perhaps, one of the reasons why she may have chosen to appear to Juan Diego as a woman of both European and Indigenous features (whether the apparition indeed happened or whether in a Coyote-like fashion, the narrative put forth by the church became a catalyst for Mexicans and Chicanos to look deeper to earlier, pre-Cuauhtemoc, roots) was so that at some distant time in the future, it would help us recognize our spiritual connections in order 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 as a child to return to the way of the medicine, She, Tonantzin Tlalli Guadalupe, is calling all of us back so that we may do our part in restoring health to our mother earth, our environment, and peace between our diverse communities.

On December 12th, in our home, we may light a candle and place offerings of copal and chocolate in front of her statue or painting. In the public square, those of us who follow the Mexica spiritual tradition join our brothers and sisters in an all night vigil of prayer, dance, offerings and song to her who is Tonantzin Tlalli, she who was always honored at Tepeyac. As we salute the Four Winds and dance in the ceremonial circle, we will honor those who have gone before us; the courageous people who kept traditions alive through the centuries in spite of 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 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 while 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 make their way to the entrance of the church in gratitude for answered prayers.

And, in spite of quiet official church disapproval, the local parish priest will invite Indigenous ceremonial dancers to participate during the special December 12 mass for Tonantzin Tlalli Guadalupe. Inside the church, for a few moments Mayan copal will blend with European frankincense, quetzal feathers will dance on the air, and elders with bundles of aromatic rosemary plants will cleanse the People’s spirit. The two cultures, reconciled in this moment, acknowledge their bond of love for the Woman Who is Cloaked with the Sun; a bridge of Light between peoples.

“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.

More on the relationship between Tonantzin Tlalli Coatlicue and Our Lady of Guadalupe from the Florentine Codex of 1590, that 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." — Florentine Codex (1590) [with thanks to Fernando Servin]

See also,TonanOur Lady of Guadalupe: The Origins and Sources of a Mexican National Symbol ...

By Stafford Poole

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