Juan Diego, Mexico's First Indigenous Saint

[Note the varying interpretations of the “life” of Juan Diego in the three reports below. Devote believers accept, without historical documentation, the man's existence and actions. Many scholars, demanding a higher level of evidence, believe Diego to have been a myth, developed to help convert Mexico's Indians to Roman Catholicism. This is yet another example of why historians sometimes have difficulty separating myth from history.

Version 1:

“A Long-Overdue Canonization” [Believer perspective from St. Anthony Messenger
However note the last paragraph.]

Juan Diego and his cloakJuan Diego wasn't a king. He wasn't bishop or a missionary or a conquistador. Still, he remains in the hearts and minds of his Mexican people, centuries after his death. Who was Juan Diego? He was a wise and venerable Indian, a tiller of the soil, the Virgin Mary's messenger and an early evangelizer, who helped shepherd thousands into Christianity. In July 2002, Juan Diego was canonized in Mexico City, an honor many feel is long overdue.

The Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego in 1531 in Tepeyac, a small hill and former sanctuary to the Aztec goddess Tonanzin. Mary asked Juan to request that the local bishop build a church on that site. Bishop Juan Zumarraga, in disbelief, asked for a heavenly sign. Our Lady appeared to Juan Diego on the top of the hill, which was covered with beautiful flowers blooming out of season. Arranging the cut flowers on his cloak, known as a tilma, Mary sent him on his way. When Juan unfolded his tilma before the bishop, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared on it.

Juan Diego's native name Cuauhtlatoazin (“one who speaks like an eagle”) means one who speaks with great authority. It's a fitting description. Because of Juan Diego's evangelization, an estimated nine million Indians converted to the Christianity of La Moreñita (the beloved dark virgin)—Christ now incarnated in the American soul.

Efforts to canonize Juan Diego began in 1984, initiated by Cardinal Ernesto Corripio Ahumada of Mexico City. But doubts as to whether Juan Diego actually existed has slowed the process down. Some 20 years ago, a historical commission was assembled. Father Jose Luis Guerrero, an expert on Nahuatl language and culture, aided by Father Eduardo Chavez, a professional historian, concluded that Juan Diego did in fact exist. “No one piece of evidence alone proves Juan Diego's existence. When the pieces are put together, however, his existence cannot be denied,” Father Chavez says.

Version 2:

“Mexico's controversial new saint: Juan Diego inspires great devotion” [More skeptical perspective from Mark Duff, BBC religious affairs reporter]

Mexico's first indigenous saint, Juan Diego, is said to have had a vision of the Virgin Mary almost five centuries ago. The story of a humble peasant's vision of the Madonna still has immense power in a country where religious symbols carry a powerful emotional charge in ordinary people's lives. Pilgrims flock to the Basilica which was built on the site of his reported vision of a dark-skinned Virgin Mary in December 1531. But at this point certainty starts to fade.

'Convenient tool'

According to the Vatican, both the vision and Juan Diego's death were well-documented - and the Virgin left an image of herself imprinted on his cloak. According to critics, the whole story is a pious fiction - and Juan Diego never existed. According to this theory, he was a convenient tool in the Spanish battle to win over indigenous Indians to Catholicism, by fair means or foul. Some will view the canonisation of Juan Diego in the same light - as part of the Catholic Church's counter-attack against the inroads made by Protestant evangelicals over the past couple of decades, especially among native Mexican Indians.

'Symbolic truth'

Catholic historians who question the veracity of the story point to the fact that more than a hundred years passed before it was written down. Others though, while skeptical about the facts, maintain that the story has a kind of symbolic truth and it should be valued as such - as a kind of parable. But the controversy doesn't end there.

Portrait of Juan DiegoSome of the images of Juan Diego on sale in Mexico show him as bearded, tall, thin - and pale-skinned: every inch the conquering Spaniard rather than the native Mexican. Some of the images of Juan Diego show him every inch the conquering Spaniard rather than the native Mexican Juan Diego is the focus of intense devotion in Mexico.

Version 3:

“Portrait of new saint stirs controversy in Mexico” Los Angeles Times, July 30, 2002 [reprint]

MEXICO CITY -- When the Vatican gave approval last year for Juan Diego Cuauhtlahtoatzin to become the Americas' first indigenous Roman Catholic saint, many of Mexico's 10 million Indians welcomed it as vindication of their struggle to overcome centuries of racism. But when the church unveiled its official portrait of the 16th-century Chichimeca Indian, racial pride turned to puzzlement and, for some, anger. The portrait shows a light-skinned, full-bearded man who looks more like one of the Spanish conquistadors. It appears on millions of posters, stamps and wallet-sized prints distributed before Pope John Paul's arrival in Mexico today to canonize Juan Diego. "This is disturbing," said Fausto Guadarrama, a Mazahua Indian, author and Catholic. "First we win a moral victory. Then we get this image with Western features. Are they trying to conquer us again through this image?"

The criticism has put the hierarchy on the defensive. Cardinal Norberto Rivera, archbishop of Mexico City, now says the church would be willing to endorse any other "dignified" portrait of Juan Diego on posters and icons. The official image was chosen, church leaders say, because it is a copy of the earliest known portrait of Juan Diego.

"During the Spanish colony, Indians were often painted to look European, to enhance their status," said Elio Masferrer, an anthropologist and historian. "That was racist thinking. The curious thing is that today's church hasn't corrected it."

The mixed signals about Juan Diego illustrate Catholicism's uneasy relations with native Americans and, more broadly, its difficulties among non-European cultures around the world. In Mexico, the church's mission is complicated by a shortage of priests and the spread of Protestantism. The scheduled canonization Wednesday at Mexico City's Basilica of Guadalupe will be a landmark in the Catholic missionary effort.

According to legend, Juan Diego was a Catholic convert who in 1531 had a vision of the Virgin Mary as a dark-skinned Indian. When the local Spanish bishop demanded proof of the apparition, it was on Juan Diego's rough cloak that the Virgin of Guadalupe miraculously imprinted her image. Despite doubts by many scholars that Juan Diego ever existed, the cult of Guadalupe flourished.

Additional Information:

The Legend Of Guadalupe