The Story of the Indio Juan Diego Is True

On May 6, 1990, in the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico, John Paul II beatified Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, “talking eagle,” the seer of Guadalupe. On July 31st, he will be canonized on the same site. Popes, Latin American bishops, and the Special Synod for America always speak of Juan Diego as a person indissolubly bound to the Event in Guadalupe. What are the foundations for this historicity?


The early days of the Christian missionary presence in Mexico are marked by a clash between the pre-Cortés religious and cultural world and the Christian one coming from Europe. However, a meeting of the two was achieved, not without some suffering. Guadalupe is the most successful expression of this meeting, and the neo-Christian Indio Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin (“talking eagle”) is the link representing it, or its “messenger.” This is how he has been perceived both by the Indio and the Spanish, Creole, and mestizo tradition.

The “Guadalupan event” has been the object of heated historical debate from the end of the eighteenth century when a Spanish academic, Juan Bautista Muñoz, placed the historicity of the facts in doubt. He was followed by two Mexicans, the eccentric Dominican friar, Fr Servando Teresa de Mier, and, in the late nineteenth century, the scholar Joaquín Garcia Icazbalceta. Since then, in the historiography about the event in Guadalupe, a polemical spirit tends to prevail over documentary research.

In the history of the Guadalupan controversy we find, in effect, opposite theories. Some of these would like to deprive the “Guadalupan event” of its historicity, reducing it to a mere symbol.

Some theories
For some, “Guadalupe” is a religious myth representing the ancient Mexican religious traditions synchretically absorbed by Catholicism. The Virgin of Guadalupe would be the Catholic transposition of a pagan “deity”–and thus, her apparition would be a myth–with Juan Diego one of the characters in the myth.

Other “anti-apparitionists” believe that Guadalupe is a tool of catechesis used by the missionaries to evangelize the natives.

Then there are those who view “Guadalupe” as an invention of Creolism, which began to manifest itself in the sixteenth century as an assertion of power in the face of the Spaniards on the peninsula. According to them, this was the birth of Mexican nationalism, with Creole roots and with the Virgin of Guadalupe as its symbol. Only later was room made for the “Indio Juan Diego” and for Indios in general, who were not remembered as protagonists of the event until well into the eighteenth century.

For many people, the doubts arise because of the lack of exhaustive sources in the first twenty years. For them, the so-called “Franciscan documental silence” is fundamental, especially that of Fra Juan de Zumárraga, the first bishop of the Diocese of Mexico, and other chroniclers of the time, generally very scrupulous in transmitting the most important facts of the conquest and evangelization.

For others, the interest of the facts of Guadalupe lies in the drama of the conquest and the differing attitudes of the missionaries and the natives in the early moments of evangelization.

There are numerous popular publications in which the devotional aspect prevails, without any concern for history. Some of these conceptions, applied to what happened at Guadalupe, can lead to a sort of fideism and, in some cases, even to overturning the question of the rationality of faith and its connection with history, and in others to the reduction of Guadalupe to a mere symbol or sentiment, without any relationship with the facts of history.

Juan Diego Cuahtlatoatzin, the “seer” Indio of Santa Maria di Guadalupe, was born, it seems, around 1474 and died in 1548. Some primitive indigenous Guadalupan sources–and later “Spanish” ones–call him explicitly an “ambassador-messenger” of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He was beatified in the Basilica of Guadalupe on May 6, 1990, by John Paul II during his second apostolic journey to Mexico.

The history of the cause of beatification is closely tied to the event in Guadalupe. From a juridical point of view, the process began in 1666. In 1894, the Mexican bishops obtained from the Sacred Congregation for the Rites (now the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments) the concession for the canonical coronation of the Virgin of Guadalupe. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the bishops of Mexico and many other parts of the world solicited from Pius X, and later Pius XI, the proclamation of the Virgin of Guadalupe as patron saint of the American continent and the Philippines. Starting in 1974, the presumed fifth centenary of Juan Diego’s birth, the Mexican bishops began asking for his canonization, later joined by those of Latin America.

Beatification aroused debate about the historicity of the event in Guadalupe and even of Juan Diego himself. For this reason, at the beginning of 1998 the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints appointed an historical commission charged with studying more deeply the problems of its history.

Documents and results
Some of the results of this study appeared in the book I edited with E Chávez Sánchez and JL Guerrero Rosado, El encuentro de la Virgen de Guadalupe y Juan Diego (The Encounter of the Virgin of Guadalupe with Juan Diego). The book presents a series of documents from various sources that converge to confirm the event in Guadalupe. We made a careful critical examination of these documents, offering also some reasonable hypotheses to explain certain voids, such as the already mentioned “Guadalupan silence” of some sixteenth-century ecclesiastical and civilian figures. The historical and literary sources emerge basically from three distinct cultural matrixes: “strictly Indian and indigenous,” “Spanish and European,” and “mestizo.”

- Indigenous sources

Among the indigenous sources, the major one is the Nican Mopohua, attributed to the Indio writer Antonio Valeriano (1520-1606), about whose authorship, today, the best scholars have no doubts. The document is in the form of poetry; it is a particularly valuable testimony of the cultural metamorphosis of the Christianity of New Spain.

Antonio Valeriano’s poem was made known in the Náhuatl language by Lasso de la Vega in 1649. In this Náhuatl text, what stands out most–as already observed by the Náhuatl historian A Maria Garibay–is the extraordinary message of Mary’s spiritual motherhood, especially toward the poor and derelict.

Every word of the 218 lines of the Nican Mopohua finds its meaning within the Náhuatl philosophical and mythological universe, just as it does in the Christian one. The complexity and breadth of the Náhuatl view of the cosmos, as well as the profound intention of Christian acculturation on the part of the missionaries, are topics that demand close knowledge and study.

- Metizo sources

We call “mixed Indio-Spanish” or “metizo” the sources where we find a determinant metizo element or a cultural mixture–because of the author, as in the case of Fernando de Alva Ixtlixóchitl (a descendant of Spanish and native blood); or because a Spanish and an Indio author jointly signed the same document, as in the Códice Esclada (signed by the Indio Antonio Valeriano and the Spaniard Fra Bernardino de Sahagún); or the language used (Náhuatl as in the Códice Esclada); or because of other elements that indicate the presence of a cultural blend, that is no longer either the pure pre-Hispanic indigenous element or the imported Spanish one.

- Spanish sources

As to the Spanish and European sources in general, the sixteenth century documents “of Spanish provenance” in favor of Guadalupe are numerous. However, here too we find the same problems in reading the documents coming from Indio or metizo sources and written in Náhuatl or Castilian.

El encuentro de la Virgen de Guadalupe y Juan Diego presents and analyzes “Guadalupan” documents from the middle of the sixteenth century, from about 1555, to 1630. Especially valuable are the Acts of the Chapter of the Cathedral of Mexico for the years 1568 and 1569; the so-called map of Uppsala; some primitive iconographical testimony; requests for indulgences and privileges; concessions of grace from the Holy See starting with Pope Gregory XIII that demonstrate the importance of the sanctuary of Guadalupe in the vice-royalty of New Spain; and finally, the testimony of Jesuits concerning Our Lady of Guadalupe.

- Unpublished documents

New documents, the fruit of archival research, are enriching the studies on the historicity of Guadalupe and the figure of Juan Diego. Outstanding among these are documents–still unpublished–found in the archives of the ancient convent of Corpus Christi in Mexico City which refer to legal proof of “pure blood” and descent from caciques (native chiefs of Central and South America) of two candidates for the monastery who declared they were descendants of the seer Juan Diego.

Research in another archive unknown to scholars until very recently–in the ancient Dominican convent of San Vicente Ferrer Chimalhuacán (founded in 1529)–has resulted in the discovery of important material concerning the early years of the conquest and some of its protagonists, both Indios and Spaniards. In this material, we find Juan Diego’s cultural and family environment, closely tied with the site and foundation of the convent.

Mother of all
What influence did the Event in Guadalupe have in Mexico from the dawn of evangelization? It is perceived as the affirmation of Mary’s motherhood toward everyone: Indios, metizos, and Spaniards.

In light of the historical documentation and religious anthropology, the newly baptized Indios venerate, with the title of Virgin of Guadalupe, the historical person of Mary of Nazareth, Mother of Jesus, the Word Incarnate in her womb. According to the earliest Guadalupan documents, Guadalupe is an historical event. This historicity fills with content a symbol that makes a practice and a Marian devotion of the import of Guadalupe reasonable. Guadalupe, in the documented tradition, is bound up with the Indio Juan Diego, even if he certainly does not occupy the main position in many documents. This is given to Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Mystery of her Son which she reveals. But this “secondary” role of Juan Diego as humble ambassador absolutely is not tantamount to denying his existence, which is demonstrated by the convergent sources concerning the event.