Evangelizing the Evangelizers: Juan Diego’s America

Roberto S. Goizueta

In his 1999 Apostolic Exhortation “Ecclesia in America,” Pope John Paul II asked Christians in the Americas to “reflect on America as a single entity.”1 Such reflection, he declared, would represent “an attempt to express not only the unity which in some way already exists, but also to point to that closer bond which the peoples of the continent seek and which the Church wishes to foster as part of her own mission, as she works to promote the communion of all in the Lord.”2

More than a decade later, Christians in this hemisphere have yet to seriously engage the task of reflecting on America as a single entity – this despite the fact that soon Latinos and Latinas will constitute one-third of the U.S. population. Failing to try, we squander the extraordinary theological gift that this era of immigration offers – nothing less than the opportunity to encounter the God of the gospels, a God whose extravagant love knows no bounds and, as such, always irrupts in our world in the most unexpected places and among the least “worthy” persons, such as those “heathen” who come to us from the other side of the borders we have erected to protect us from them. Insofar as the borders become not meeting places of different cultures but impenetrable barriers, what they ultimately protect us from will be the very God we claim to worship.

Mestizo History

The Latino community in the U.S. is itself very diverse. Despite this diversity, however, common threads run throughout the histories of all U.S. Latinos and Latinas. In some way, for instance, all share the historical heritage and experience of “mestizaje” (racial-cultural mixture). The Latin American culture and people are the products of five centuries of racial and cultural intermixing. In North America, the British colonists exterminated the indigenous people. To the South, the Spanish killed millions of Amerindians, either through the illnesses brought from Europe or through outright violence, but the Spanish also intermingled with the native peoples. In the Caribbean region, the mixture over the past five centuries has been less between Spanish and Indian than between the Spanish colonists and the Africans brought to the islands as slaves.

The result of this hemispheric history has been a culture that still reflects not only Iberian influences but also African and/or Amerindian. And, of course, as Latinos and Latinas settle in the United States, a “second mestizaje” takes place: immigrants assimilate influences from the larger U.S. culture. So a Mexican American is similar but also quite different from a Mexican living in Mexico. Indeed, U.S. Latinos and Latinas are often derided not only by other Americans but also by Latin Americans still living in their native countries, many of whom look down on U.S. Latinos as not quite Latin American. Thus, living as part of a mestizo people means always living on the border, culturally and psychologically. One never feels completely at home on either side.

The historical experience of mestizaje originated in the violence of the conquest, in the violation of indigenous women by Spanish conquistadores. As the child of violence, the child of the violent European conqueror and the violated indigenous woman, the mestizo has historically suffered scorn and humiliation. This same mestizo heritage is reflected in the religious faith of Latinos and Latinas, an experience of ecclesiastical marginalization until a series of extraordinary events beginning in 1531 changed the history of a people, their self-confidence and political destiny.

The appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe in December 1531 signals a turning-point, or axial point in the history of Latin American mestizaje.3 In the Guadalupe event, “la Virgen morena” (“the darkskinned virgin”) appears to an indigenous man (i.e., a “heathen”), Juan Diego, on a hill outside what is now Mexico City. The narrative recounts several encounters between “la Morenita” and Juan Diego, in the course of which she repeatedly assures him that, despite his own sense of worthlessness vis-àvis the Spaniards, he is her most beloved, favored child. As she continues to reassure him, Juan Diego gradually develops a sense of his own dignity as a child of God.

Persistent Dark-Skinned Lady

In their first encounter, she commanded Juan Diego to ask the Spanish bishop in Mexico City, Juan de Zumárraga, to build a church on the hill where she had appeared. Juan Diego resisted, arguing that he was not worthy to be charged with such an important mission. But the Lady persisted, so Juan Diego eventually went to the bishop’s palace to make the request.4

At first, the bishop would not even receive the poor indigenous man. Later, the bishop received but did not believe him. Finally, the Lady gave Juan Diego a “sign” to take with him, a bouquet of roses she had ordered him to pick from a nearby hilltop. Since all knew that such flowers could not grow at that time of the year, they would recognize the miraculous nature of the sign. So Juan Diego put the flowers in his tilma, or cloak. When he arrived at the bishop’s palace and opened the cloak to reveal the flowers, another miraculous sign appeared, an image of the Virgin imprinted on the cloak. Stirred and convinced by these signs, the bishop relented and ordered that the Lady’s wish be granted.5

In the narrative, the traditional roles are thereby reversed: The dark-skinned Lady and the indigenous man themselves become the messengers of God, evangelizers to the Spanish bishop, who is portrayed as the one in need of conversion. Here, as Mexican- American theologian Virgilio Elizondo notes, the one acting in persona Christi (in the person of Christ) is not the bishop but the poor man:

“Juan Diego functions as the priest. He responds to the divine call and climbs the hill to be the mediator between the Mother of God and the bishop, between his people and the powerful people from Europe. … The call of Juan Diego is a divine protest against the elitist policies of a church that refuses to recognize the giftedness of the poor and lowly, especially the non-Western ones.”6

The narrative and accompanying images also exemplify a fascinating religious, symbolic mestizaje. Tepeyac, the hill on which the Virgin appeared, was well-known to the Nahuas (the indigenous people to whom Juan Diego belonged) as the place where they worshipped the mother goddess Tonantzín. Likewise, the Virgin’s clothing was adorned with a mixture of Christian and Nahua symbols.7

Despair, Then Dignity

By 1531, the indigenous peoples of Mexico had been broken and nearly destroyed by the conquering Spaniards. Those who had survived the onslaught were demoralized and in despair. It was at this very moment of deepest anguish that Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared – to accompany them in their suffering, confirm them in their dignity as children of God, and herald the dawn of a new era of hope. Indeed, the image of Guadalupe that Juan Diego saw – an image that, to this day, remains emblazoned on the cloak as it appears in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City – is that of a pregnant woman, unique in the history of Marian apparitions: La Morenita gives birth to a new people, a mestizo people.8

The story of Guadalupe is today being re-enacted in our own country, where millions of Juan Diegos are crossing our borders, knocking on the doors of the powerful, and inviting us to hear the message of God’s special love for the downtrodden. The Rev. David García, former rector of San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, Texas, explains the intimate identification between Juan Diego and the Mexican people:

“Juan Diego’s story is our story. His hesitancy is ours in the face of being called to share the Good News and change our world. His feelings of nothingness are reflected in our sense of inadequacy against a society that puts us down at every turn. His call to take the messageis our call to tell others that God wants things different, that God loves those who are poor and powerless, that God does not forget the sufferings of God’s people, and that God is with us on our pilgrimage through a hostile world.”9

Will we, like Bishop Zumárraga centuries ago, turn Juan Diego away, assuming that we cannot possibly have anything to learn from him, much less anything to learn from him about who God is? What is called for is nothing less than a genuine commitment to become a Church that recognizes, affirms, and witnesses to a God revealed on the border, a God who transforms that border from a barrier that excludes into the privileged place of God’s selfrevelation, recognizing among those persons who approach us from “the other side of the border” the messengers of the Good News.

The Borders of Faith

How we view the border and its inhabitants, then, is not merely a question of charity or justice (though it is that). It is, more profoundly still, a question of our own salvation, our own liberation.10 If the God we claim to worship is one who, as Mystery, “does not belong” to this world, then that God will approach us, in a special way, through the lives of those men, women, and children who themselves “do not belong” – because we have excluded them from our world. Consequently, we cannot claim to worship the God of the Scriptures unless we do so alongside and in solidarity with those persons with whom God has chosen to become identified in a special way, precisely to reveal a Love which knows no bounds.

To welcome the immigrant is thus to open ourselves to a love whose utter gratuity and extravagance liberates us as well – from that fear of powerlessness, insecurity, and vulnerability that has driven us to surround ourselves with walls, turrets, and electric fences. It is the powerless in our world who are the bearers of the good news that, whatever our obsessive pretentions to the contrary, we are all ultimately powerless. Our lives are nothing but the pure gift of a God in whose hands we can rest and in whose wholly unmerited love we can trust.

Let us not once again, then, like Bishop Juan de Zumárraga five centuries ago, turn away Juan Diego as he approaches us bearing in his tilma the precious gift of God’s great love for us all.


Roberto Goizueta is professor of Catholic theology at Boston College. He has a B.A. from Yale University and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Marquette University.


1 John Paul II, “Ecclesia in America,” Para. 5.

2 John Paul II.

3 Roberto S. Goizueta, Christ Our Companion: Toward a Theological Aesthetics of Liberation (Orbis, 2009), p. 142.

4 Goizueta. p. 142.

5 Goizueta, p. 143.

6 Virgio Elizondo, Guadalupe: Mother of the New Creation (Orbis, 1997), p. 46.

7 For accounts and interpretations of the Guadalupan narrative, which appears in the sixteenth century Nican Mopohua, see especially the following works: Clodomiro L. Siller-Acuña, “Anotaciones y comentarios al Nican Mopohua,” Estudios Indígenas 8:2 (1981): p. 217-274; Idem, Flor y canto del Tepeyac: Historia de las apariciones de Santa María de Guadalupe, texto y comentario (Servir, 1981); Idem, Para comprender el mensaje de María de Guadalupe (Editorial Guadalupe, 1989); Jacques Lafaye, Quetzalcóatl and Guadalupe: The Formation of Mexican National Consciousness, 1531-1813 (University of Chicago Press, 1976); Virgilio Elizondo, Guadalupe: Mother of the New Creation (Orbis, 1997); Richard Nebel, Santa María Tonantzin: Virgen de Guadalupe (Fondo de Cultural Económica, 1995); Stafford Poole, Our Lady of Guadalupe: The Origins and Sources of a Mexican National Symbol, 1531-1797 (University of Arizona Press, 1995); Jeanette Rodríguez, Our Lady of Guadalupe: Faith and Empowerment among Mexican American Women (University of Texas Press, 1994).

8 See Elizondo, Guadalupe: Mother of the New Creation, pp. ix-xx.

9 David Garcia, “You Can Do It,” in Virgilio Elizondo, Allan Figueroa Deck, and Timothy Matovina, eds., The Treasure of Guadalupe (Rowman and Littlefield, 2006), p. 22.

10 Goizueta, p. 145.