First Indian Saint – Juan Diego

Associated Press
Mexico City

Pope John Paul II’s plan to name Roman Catholicism’s first Indian saint has opened divisions in this complex mosaic of a country where Indian and European traditions remain half-reconciled. The debate over 16th century Indian Juan Diego touches on delicate issues of ethnicity, faith, foreign meddling and respect for Indians, and threatens one of the few things that unifies Mexico: national symbols.

According to Mexican Catholic tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego in 1531 as the Virgin of Guadalupe, who became Mexico’s patron and protector. But as Juan Diego’s sainthood approaches with the pope’s visit here in July, debate over the story has flared. Was Juan Diego used by Spanish conquerors to smother native beliefs under a mantle of Christianity? Is his canonization a long-overdue recognition of Indians in Latin America or a ploy by the conservative church to cash in on the Indian rights movement and counter Protestant groups making inroads? And perhaps the touchiest question did Juan Diego even exist?

The viewpoints are as varied as the skin tone of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Known by Mexicans as “the Dark Virgin,” her image has light olive skin on Juan Diego’s cactus-fiber cloak where her likeness miraculously appeared. The cloak is preserved within a frame in the massive Mexico City basilica dedicated to her. At souvenir stands outside the basilica, she can be purchased in skin shades several tones darker than the original alongside baby Jesuses conveniently available in rosy pink and Indian brown.

Vendors also hawk T-shirts depicting the Virgin standing watch over a typical Latino hot rod, with the legend “Guide My Path.” “That is what makes a symbol rich: that it can be interpreted many different ways, depending on where you’re coming from,” said Rosario Granados, a historian at the basilica’s museum. No images of Juan Diego exist from his time, and he has been depicted as having varying degrees of Indian blood, and sometimes even with a full Spanish beard. While he has always been shown in a secondary position “kneeling at the feet of the Virgin” recently he is getting his own figurines.

There is one symbol at the basilica that is getting less than adoring treatment these days: the bust of Guillermo Schulemberg, the former basilica abbot who says there is no proof Juan Diego existed. “Visitors come into the museum and they want to spit on the bust. “They don’t understand why he’s here,” Granados said.

In December, Schulemberg sent a letter asking the pope not to make Juan Diego a saint. Schulemberg was supported by several other churchmen in doubting the Indian’s identity, although not the miracle itself. The Vatican declared Juan Diego fit for sainthood anyway. “We don’t deny that some Indian saw the Virgin,” said the Rev. Manuel Olimon, a Catholic professor and one of the doubters. “The point is a biographical one. You can’t canonize a figure who, while he might have existed, might have been named Juan, or Juan Diego, or something else entirely.” It doesn’t help that Schulemberg is German by birth, and that some see his doubts as a matter of cold German logic versus Mexican faith.

There is a sense of national insult. “I recognize that these men have a right to their opinions, and I respect that,” said Cecilia Zuniga, 37, a businesswoman visiting the shrine where tradition says Juan Diego is buried (the grave has never been excavated). “But now they should respect the Mexican people, and shut up.” What raised suspicions among some critics was the site where Juan Diego is said to have spotted the Virgin on a hilltop originally dedicated to the Aztec mother-goddess Tonantzin, whose worship was displaced by that of the Virgin.

“We respect the images of Juan Diego and the Virgin, because they are part of tradition. But the truth is not in those images, it is in nature itself,” said Quiahuit, who goes by a single Aztec name as a priest of the “Mexica” sect that still worships Tonantzin. “Their religion brought the Inquisition, war and oppression. It’s a big business. Our religion is the Mexicans’ original one,” said Quiahuit, standing before herbs, a conch shell and burning copal incense he uses to perform purification rites in Mexico City’s central square, next to a 17th century Spanish cathedral.

The movement to revive pre-Hispanic beliefs is small; most Indians and generally, most Mexicans, choose simply to believe the story of Juan Diego and the Virgin. “We believe in his sainthood, because it is part of our faith,” said Tomasa Contreras, 54, standing before the basilica after a five-day pilgrimage from Tepexi, a Mixtec Indian village. “If those men don’t believe, it’s because they lack faith, and that’s sad.” For skeptics, further doubts were raised by the big hole in the documentary record for Juan Diego. The church says it knows he was born in 1474 and where he lived, where he is buried and some scant details of his life. But most of that is based on oral tradition; the first written reference to Juan Diego didn’t appear until 1648. The delay was fairly natural, given the times, said anthropologist Jose Luis Gonzalez.

“Church officials initially expressed mistrust of the new vision” as they watched Indians streaming to worship the Virgin at a former pagan site, he said. They suspected it was a cover for continued pagan worship. Eventually, however, the church did encourage belief in the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe appearing before the humble Indian, using the Virgin as a symbol of Catholicism in Mexico and as a way to smother the Indians’ worship of Tonantzin. Some think that giving recognition of an Indian, even an imaginary one, would be a good thing given the centuries of mistreatment of Indians in Mexico, stretching from the massacres of the Spanish conquest to the rural abandonment and poverty that most live in now. As Dolores Salgado, a Pai-pai Indian from Mexico’s Pacific coast, told one newspaper: “They’re saying that he didn’t exist because they can’t find his birth certificate. What are they thinking? “To this very day, a lot of us Indians don’t have birth certificates.”

April 20, 2002

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