Our Sacred Mother

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Alan Sandstrom

If you read any ethnographic description of a Native American community in Mexico that includes a section on religion, you will find mention of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Encyclopedias or handbooks on Mexico also typically have entries on this important sacred figure.

According to tradition, the Virgin appeared to a Nahua man named Juan Diego in December 1531 on Tepeyac Hill, north of Mexico City, where there was a shrine dedicated to the female Aztec earth deity Tonantzin. To this day, in Nahuatl-speaking communities (in other communities as well), the Virgin continues to be called “Tonantzin” and her appearance is commemorated on December 12 each year.

Tonantzin means “Our Sacred Mother” in the Nahuatl language and she continues to be connected symbolically to fertility and the earth. It is not known precisely how the pre-Hispanic deity Tonantzin became connected to the Christian Virgin of Guadalupe, however, we can assume that many people of the time believed that her appearance represented a return of the Aztec mother deity. There are many myths surrounding the Virgin of Guadalupe but she has been recognized by the Catholic church as a manifestation of the Virgin Mary. The Virgin of Guadalupe has become a national symbol of the Mexican nation and she is viewed by many to be a special protector of Native American peoples.

In conclusion, in the minds of many people living within and outside of Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe and the ancient Tonantzin are one and the same. This sacred figure can be seen to represent the emergence of Mexico as a unified nation born out of the destructive encounter between European and pre-Hispanic civilizations.

For Further Reading

• Henry Nicholson discusses the pre-Hispanic deity Tonantzin and shows how she was related to other major deities in the Aztec pantheon:-

Nicholson, Henry B. 1971. “Religion in Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico.” In Archaeology of Northern Mesoamerica, Part 1. Gordon F. Eckholm and Ignacio Bernal, eds., pp. 395-446. Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 10. Robert Wauchope, gen. ed. Austin: University of Texas Press.

• Alan Sandstrom provides a description of the worship of Tonantsi (a variant pronunciation of Tonantzin) in a Nahua community of the Huasteca, northern Veracruz, Mexico:-

Sandstrom, Alan R. 1982. “The Tonantsi Cult of the Eastern Nahua.” In Mother Worship: Theme and Variations, James J. Preston, ed., pp. 25-50. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

• Eric Wolf has written one of the classic articles on the Virgin of Guadalupe (Tonantzin) as a Mexican national symbol:-

Wolf, Eric. 1958. “The Virgin of Guadalupe: A Mexican National Symbol.” Journal of American Folklore 71:34-39.

Some additional people who have written on the topic of the Virgin of Guadalupe or Tonantzin, whose work can be looked up online or in library catalogues, include Louise Burkhart, Susan Kellogg, and Stafford Poole.

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