Tonantzin Guadalupe — ‘Our Mother’

Dinah Livingstone looks at the historical and continuing role of Mexican Earth Mother goddess Tonantzin who became identified with Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe.


In 1492, after the Muslim Moors were finally driven out of Spain, the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella sent Columbus on an expedition which reached the ‘West Indies’, in fact Caribbean islands, not, as he supposed, the Asian mainland. This led to the opening up of a New World, which Spain proceeded to colonise both for its wealth and to spread Christianity. In 1519 Hernán Cortés set out from Cuba with a small expedition of about 500 men and landed at Vera Cruz on the Mexican mainland Yucatán Peninsula. By 1521 he had conquered and destroyed the magnificent Aztec city of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) – then a much larger city than any in Europe with a population estimated at over 200,000; by comparison Henry VIII’s London had a population of about 55,000.

How did Cortés conquer the great Aztec empire so easily? From the large literature on this subject, we may briefly mention the following points. Firstly, the Spaniards had superior warfare technology, including gunpowder and horses, which the indigenous people had never seen. They also brought diseases such as smallpox from which the indigenous people had no immunity. Secondly, the rapidly expanding Aztec Empire was hated by the neighbouring tribes they had conquered because they exacted heavy tribute and captives for human sacrifice. Cortés succeeded in forming alliances with some of these tribes, such as the Tlaxcalans, who helped him conquer the Aztecs. Thirdly, the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma may have thought the Spaniards were the legendary god-king Quetzalcoatl, who had disappeared into the sea but promised to return.

Quetzalcoatl had been the historical king of a previous Mexican high civilisation, the Toltecs, who were famous artists, craftsmen and poets. King Quetzalcoatl was also the priest of a single god whose name was Quetzalcoatl too, a manifestation of Ometeotl, the ‘Divine Pair’ – supreme god both male and female – the ‘Lord and Lady of Duality’. King Quetzalcoatl was driven out of the city for forbidding human sacrifice and disappeared into the sea. At this point he leaves history and enters into myth (in some versions of the story he becomes the evening and then the morning star (Venus).

The Aztec barbarians invading from the North rapidly assimilated the achievements of their more civilised predecessors and also took over their gods, so that their pantheon became very large and complex. They forgot Quetzalcoatl’s ban on human sacrifice and their most-revered god became the bloodthirsty sun and war god Huitzilopochtli, who demanded a constant supply of victims so that the sun would not fail. However a resistance group of tlamantinimes continued to oppose human sacrifice and honour the tradition of Quetzalcoatl.

In some ways the Spaniards were like the Aztecs, being prepared to kill thousands in the name of their god. But unlike the Aztecs, the Spaniards were not syncretists: they thought their god was not only the top god, but the only god, and all the others were demons who should be exterminated. They smashed as many shrines as possible of the indigenous gods and not only killed thousands of native inhabitants but did their best to destroy their religion and culture.

The Appearances of ‘Our Mother’

In December 1531, ten years after the destruction of the city of Tenochtilan a poor indigenous man who had been converted to Christianity by the Spaniards and given the Christian name Juan Diego, was on his way to church and passing the hill of Tepeyac on the outskirts of what is now Mexico City. Tepeyac was the holy hill of the indigenous great mother goddess Tonantzin (which means ‘Our Mother’). On Tepeyac Juan Diego encountered a Lady, dark-skinned, indigenous and very beautiful. She spoke to Juan Diego in Nahuatl, his mother tongue. She tells him: ‘ I am the Ever Virgin Holy Mary, Mother of Great Truth, Teotl Dios [God in Nahuatl and Spanish] Mother of the Life-Giver, Ipalnemohuani; Mother of the Creator of Humanity, Teyocoyani; Mother of the Lord of the Near and Together; Tloque Nahuaque; Mother of the Lord of Heaven and Earth, in Ilhicahua in Tlalticpaque.’ She identifies herself with both the Christian Mother Mary and the indigenous Mother Goddess and equates the two. She asks Juan Diego to go to the bishop and say she would like her holy house built on Tepeyac Hill.

The story is told in the Nican Mopohua, a poem written in Nahuatl (the Aztec language). According to Nahuatl expert Miguel León Portilla, the poem was most probably written in 1556 by the Nahuatl native speaker Antonio Valeriano, who was a student at the Santa Cruz College founded by the Spaniards at Tlatelolco, where the students became trilingual in Nahuatl, Spanish and Latin. The poem goes on to tell how at first the Spanish bishop Juan de Zumárraga did not believe the poor Indian Juan Diego (who belonged to the macehual class of ‘commoners’), but finally became convinced on Juan Diego’s third visit by the out-of-season flowers the Lady had told him to gather on the cold top of Tepeyac Hill, which he carried to the bishop’s Palace in his poncho or tilma. When he opened the tilma to show the flowers, it bore the Lady’s miraculous image on it. A house, later a large church, was built on Tepeyac Hill in honour of the Lady, whom the Spaniards called Our Lady of Guadalupe and the indigenous continued to call Tonantzin. Certainly by 1556 large crowds of both Indians and Spaniards regularly came to honour the Lady at Tepeyac and have done so ever since.

In the poem the Lady not only appears as an ordinary dark-skinned indigenous woman and speaks to Juan Diego in his Nahuatl mother tongue but she treats him with affection and respect, as an equal. (She speaks to him standing up; if she had been a noble, she would have received him sitting down.) She addresses him in familiar language, using many diminutives, like a mother. The indigenous Nahuatl people had seen their world destroyed, their great capital city in ruins, their culture and religion smashed. An estimated population of 25 million when the Spaniards arrived declined by the end of the century to 1 million from conquest, disease and suicide. The psychological trauma must have been devastating. But the Lady tells Juan Diego she is the Mother both of the Christian god (Dios) and the supreme Nahuatl god and she repeats some of that god’s highest titles (Life-Giver, Creator of Humanity, Lord of the Near and Together, Lord of Heaven and Earth). When Juan Diego says he is of too humble status to speak to the bishop, she insists he is her chosen messenger and he ends up carrying the good news to the bishop (‘evangelising’ him). The Lady represents the female aspect of the divinity (the Nahuatl supreme divinity Ometeotl being both male and female – the Divine Pair), the nurturing Earth Mother. She tells Juan Diego: ‘I am your kind mother and the mother of all the nations that live on this Earth who would love me.’ She accords the poor equal, or even greater, dignity than the rich and equally assumes both Christian and Nahuatl names of the great ‘Life-Giver’.

The sixteenth century Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún condemned the cult of the Lady at Tepeyac as an undercover continuation of the old religion at a Christian shrine and others since then have repeated that condemnation. On the other hand, some called it a Christian plot to ‘subsume’ and thereby overcome the cult of the indigenous Tonantzin and replace her with Mary. Nevertheless, today an estimated 10 million worshippers visit her Basilica annually – still whispering ‘Tonantzin Guadalupe, hear our prayers’ (with no difficulty combining them ) – making it the most popular shrine to ‘Our Lady’ in the world.

Guadalupe in Mexican History

Our Lady of Guadalupe became closely bound up with struggles for Mexican independence and identity, including the struggles of the indigenous population. In the war of Mexican independence from Spain (1810-21) the rebels’ banner had her image on it and their rallying cry was ‘¡Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe! ¡Viva la Independencia!’ The first President of independent Mexico changed his name to Guadalupe Victoria . During the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) followers of Zapata (mainly indigenous peasants) also called upon Our Lady of Guadalupe and their rallying cry was: ‘Land and Freedom!’. They demanded agrarian reform and redistribution of the agricultural land owned by the great rich landowners. It seemed natural to them to call upon the Lady who had appeared to Juan Diego; she represented Mother Earth, was an indigenous commoner and chose an indigenous commoner for her messenger. It is not surprising that for theologians like Virgil Elizondo (Guadalupe Mother of the New Creation) she is a major figure in liberation theology.

Guadalupe and the Zapatistas Today

In 1994 the Zapatistas, who are mainly Mayan Indians from the Lacandón Jungle in Chiapas, South East Mexico, rose up and briefly took control of the nearby small city and bishopric San Cristóbal de las Casas in protest against NAFTA, the newly ratified North American Free Trade Agreement, which massively benefits large US corporations against the Mexican poor and indigenous. The Zapatistas were also demanding land rights and some autonomy. They retreated to their Jungle and named their first Zapatista base Guadalupe Tepeyac, because this Lady was an indigenous woman like them, who had proclaimed herself mother of all. As Tonantzin she is Mother Earth and these poor Mayan peasants claimed their share of the Earth’s bounty. In their culture they treat the Earth as holy and there are lessons to be learnt from them about sustainable agriculture.

According to Luke in the New Testament, the pregnant Mary is the first to proclaim the gospel in her song, the Magnificat: the mighty put down from their seats and the poor raised up, the hungry filled with good things and the rich sent empty away. (Incidentally, Bach’s Magnificat in D  is very expressive and attentive to the meaning.) Mary gives birth in a lowly stable to Jesus, ‘a saviour who is Christ the Lord’ – the angel told the shepherds. The humble shepherds are the first to hear about it, just as the poor indigenous Juan Diego was the one chosen to receive the Lady of Guadalupe’s message. In Luke’s Gospel Mary’s son Jesus says plainly: ‘Blessed are the poor’ (not ‘poor in spirit’ as in Matthew) for yours is the reign of God and ‘Blessed are the hungry’ (for food) for you will be filled.

The struggle for land is real and continuing. To give just one example, a self-styled environmental group called Conservation International, sponsored by many large multinational corporations including Citigroup, Exxon Mobil and McDonalds, and closely linked with Starbucks in exporting token amounts of organic coffee from the Monte Azules region of the Lacandon Jungle, has made concerted efforts to clear the Zapatistas from the area. Its activities include bio-prospecting for private sector partners (which may involve biopiracy for pharmaceutical companies); they have bought the right to set up a genetic research station in Monte Azules and have co-operated with the Mexican government in a repressive military campaign against the Zapatistas, whom the Mexican government has described as an ‘international security matter’ and a problem of ‘serious ungovernability’. Conservation International’s programme of flyovers – part of the USAID-supported international monitoring programme – uses state-of-the art geographical information systems technology, including high resolution satellite imaging, which could be used to identify the location of natural resources attractive to commercial interests. A June 2003 report by the Mexican Chiapas-based Centre for Political Analysis and Social Investigation dubbed Conservation International ‘a Trojan horse of the US government and transnational corporations’. And other independent agencies have described the ‘environmental’ concerns of the Mexican and US governments in the Lacandon Jungle as being military and geostrategic ‘alibis’.

In 1995 the Mexican army smashed Guadalupe Tepeyac and the Zapatistas were driven out of their first base. Guadalupe Tepeyac now became a ‘migratory’ community and in a communiqué of March 1995 (published in La Jornada and other Mexican newspapers , and posted on the internet) their leader subcomandante Marcos gives a humorous description of a long discussion they have when someone from the city has sent them a present of an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe:

A few days ago in the now ‘migratory’ village of ‘Guadalupe Tepeyac, there was an argument. A gift came to them from the city. Among the scant humanitarian aid they receive, the ‘Guadalupan Zapatistas’ (as they call themselves) found an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. From what they tell me, the image measures about 30 centimetres, has some golden cords and coloured candles.

They decide to hold a general assembly to discuss whether the image should go with them when they try to go home or whether it should stay in their present host village. Marcos continues:

Doña Herminia begins to clear her throat. Everyone falls silent. This means that the foundress of Guadalupe Tepeyac, and its oldest inhabitant is about to speak. With the weight of her hundred years, Doña Herminia begins to speak slowly and quietly…She says that the Virgin of Guadalupe has come again from the city to find her sons and daughters, the Guadalupan Zapatistas, and as she did not find them at home she searched for them uphill and downhill, and reached them after much travelling up and down from one place to another.

She says that the Virgin must be tired of so much trudging up and down, especially in this heat that dries up saints and sinners alike, that a little rest would do her no harm at all and that now she is with them it’s good that the Virgin should rest a while with her own. But she (‘mother Lupita’ ) did not come from so far away to stay here, she didn’t travel all over the place looking for us, just to stay here in this place if the Guadalupan Zapatistas leave it and go somewhere else.

Doña Herminia thinks (and here all the women and the odd man nod in agreement) that the Lady of Guadalupe will want to be with her sons and daughters wherever they are, and that her tiredness will lessen if she rests together with them, her family, and her sadness will hurt her less if she suffers together with them and joy will shine out more if it shines on her with them.

Doña Herminia says she thinks (and now there are more who agree) that the Virgin will want to go wherever the people of Guadalupe Tepeyac go, that if the war drives them into the mountains, to the mountains the Virgin will go, turned soldier like them, to defend her dark dignity; that if peace brings them back to their homes, the Lady of Guadalupe will go with them to the village to rebuild what was destroyed.

‘So I ask you, madrecita [little mother], if you agree to going where we go…’ she asks, addressing the image that is in front of the assembly. The Virgin doesn’t answer, her dark gaze keeps on looking down. …The assembly leader asks if anyone else wants to speak. There is a unanimous silence. ‘There will be a vote,’ he says, and takes the vote. The women win. The Virgin of Guadalupe will go wherever the Guadalupan Zapatistas go. After the assembly there will be a dance. A marimba and the dark-skinned image preside over the festivity.

Marcos’s attitude to the image is ‘sofish’ – one of affectionate respect but he in no way treats her as supernatural. In similar vein, he often recounts old stories about the Mayan gods. Marcos knows that Our Lady of Guadalupe is an immensely important symbol of a real struggle for a just share of the Earth’s treasury, as a mother providing for all her children. He is able to joke about her in a light-hearted way, but knows her symbolic power operates for those who do not think she is ‘real’, as well as for those who do. He is an ‘object lesson’ for SoF in discerning and absorbing the wisdom of traditional religious stories and symbols, without pretending that they are anything but ‘poetic tales’.

On the other hand, in 2002, boasting that this was the Catholic church’s first indigenous saint, Pope John Paul II canonised Juan Diego, to whom the Lady of Guadalupe appeared. The Pope did not mention the fact that Juan Diego may not actually have existed; he is the hero of a poem!

SoF and Religious Traditions

In exploring religion as a human creation SoF can learn from Marcos’s affectionate respect to discern the wisdom in old religious stories and traditions. But we should not be uncritical. Just because a religion is ‘ethnic;’ or ‘exotic’ does not mean we should ‘lay off’ out of a misguided multicultural ‘correctness’, tolerate it as ‘quaint’ or treat it with ‘folksy’ acceptance. All religious traditions must be judged by humanist criteria. For example, in his poem Quetzalcoatl, Ernesto Cardenal roundly denounces the horrendous human sacrifices practised by the Aztecs, whom he regards as a more barbaric culture succeeding the high culture of the Toltecs. He describes the resistance of the tlamantinimes who continued to oppose human sacrifice and honour the tradition of Quetzalcoatl, as anti-fascist.

And if we oppose human sacrifice in the religion of the Aztecs, a former American super-power, we must continue to oppose it today. The USA, the present American superpower, has parallels with the Aztecs. The Aztecs practised human sacrifice to keep the sun burning. The US is engaged in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in which the geopolitics of oil are a major factor. Over a million people have died, sacrificed in the Iraq war and its aftermath. As well as learning from the wisdom of old religious traditions, we can learn from their unwisdom and become part of the resistance to human sacrifice.

We can also learn from ‘Our Mother’ Tonantzin Guadalupe that the Earth is alive and should be treated with reverence, not over-exploited, poisoned and endangered; she is mother to all and that her wealth must be fairly shared. We can not say the West has achieved the realisation of Christianity when so many people are still poor, hungry and dispossessed, for which Western capitalism bears a large responsibility. ‘Our Mother’s’ Magnificat ‘raises up the lowly’ and ‘fills the hungry with good things’. Her son Jesus says the reign of God belongs to the poor and will not be here until they have come into their own (‘inherit the Earth’: have land), when the hungry are blessed, because they will no longer be hungry but filled, not with any old rubbish, but with good things.


Guadalupe Mother of the New Creation by Virgil Elizondo (Orbis Books, New York 1997) has an English translation of the full text of the Nican Mopohua. Miguel León Portilla’s Tonantzin Guadalupe (El Colegio Nacional: Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico 2000) has the full Nahuatl version with Spanish translation. Zapatista communiqués are posted on (Spanish with some English translations. A search will produce other sites with English translations.)

Dinah Livingstone was in San Cristóbal de las Casas in February 2001 to greet the Zapatistas on their great march (‘caravan’) to the capital, Mexico City. She collected, edited and translated Zapatista Stories by Subcomandante Marcos (Katabasis, London 2001).

Click printer button for printer-friendly version of this article
Registered charity number 1113177
© All Sea of Faith material is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence