On May 3, 1990, 19-year-old Juan José Barragán hurled himself off the balcony of his Mexico City apartment and plunged 30 feet onto the concrete below. The severely depressed teenager sustained grievous head injuries and was not expected to live. His frantic family prayed to Juan Diego for a miracle. They got their miracle: Within three days, on May 6, the youth was completely recovered. The astounded doctors declared the healing "inexplicable."
On that very same day, Pope John Paul ll was celebrating the Mass for Juan Diego’s beatification. Barrigán’s cure was the requisite miracle for canonization. Pope John Paul ll traveled to Mexico City for the canonization on July 31, 2002. Millions lined the streets of the city to greet the pope who came to pay homage to Mexico’s first indigenous saint.
Juan Diego was born around the year 1474 in Cuauhtitlán, a city 14 miles northeast of the capital. At the time, Tenochtitlán (present-day Mexico City) was one of the largest cities in the world. It was governed by the Aztec emperor Montezuma, who ruled over a vast empire. Cuauhtitlán was part of this empire. Juan Diego, however, was not Aztec; he belonged to the Chichimecas, a group who had arrived in the Valley of Mexico about three centuries earlier than the Aztecs.
Juan would have been an eyewitness to the cataclysmic changes in his homeland: He was a youth when Columbus first discovered America and middle-aged when the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortéz defeated the Aztecs at Tenochtitlán and at Tlaltelolco, the site of an enormous pagan temple dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war. The year was 1521.
After the conquest, this temple was razed, and a Christian church was built in its place: the Church of San Diego (St. James), dedicated to the patron saint of Spain. The Franciscans were the first to bring the faith to New Spain (Mexico); in 1524, the first missionary band arrived and set up a center for evangelization in Tlalteloclo. Juan Diego, his wife and his uncle were baptized in 1525 here, where they had received catechetical instructions and attended Mass. Juan and his wife were one of the first married couples in New Spain to become Christian. Unfortunately, his wife, Maria Lucia, would die before the Guadalupe apparitions took place.
Juan Diego, contrary to previous belief, was a member of the macehual (middle) class: He owned property, farmed his land and worked at his thriving mat-making business on the shores of Lake Texcoco. He would have been educated, as education was compulsory in the empire.
It was to Tlaltelolco that Juan Diego was walking when Our Lady of Guadalupe first appeared to him, on Dec. 9, 1531. She would appear to him three more times.
On Dec. 12, in the presence of Bishop Juan de Zumárraga and other notables, an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe as a mestiza (a woman of mixed race) was miraculously imprinted on Juan Diego’s tilma (cape). The miracle had dramatic consequences: Not only would the two previously warring groups unite, it would also result in the conversion of 10 million people to Christianity in a decade.
The first chapel to house the miraculous image was completed in just two weeks. The Nican Mapohua (the earliest account of the apparitions, written in 1540) states, "It was in a few days that the sacred little house of the Nina Queen was built." The adobe structure, called "The Hermitage," was constructed at the base of Tepeyac Hill. "Absolutely everyone, the entire city, without exception, came to acknowledge the image as something Divine," concludes the Nican account.
Bishop Zumárraga chose Juan Diego to be the first custodian of the image. A one-room addition was built onto the chapel and would become Juan’s home for the rest of his life. He died in 1548, having devoted the last 17 years of his life to teach others about the image and the Christian faith.
This chapel is known as the Church of Los Indios and is the burial place of the visionary. It is small, simple and humble (much like the ascetical Juan Diego himself, one would imagine) and is graced by a joyous indigenous image of the visionary above the main altar. The original ruins of "The Hermitage" are visible inside the chapel, which is a two-minute walk from the basilica, La Capilla del Cerrito (Chapel of the Little Hill).
The chapel is situated at the summit of Tepeyac Hill and marks the location of Our Lady’s first appearance to Juan Diego. The word "hill" is misleading: To anyone marching up those (interminable!) steps, it feels more like a small mountain. Described as "one of the most hallowed spots in Christendom," the intimate chapel, in neo-classical style, is adorned by six frescoes of the Guadalupe story. Its ambiance is one of utter reverence and prayer. It was built in 1660.
After visiting the new basilica (built in 1979, it houses the original tilma), pilgrims will also want to visit the old basilica (next door), which is now a museum. It was built in 1709.
The Church of San Diego, almost 500 years old, is a must-see: There, one can view the font where Juan Diego was baptized and roam around the ruins of the pagan temple, where the stones of the ruins and those of the church appear to be identical. That’s no coincidence: The church was built from the stones of the demolished temple. This church is a short taxi ride from the basilica.
The birthplace of Juan Diego, the city of Cuautitlán, is worth visiting. It is home to the national monument of Mexico’s native son. At the museum nearby, one can view the original foundations of Juan Diego’s dwelling, a fair-sized house by any standards.
The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe remains at the center of Mexican life: As renowned contemporary Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes said: "You cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe."
And the humble St. Juan Diego was at the center of that blessed Marian miracle.
Mary Hansen writes from
North Bay, Canada.
Planning Your Visit
The two museums in this account should not be missed. All museums in Mexico are closed on Mondays. The basilica is much less crowded on weekdays. It is very crowded on Sundays. It is advised to arrange a taxi from your hotel to visit these churches. Taxis are very reasonable, but be sure to settle on a price before stepping inside. Do not hail a taxi from the streets in Mexico City. Tlaltelolco (in the Plaza of Three Cultures) and the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe are not far from the zocalo (the city center), about a 15-minute taxi ride. Cuautitlán is an hour away by taxi. A warm sweater or jacket is needed during the winter months. The best time to visit Mexico (and avoid the rainy season) is between November and April.