How Our Lady of Guadalupe Miraculously Fulfilled a Prophecy

Indigenous storytelling traditions heralded the mass conversion that followed St. Juan Diego’s encounter with Mary.

Our Lady of Guadalupe image as appeared on the tilma of Juan Diego.
Our Lady of Guadalupe image as appeared on the tilma of Juan Diego. (photo: Courtesy photo / Adobe Stock)

Guadalupe and the Flower World Prophecy: How God Prepared the Americas for Conversion Before the Lady Appeared

By Joseph Julián González and Monique González

Sophia Institute Press, 2023

249 pages, $18.95

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Within 10 years of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s appearance to a peasant, Juan Diego, on a hilltop near Mexico City in 1531, between 9 and 10 million of his fellow Indigenous people, hitherto adamantly polytheistic and suspicious of the conquering Spaniards’ religion, converted to the Catholic faith. The credit for this mass conversion, the largest in history, usually goes to the striking image of Our Lady. Indigenous in appearance herself, she miraculously appeared on Juan Diego’s tilma, or cloak, on Dec. 12, 1531, an anniversary celebrated in the Americas as her feast day.

But, in fact, few of the new converts, many of whom had walked for days through rough terrain to receive baptism and other sacraments from a handful of scattered Spanish missionary priests, ever saw the tilma, then lodged in a hastily built chapel on Tepeyac Hill, where Juan Diego had experienced his visions. 

Why did they suddenly embrace the faith? Guadalupe and the Flower World Prophecy offers a compelling answer to that question.

The husband-and-wife authors argue that it was actually the story of Juan Diego’s encounters with Our Lady over four December days that moved those millions to conversion. It was a story told — or rather, sung, they believe — in Nahuatl, the language of the Nahua people (including the group we now know as the Aztecs), who had settled in central Mexico during the centuries preceding Hernán Cortés’ conquest of the area in 1519. Nahuatl was Juan Diego’s only language (he spoke no Spanish). The story traveled far — quickly — because the Nahua had a long and vibrant tradition of storytelling through song, dance and musical instruments, and they trained their children, as the Spanish colonists documented, in singing and memorization.

Many of the Franciscan friars who came to Mexico as missionaries learned Nahuatl and transcribed and preserved dozens of those song-poems over the decades. The Gonzálezes discovered that nearly identical texts of the same song would appear in documents produced by the friars in different regions at different times, testifying to the distances the songs traveled and to the Nahua skill at memorization.

Furthermore, the first detailed account of Mary’s appearances at Tepeyac, preserved in a Nahuatl-language prose text called the Nican Mopohua (“Here It Is Told”) recorded in 1649 by a priest, Father Luis Lasso de la Vega, is filled with details and images — shimmering colors, brilliantly-hued birds singing exquisite melodies, and, above all, fragrant and shining flowers — that corresponded exactly to the mythic paradise of pagan Nahua spiritual tradition, the “Flower World,” or Xochitlalpan. Indeed, Mary tells Juan Diego to gather some of the flowers abloom on the hill despite the December frost and deliver them to the bishop of Mexico City. When the flowers tumble out of his tilma, the Guadalupe image reveals itself.

The theory of the Flower World is relatively recent in studies of pre-Conquest Mesoamerican culture. Typically, historians have studied the movements of peoples and the rise and fall of political entities, while archaeologists studied material remains and literary scholars the writings produced by literate cultures. But, in 1992, Jane Hill, a longtime professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona, published a groundbreaking paper in the Journal of Anthropological Research titled “The Flower World of Old Uto-Aztecan.” In the paper, she noted the frequency with which flower motifs have appeared in a huge range of Indigenous non-Christian cultures stretching from the American Southwest to Central America.

The flower references are accompanied by “chromaticism” — the use of and references to rainbows, hummingbirds, shells, colorful insects and other brilliant, iridescent colors — and are often associated with song. Hill argued that such motifs “must represent a very ancient level of religious thought,” and she sought to link flower-related motifs to Indigenous people’s attempts to access a “spirit world” of beauty and immortality just beyond this one. Hill's writings have inspired a large body of scholarship that finds symbolic meaning in the floral themes that are ubiquitous in Indigenous visual art and poetry.

For example, Juan Diego’s narrated experiences in the Nican Mopohua have a parallel in one of the Nahuatl song-poems, the Cuicapeuhcayotl (“Origin of Songs”), transcribed by the friar Bernardino de Sahagún in about 1560 as part of a large collection known as the Cantares Mexicanos. Some 28 of the Cantares’ 91 poems contain Flower World motifs. In the Cuicapeuhcayotl, the singer relates his journey to a paradise of shimmering melodies and of flowers that he collects, like Juan Diego, in his tilma — except that the experience seems to be a dream and the flowers, sadly, disappear. But the details are so similar, down to the names of the sweet-singing birds, that some scholars have argued that the 17th-century author of the Nican Mopohua simply copied parts of the Cuicapeuhcayotl to fabricate the Guadalupe story out of whole cloth.

The Gonzálezes argue the opposite: that both Juan Diego and his Indigenous contemporaries knew the Cuicapeuhcayotl, or poems like it, and that Juan Diego’s story of an encounter with the Blessed Mother — complete with flowers — set in a world of transformative spiritual experience that they knew well, resonated powerfully. The Cuicapeuhcayotl was for them a prophecy and Mary’s appearance its fulfillment that made their long-imagined paradise suddenly immanent and accessible. The Gonzálezes believe that Juan Diego’s experiences themselves became the subject of a song-poem, now lost, that became a source of the Nican Mopohua. “It was the story itself, the encounter with the Flower World and the mythic power of [Juan Diego’s] hero’s journey, that converted those millions of people,” Joseph González said in a phone interview.

Although Guadalupe and the Flower World Prophecy is an impressive piece of amply footnoted research with an extensive bibliography, neither González is a professional scholar. Joseph González is a composer with a long résumé in film and television; Monique González is a singer. Joseph has had a lifelong fascination with pre-Conquest Mexican culture. During the early 1990s he composed Misa Azteca, an oratorio that combines elements of the Mass with traditional Aztec rhythms and instruments, and he has written a haunting choral arrangement of the Cuicapeuhcayotl. Although baptized a Catholic, he had let his faith lapse, and his familiarity with the Cuicapeuhcayotl had convinced him that the Guadalupe event was a pious hoax. But, in 2008, he returned to the Church, and in 2009, he and Monique, a convert to Catholicism and devotee of Our Lady of Guadalupe, married.

The two embarked on what Monique described over the phone as a “14-year wonderful journey” to make sense of the parallels in the legend and the Marian apparition, by researching everything they could about the religious world of Juan Diego’s pre-Christian ancestors and its relation to his visions. It was a time not long after Juan Diego’s 2002 canonization by Pope John Paul II, when skeptics were trying to debunk Our Lady of Guadalupe.

But the Gonzálezes point in their book to such tiny details as a quatrefoil flower on Mary’s gown just above her womb as a common pre-Conquest artistic motif symbolizing the four directions with a center pointing to the sky world of the spirit to bolster evidence for the apparition.

Guadalupe and the Flower World Prophecy is an unabashed product of faith. The Gonzálezes write that the Flower World of pre-Conquest spirituality was God’s providential way of preparing its peoples to accept Christianity, just as the early Christians “noted how the ancient Greek world developed in exactly the right ways at exactly the right time to receive the revelation of Jesus Christ.” But even religious nonbelievers will be impressed by the Gonzálezes’ ability to offer a compelling anthropological argument for the unprecedented wave of Christian conversions during St. Juan Diego’s lifetime.

Charlotte Allen has a law degree and a Ph.D. in medieval studies. She is literary editor of Catholic Arts Today and a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Quillette, and Epoch Times.