The National Catholic Review
Timothy Matovina

The exuberant and growing devotion of U.S. Catholics to Our Lady of Guadalupe is clearly evident in the numerous congregations in San Antonio, Tex., that enthusiastically celebrate her feast on Dec. 12, including San Fernando Cathedral, where Guadalupan devotion has thrived since the parish’s foundation in 1731. For nearly three centuries, San Fernando parishioners have sought Guadalupe’s intercession for blessings and favors: abundant harvests during the days of the Spanish colonial era, protection from humiliation and ethnic prejudice after the United States annexed Texas, solace and hope as numerous Mexicans were exiled during the early 20th century, and, in all time periods, safety, employment and healings of infirmity and distress. Yet devotees also revere Guadalupe as the mother of a vast international family, a faith conviction Pope John Paul II recently affirmed in proclaiming her the patroness of one America, extending from Tierra del Fuego to the northernmost reaches of Canada. The efforts of San Fernando parish leaders to transform their congregational understanding of Guadalupe from a primarily national or ethnic symbol to the mother of a united American hemisphere is instructive for contemporary Guadalupan devotees and the prayer leaders, catechists, preachers, liturgists and other pastoral ministers who accompany them.

National Symbol

Guadalupe’s association with the struggle for Mexican independence was so pronounced that, after the outbreak of war on Sept. 16, 1810, Spanish officials in San Antonio decreed a strict curfew and curtailed festivities during the December Guadalupe feast in order to preserve this province...from the fatal destruction of the revolution [which has engulfed] certain settlements in the viceroyalty. The gaining of independence solidified Guadalupe’s place as the national symbol of Mexico, a status subsequently celebrated at San Fernando and in countless other local faith communities.

Expressions of patriotic fervor intertwined with religious devotion were especially evident during the Mexican Revolution (1910-17) and its aftermath, when as many as 100 exiled Mexican bishops and members of the clergy, along with numerous Mexican faithful, participated in Guadalupe feast-day celebrations at San Fernando. They offered Mass and other prayers for the peace and well-being of Mexico, processed through the city streets and plazas bearing Mexican flags and the banners of the various pious societies in the parish, and decorated processional torches and the cathedral itself in the green, white and red tricolors of the Mexican flag. Today there are more Mexican Americans than Mexican nationals in San Fernando’s congregation, but devotees like the recent émigré Alfredo Ramírez contend with pride that San Fernando’s ambiance and vibrant celebrations of Mexican Catholic traditions like Guadalupe make it the one place in San Antonio that’s still part of Mexico.

Recent generations of Mexican Americans have engaged Guadalupe as a protectress of their United States homeland. World War II was a critical juncture in the emergence of Mexican American identity; at San Fernando more than 1,600 parishioners served in the military, fully one-sixth of the congregation. During the war, the primary focus of Guadalupe feast-day celebrations and monthly Guadalupan devotions abruptly shifted from intercessory prayer for Mexico to pleas for victory, peace and the safety of the men on the battle fronts. The shift from Guadalupe as a symbol of Mexican nationalism to her role as a protector of Mexican American soldiers fighting for the United States continued in later conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf. Invoking Guadalupe’s aid for Mexican American soldiers does not represent a major transformation in the meaning of Guadalupan devotion, of course, but merely a shift in the nation these soldiers were defending and the extension of her maternal care to yet another familial and communal need. Though the link between Guadalupe and U.S. nationalism has never been as pronounced as her association with Mexicothe Mexican flag and tricolors still appear far more frequently at Guadalupe celebrations than those of the United Statesthe adaptability of Guadalupe as a patriotic symbol is striking.

Defender of Dignity

The engagement of Guadalupe as a symbol of national identity and protection has obvious limitations: it connects her patronage with one particular group of people and can diminish the recognition of her universal care for all. Yet in a stratified society like the United States, the pronounced link of Guadalupe with ethnic Mexicans has enabled them to express their faith and struggle for dignity through Guadalupan devotion. In the wake of the annexation of Texas by the United States in 1845, Spanish-speaking San Antonians lost majority control of the city council for the first time since its inception in 1731 and rapidly became a landless working underclass. Fear and anger over their political and economic displacement intensified their devotion on occasions like the Guadalupe feast, which included huge crowds processing through the city streets carrying candles, singing hymns, praying the rosary and firing gunshots and cannon blasts to honor their Guadalupan patroness. Despite the protestations of Protestants and other Anglo-Americans that such religious spectacles were unseemly, San Fernando devotees clamorously expressed their faith and dignity, symbolically contesting these newcomers’ presumptions of superiority. As one French priest who served in the 19th-century Southwest put it, predominantly ethnic Mexican congregations like San Fernando continued such religious traditions to unite themselves and resist, to a certain extent, the invasions of the Anglo-Saxon race.

For many San Fernando devotees, the re-enactment of Guadalupe’s apparitions to Juan Diego provides a poignant representation of their dignity as her chosen sons and daughters. First introduced into parish feast-day celebrations by early 20th-century Mexican immigrants, the practice continues to this day. True to this foundational narrative of Mexican and Mexican-American faith, the first bishop of Mexico, the Spaniard Juan de Zumárraga, is portrayed as skeptical when he first hears Juan Diego’s message that Guadalupe wants a temple built in her honor. But the doubting bishop and his scoffing assistants finally come to believe when Juan Diego drops roses, grown out of season, from his tilma (cloak) and displays the image of Guadalupe that has miraculously appeared on the rough cloth of his garment. As the repentant bishop and his assistants fall to their knees in veneration before Juan Diego’s tilma, sustained applause invariably erupts from every corner of the cathedral.

The re-enactment of Juan Diego’s humiliation and rejection resonates with the debilitating experiences of San Fernando’s predominantly working-class congregants, such as their stinging memories of the polite disdain or outright hostility they have met in their dealings with sales clerks, bosses, co-workers, teachers, police officers, health care providers, social workers, government employees, professional colleagues, and civic and church leaders. Many find solace in Guadalupe’s election of the unexpected hero Juan Diego, as well as hope in his unwavering faith and aguante (unyielding endurance). As one early 20th-century devotee remarked in acclaiming Guadalupe’s compassion for the poor and downtrodden: Because the Virgin is Indian and brown-skinned and wanted to be born in the asperity of [Juan Diego’s] rough cloakjust like Christ wanted to be born in the humility of a stableshe is identified with a suffering, mocked, deceived, victimized people. Though they recognize that their Guadalupan devotion does not eliminate the experiences of rejection and the social ills that frequently beset them, parishioners ardently attest that Guadalupe lifts them up as she did Juan Diego, strengthening them in the trials and difficulties of their daily lives. In a word, they confess that the Guadalupe narrative is trueit reveals the deep truth of their human dignity and exposes the lie of social inequalities and experiences that diminish their fundamental sense of worth.

Transformative Presence

Guadalupe’s association with human dignity, ethnic pride and group solidarityclearly the most pronounced collective meanings of public Guadalupan devotion in the history of San Fernando and many other ethnic Mexican communitieshas animated devotees to assert that her unconditional love and transformative presence prohibit all divisiveness and dehumanizing social hierarchies, even those within their own parish community. Women parishioners, for example, have noted that their longstanding role as the primary prayer leaders of the San Fernando congregation’s Guadalupan devotion has often sacralized gender-specific stereotypes in the public arena of communal worship. Their leadership in Guadalupe celebrations has tended to extend presumably feminine domestic responsibilities into ritual and symbolically linked the purity of young girls and women with Guadalupea strong communal association of virginity with feminine virtue that lacked a corresponding emphasis between young boys, men and Jesus.

At the same time, parish Guadalupe celebrations have often enabled women to exercise greater leadership and authority than they could exercise in other areas of San Antonio’s public life. Over time their autonomous authority in Guadalupan devotion enabled them to oppose presumptions of male privilege, forge bonds of sisterhood for mutual support and reimagine their lives in the home and in community activism, politics and civic affairs. Guadalupe’s power to help women forge a more just community that affirms and reveals their full humanity is reflected in the testimony of contemporary parish leaders like Esther Rodríguez, who speaks with both gratitude and challenge to her fellow parishioners when she observes: Guadalupe gives you [women] dignity to go places you haven’t been before.

Another ongoing challenge is that of counteracting the symbolic reinforcement of class distinctions among members of the congregation in Guadalupe celebrations. During the colonial and Mexican eras, town council members and other leading male citizens were official sponsors for the feast and consequently occupied prominent positions during its celebration. An account from 1840 reports the practice of conducting an evening dance for the more prominent families, who reinforced their class status by appropriating for their personal use the revered Guadalupan image adorned earlier at the parish during community-wide feast-day services. Parish leaders and congregants who have protested against such social hierarchies frequently insist that authentic devotion to Guadalupe requires egalitarianism in communal and social relations. The Rev. Arturo Molina, a Chicano activist priest and associate pastor during the 1980’s, emphatically asserted in a feast-day sermon that we cannot love Our Lady of Guadalupe unless we love the poor man Juan Diego with the commitment of our lives.

Yet another divisive element was the use of Guadalupan devotion to sharpen the antagonism between Catholics and Protestants. The Rev. Claude Marie Dubuis, a French émigré who served as pastor in San Fernando during the 1850’s, vigorously promoted Marian devotion in order to strengthen parishioners against Protestantism and against moral laxitya pastoral strategy frequently accentuated by the European clergy and religious who predominated at San Fernando over the following century. With the greater openness to non-Catholics encouraged by Vatican II, parish leaders initiated ecumenical efforts to serve communal needs and host interfaith worship like the annual citywide Thanksgiving service. However, though contemporary parishioners do not tend to invoke Guadalupe’s authority in ways that exacerbate denominational rivalries, Guadalupe feastday rituals are not nearly as ecumenical as other annual celebrations. This circumstance is no doubt due in large part to the theological barriers between Catholic understandings of Mary and those of Protestant denominations and other religious groups.

Celestial Mestiza

Guadalupe’s longstanding affirmation of parishioners’ dignity and her ongoing challenges to greater equality, unity and communal solidarity have impelled San Fernando leaders and parishioners to call for a more ample view of her maternal care and domain. During the 1950’s, the Archdiocese of San Antonio’s Catholic Council for the Spanish-Speaking initiated a diocese-wide Guadalupe celebration that encompassed three massive public processions from other parishes converging on San Fernando for an outdoor Mass, with a diverse array of participants numbering as many as 35,000. Reflecting the conviction that Guadalupe extended her patronage beyond ethnic Mexicans to other San Antonians and all peoples of the Americas, one president of the Catholic Council for the Spanish-Speaking, Albert Peña Jr., remarked before the 1958 celebration: Our Lady of Guadalupe is not the property of the Mexicans. She belongs to all the peoples of the Americas, and here in San Antonio...it is fitting that all Catholics turn out to pay special homage to the Mother of God, best known hereabouts as Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Contemporary San Fernando parish celebrations continue to put the emphasis on Guadalupe as the mother of all the Americas, a designation at times symbolically reinforced by surrounding her image with a display of the national flags for all the countries in the hemisphere. Expanding on these insights, the renowned theologian and former San Fernando rector Virgilio Elizondo proclaims that Mexican Americans are the dignified bearers of a rich mestizo (mixed-blood) heritageneither Spanish nor indigenous, neither Mexican nor North American, but a dynamic mixture of all these root cultures. Our Lady of Guadalupe, whom he describes as a mestiza, the first truly American person and as such the mother of the new generations to come, provides hope and inspiration for Mexican Americans struggling to embrace their mestizo identity as a blessing, to synthesize the richness from their parent cultures and to be transformative agents of Guadalupe’s power to harmonize diverse peoples.

Monsignor Elizondo, his successor, Father David García, and other parish leaders attest that the San Fernando congregation has yet to live out fully this mission of mestizaje. Yet they assert that Guadalupe’s unifying and transformative power has been entrusted to her followers and that the urgent call to enact her message in their own faith community and in the wider society is the major challenge today for San Fernando devotees. Parish leaders’ vision of San Fernando as the soul of their city animated the recent City Centre Capital Campaign, which exceeded its $15 million fundraising goal to finance a three-phase project: the repair and restoration of the church edifice, the construction of a community center to house parish and social service agency outreach programs, and a new cathedral center with facilities like a museum, gift shop, cafeteria and counseling rooms. Business and civic leaders, Catholics and adherents of other faiths, corporate and individual donors, and people from throughout the city and all walks of life have assisted in the project, revealing the San Fernando congregation’s capacity to unite San Antonians in a common cause like the spiritual and physical renewal of the city’s urban core.

Patroness of América

The limitations and possibilities of the San Fernando congregation and its Guadalupan devotion illustrate the frequent tension between the universal and the particular in religious traditionsin this case Guadalupe’s universal love for all people and her particular concern for Mexico and ethnic Mexicans. In many ways the San Fernando community’s long journey and efforts to expand Guadalupe from a national to a universal symbol is still only beginning. As parish leaders themselves attest, their faith community needs continual and ongoing conversion to live and proclaim authentically Guadalupe’s unifying message. Nonetheless, as U.S. Catholics of all racial and ethnic groups continue to face the challenge to be authentically Catholic in America, as well as the urgent task of helping make our sole-superpower nation a greater instrument of peace in a fragmented world, Guadalupe’s hope, promise and challenge are among the greatest treasures Hispanic faith offers to the church and society of the United States.

Timothy Matovina is associate professor of theology and director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. Research for this article stems from his work on a book about Guadalupan devotion (forthcom