Saint of the Day – St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin
December 9 is the feast day of St. Juan Diego (1474-1548), who was born Cuauhtlatoatzin (kwah-oot-laht-oh-ahtzin) – Talking Eagle. St. Juan Diego was the first Native American to be declared a saint – on July 31, 2002, – by Pope John Paul II on his visit to Mexico City. The Pope declared him protector of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and reminded the thousands who gathered of their responsibility to promote social justice and equality for their oppressed and marginalized brothers and sisters.
Juan Diego was a member of the Chichimeca nation, in the Anahuac Valley, near Tenochitlán – present day Mexico City. He was a landowner, farmer and weaver of mats, and a married man. He was 47 when he witnessed the conquest of Tenochitlán by Hernán Cortez in 1521. He and his wife were baptized in 1524 or 1525 by the first missionaries, who were Franciscans. He took the baptismal name of Juan Diego and his wife’s baptismal name was María Lucía. A few years later, María Lucía became ill and died.
On Sunday, December 9, 1531, while he was walking to Mass, he saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary on the hill of Tepeyac. Our Lady of Tepeyac would become known more widely as Our Lady of Guadalupe, because of the similarity of the dark complexioned Virgins in both Tepeyac and Guadalupe in Spain.
St. Juan Diego spent the rest of his life as a hermit and caretaker of the chapel which had been built on the hill of Tepeyac after the apparition, at the request of the Lady. The Virgin Mary appeared as a Native American to a Native American Christian. The impact on the vast indigenous population and the Spanish conquerors was stunning. Not only did this apparition mark the beginning of massive conversions, it was also the beginning of the Great Mixing – El Gran Mestizaje – the creation of a new uniquely Mexican ethnic group, blending Europeans and the indigenous peoples.
While it would be nice to give this post a Hollywood ending by enlarging the camera angle from the Indian kneeling before the Virgin Mary and panning to a sweeping vista of sunrise over the great volcanoes surrounding Mexico City, we really should not. St. Juan Diego’s life was a very gritty reality. The death of his wife and millions of other native people from European conquest and disease was another layer of bitter sadness laid on top of the hardships of being subject to the Aztecs. St. Juan Diego saw everything he knew and understood swept away before his eyes – something that later generations of Mexicans would also experience more than once.
He appears to be one of the few saints who tried to avoid The Lady he knew was waiting for him, because his uncle was very ill and he needed to get a priest for his uncle before he died. Instead, she met him as he tried to get around the hill of Tepeyac. The Lady reassured him that his uncle would be okay and that he should just trust in her. He did, and as they say, the rest is history – the history of a new day for a vanquished people.