Today, December 12, is the worldwide Day of The Vírgen de Guadalupe, with Catholic celebrations and feasts held worldwide in honor of the legendary appearance of the Virgin Mary to Juan Diego, an indigenous man in what is now modern-day Mexico, in 1541.
My father, Nelson P. Valdes, is a retired professor emeritus whose fields are sociology and history with an area of specialization being Latin America. He further specialized in the nation of Cuba, where he was born, and the present-day U.S. state of New Mexico, to which he came at the age of 15 and where his first wife (my mother) has roots going back at least 13 generations.
When I was growing up, my father taught me about the concept of syncretism, which is when one group of people, being pressured to convert to a new religion by an invading/conquering group, will often find ingenious ways to "convert" on the surface whilst secretly maintaining their previous beliefs. Syncretism is a complex process that is partly the results of "conquered" peoples finding ingenious ways to continue their original spiritual and cultural practices "in secret," but part of it is also the "conquerer" utilizing existing beliefs among the people they wish to subjugate, as a bridge to the new religion and culture. Without fail, what transpires over time is a melding of the two traditions into a new one that usually retains the name of the conquerer's faith but has absorbed the spirit and culture of the conquered. As generations pass, few remember how or where the new traditions arose, and the new culture carries on.
The miraculous appearance of La Vírgen de Guadalupe was likely an act of syncretism, whereby the Aztecs (and all the non-Aztec peoples they themselves had conquered before the arrival of the Spaniards) could retain, in a new form, their worship of the goddess Tonantzín. Tonantzín is Mother Earth, the bringer of sustenance, she who makes corn grow and humanity's most honored grandmother in a spiritual and cultural tradition that is and was matrilineal.
A similar Marian appearance is said to have occurred off the coast of Cuba on May 3, 1597, when three men enslaved by Spain (two of them indigenous Arawak and one of them African, all of them named Juan and collectively recalled as Los Tres Juanes, or The Three Juans) were saved from a storm at sea by The Virgin Mary. She is known as Our Lady of Charity in English or La Vírgen de la Caridad del Cobre in Spanish. She is the patron of Cuba and the Cuban diaspora, and is celebrated on September 8th.
Here in New Mexico today, Feast Days are being held at Jemez Pueblo and Pojoaque Pueblo in honor of La Vírgen de Guadalupe. How, you might wonder, did the syncretized Aztec goddess end up being celebrated by people 1500 miles north of where she was initially worshipped? The answer to this question is a lesson in inclusion, diversity, and kindness.
The Spanish colonists of this land named La Provincia de Nuevo Mexico in the 1600s brought with them several hundred mercenaries (likely enslaved or in indentured servitude) people from the area of Mexico City. Those people were the Nahua Tlaxcaltecs, part of the former united Tlaxcaltec empire which brought together three mesoamerican nations - the Aztec, Otomi and Pinome. These Nahua people were used by Spaniards as fighters, but also as translators and cultural emissaries, as the Tewa, Tiwa, Towa, Keresan, Dine and other people of what's now New Mexico had been trading with these nations to the south for centuries.
Puebloan culture is one that emphasizes kindness, respect, relativity (tolerance for differences), hospitality and generosity. When confronted with Spanish invaders (and their Nahua supports), the puebloan people did not resist or fight so much as they thoughtfully and considerately attempted to incorporate and accommodate the new beliefs, both Catholic and Aztec, with the idea being that just as there were many words in different languages to describe the same things, there could also be many ways of worshiping the Creator. And just as a person might view learning a new language as expanding one's ability to express oneself, adopting new spiritual rituals and beliefs was seen as expanding one's spiritual repertoire. The problems arose when the Spanish Catholics, who were not tolerant of diverse ideologies and rituals, insisted that puebloan people abandon their old ways as "demonic" and insisted the ancient ceremonies were "witchcraft." (The Pueblo Revolt comes about only after the Spanish publicly flog 46 puebloan spiritual leaders, and execute many of them, for the crime of witchcraft in 1675.)
Among the dances that will be performed in celebration of La Vírgen de Guadalupe at the pueblos today will be a dance called Los Matachines. While dances by the same name are performed in South America, Central America and North America (Mexico is in North America btw), here in New Mexico the dance takes on a flavor all its own, as you can see from this wonderful video about it, featuring the wisdom of New Mexico folklorist, Enrique Lamadrid.