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Mexico City’s Basilica of Guadalupe

Photo: Entrance (Some rights reserved)

Mexico City – The Basilica of Guadalupe is home to one of Mexico’s most familiar cultural icons. Less known is that the grounds of the Basilica comprise the Tepeyac National Park, part of the Sierra de Guadalupe.

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December 12 is the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe (Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe), a popular Catholic feast day that celebrates the belief Juan Diego encountered the Virgin Mary, Mexico’s patron saint, in Mexico City on December 9 and 12, 1531.

While the historical accuracy of the story is debated, the phenomenal popularity of the Virgin of Guadalupe cannot be disputed. The shrine receives 10-20 million visitors a year — several thousand each day — some of whom travel the last few hundred meters on their knees.

The cathedral is built on Tepeyac, a hill north of downtown Mexico City. This is also the former site of the temple of Tonantzin, the Aztec fertility goddess. If you’re keen on earth-friendly spirituality, this is a notable place to visit.

The story is that in the winter of 1531 a vision of the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego, an Indigenous farmer and recent convert to Christianity, who was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002.

These appearances took place 10 years after the Spanish defeated the Aztecs. The grand city of Tenochtitlán was left in disarray. Juan Diego, born in 1474, participated in Aztec ceremonies and witnessed the collapse of his civilization. What is important in the story is that Mary appears not to the Spanish conquistadores, but to the Mexicans. And it is to Juan Diego, a poor farmer, who she requests a church be built on this hillside, sacred to the Aztecs.

Mary asked Juan Diego to climb the hill where he would find special proof of the divine appearance to take to the Bishop. On top of the hill, Juan Diego surprisingly found flowers, in spite of the winter frost. He picked them up and bundled them inside his cloak. When he went to the Bishop’s house to give him the flowers, another surprise was in store. The image of the Virgin Mary appeared on the inside of his cloak, or tilma. This is the portrait that hangs in the Basilica.

The image of La Virgen is a woman with dark skin with an angel at her feet.   Mary stands on a crescent moon and is silhouetted by the rays of the sun – symbols of the Aztec gods. She is also pregnant, signified by the black cord around her waist. While contemporary viewers may see her folded hands as a sign of prayer – this was the Indigenous symbol of gift giving.

This image resonated throughout Mexico and the Americas. Guadalupe shrines shine around the globe.

The popularity of the Virgin of Guadalupe was incorporated in Mexico’s nation building. Padre Miguel Hidalgo — the founding father of the independence movement — brandished the banner in his military campaigns in 1810-11 as did Emiliano Zapata’s troops in the 1910-20 revolution.

There have been a number of Basilicas constructed on the site. The oldest existing chapel is located up the hill.

The newest structure opened its doors in 1976 and was designed by architect Pedro Ramirez Vasquez, who also created the Azteca Stadium. The Basilica’s circular floorplan allows visitors to see the image of the Virgin from any point within the building. The image of the Virgin is hung above moving walkways that carry the visitors back and forth in front of it.

Today, the Basilica of Guadalupe draws 1 million people on pilgrimage to La Villa every December and is second only to the Vatican as the most popular Catholic attraction in the world.

Location — The Basilica is located in Mexico City’s La Villa neighborhood.

Transportation — Take the metro line #3 from downtown to Deportivo 18 de Marzo. Change to line #3 in the direction ‘Martin Carrera’ and exit at the Villa-Basilica station and walk two blocks north along Calzada de Guadalupe. You can also catch the microbus on the south side of Reforma, west of the Auditorio Metro. Look for the microbus labeled ‘Villa.’

Dates to observe … or avoid — Unless you like big crowds, avoid the church on December 12th when hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visit. If you love music, visit November 22nd when thousands of mariachis arrive to honor Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music.

Responsible Travel — Those entering the sanctuaries should be respectful of those who are worshiping. Flash photography is NOT permitted in most churches and sometimes tripods are prohibited. It’s best to dress appropriately — no shorts and please remove your hat. If you have a cell phone or smartphone, turn it off. (Favor de apagar su celular o smartphone.)

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