The welcoming Virgin above the portal of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles (sculpture by Robert Graham).
She is reaching out her arms tonight;
Lord, my poverty is real:
I pray roses shall rain down again
from Guadalupe on her hill.
Who am I to doubt these mysteries,
cured in centuries of blood and candle smoke?
I am the least of all your pilgrims here,
but I am most in need of hope.
–– Tom Russell, “Guadalupe”
We entered the old adobe mission by starlight, hours before dawn. The church was packed with countless worshippers, celebrating mass for the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe. After the final blessing, we all kept our places, anticipating the mystery play to come––an Advent tradition performed by El Teatro Campesino, an acting troupe whose roots go back to the fields of central California. Founded by Luis Valdez (“Zoot Suit”) in the 1960s, they performed guerilla theater during protests by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, and over the years they have continued to develop community-based theater. Now, in the 18th-century church of San Juan Bautista, they were about to perform La Virgen del Tepeyac.
It began with a thunder of drums. Dozens of players in Aztec regalia danced up the aisle, casting huge shadows on the walls of the nave. But their celebration would soon give way to a darker theme: the subjugation of Mexico’s indigenous people by Spanish conquistadores and friars. Aztec costumes were replaced by peasant garb, Franciscan robes and Spanish armor, and the native people were baptized into a new faith––submitting to the grievous inequities of the culture that imposed it. As the play proceeded, the audience took the side of the oppressed, and waited anxiously for God to do the same.
Countless millions throughout the Americas know what happened next. In December of 1531, on a barren hill in a place called Guadalupe, the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego, an Aztec Christian convert. Speaking in his native language, she told him to deliver a message to the bishop: He must build a church not for the rich and powerful, but for the poor and the oppressed.
Juan Diego managed to get an audience with the prelate, but it did not go well. The message was absurd, and the messenger even more so. Would God choose a lowly peasant for divine revelation? Mary’s humble ambassador was quickly shown the exit. Nevertheless, spurred on by more visitations from the Virgin, Juan Diego pressed the message entrusted to him. Exasperated, the bishop demanded a miraculous proof, thinking that would end the matter.
In her final appearance, Mary told Juan Diego to return to that hill one more time. When he reached the summit, he found the barren ground covered with roses––in December! He gathered as many as his cloak could hold, and took them to the episcopal palace. When he poured the roses out at the feet of the astonished bishop, the Virgin’s image was revealed, imprinted on Juan Diego’s cloak.
The roses and the image were the stuff of miracles, but even more miraculous was the dignity accorded Juan Diego and all the indigenous poor by the Queen of Heaven. The story quickly spread, and the Virgin of Guadalupe became the patron saint of the Americas. The famous image of the brown-skinned mother of Jesus has become a ubiquitous sign of the God who raises up the poor and lowly, who works miracles in unexpected places.
On this feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, so many people in the Americas continue to suffer from the horrific cruelties of ruthless oppressors and unjust systems. Tragically, the United States government, polluted by white nationalism, has become one of the more notorious offenders. Juan Diego’s successors once again sit in darkness and the shadow of death. Let us pray that Guadalupe’s roses may rain down again upon the barren hills of a heartless world.
I saw El Teatro Campesino’s play twenty years ago, but its conclusion offered an image of grace which has never left me. When the play was over, the whole cast processed down the aisle, singing together as they walked. Actors who had played the oppressors went arm in arm with those who had played the peasants. The people who had been on opposite sides––the lions and lambs of a tragic history––now shared a joyful song, as if they were marching together into God’s redemptive future.
The great doors of the church swung open, and the light of the rising sun flooded into the dark interior like water through a bursting dam. Just outside, the cast turned and stopped, forming a corridor for the audience to pass through. As we made our way into the brilliance of morning, it seemed like the gate of heaven––all those shining brown faces, blessing us with smiles and singing.
And I thought: This is how history will end. Neither a bang nor a whimper, but a song.
Here is one of the Virgin’s appearances to Juan Diego in El Teatro Campesino’s La Virgen del Tepeyac.