Mary Beth Writes


On December 12 in 1531 Our Lady of Guadalupe was recognized by Archbishop Juan de Zumarraga of New Spain aka Mexico as having appeared to a guy named Juan Diego who was, at that moment in time, an extrememly unimportant Chichimec/Aztec indigenous man.

Guadalupe had appeared to Juan Diego two days earlier on the side of a hill in Tepeyac, a place associated in Aztec culture with a powerful female figures. JD then went to Archbishop Z to tell him that he had witnessed Our Lady and she had instructed him that they should build a church to honor her on that site. The archbishop was skeptical and told Juan Diego to go back and get a sign from her.

Do we know this powerful white guy? Tell him a miracle is happening now in his own neighborhood and what does he want? More bankable miracle collateral before he invests in Real Estate. Why didn’t he just walk out with Juan Diego?

Juan Diego does meet Guadalupe again but then his uncle gets super sick so he goes to get a priest to say blessings over Uncle Juan Bernadino (I didn’t even go to some of my uncle’s funerals) instead of going to straight to Archbishop Z with updated vision news.

Guadalupe finds him and asks a powerful question which will be interpreted in so many ways by so many people in the coming centuries. "Am I not here, I who am your mother?"

Guadalupe tells Juan Diego to pick the flowers on top of the hill where they first met. Keep in mind it’s the middle of December which is a grey and chilly time even in central Mexico. JD walks up the path to the top of the hill and it's blooming with beautiful red flowers that he does not know. He picks them, puts them under his cloak, and walks back to Archbishop Z. He opens his cloak and the amazing flowers tumble out. Zumarraga recognizes them because they are the Castilian roses he knew as a boy growing up in Castile. Also inside Juan Diego’s humble cloak is now an image of Our Lady.

Thus begins one of the best stories of the Western Hemisphere. Mary appeared to an indigenous person, talked to him in his own language to tell him she is his mother and then seals the deal, not with power and swords and threats, but with roses in December.

Did this really happen? Yes, although probably not exactly as the story comes down to us. The story must navigate the powerful wrangling messages of Dominicans and Franciscans whose mission is to both Christianize and enslave the population, They will skew the story to those two ends. Archbishop Z was a prolific writer in his time, yet he never mentions this event. Curious. 

There are lots of fascinating details to this story, including that probably the first time this event is mentioned is in a 1556 document that is now owned by the New York Public Library who bought it in 1885. Cultural appropriation much?


Most of us know recognize this story, even those, like me, who are not a bit Catholic.

Years ago, on a hot summer evening I met neighbors who were outside their apartment, sitting on their kitchen chairs, chatting in Spanish. As I walked by their little boy responded to my smile by asking if I’d like some fresh strawberry juice. It was delicious.

There were other charming interactions and that year December 12th fell on a blizzardly Sunday. Len and I went to church where there was a big bouquet of roses that church members were supposed to take home. However, few people showed up because of the snow so Len and I took lots of the flowers. Back home I carried them to our Mexican neighbors and every single year since we have received homemade tamales on Christmas eve.

Which is how Our Lady of Guadalupe appears to me every year.

There are two things you can do with a miracle if you encounter one.

You can stamp it as officially authentic because of course, judging someone else’s miracle is your business. You can argue like the Dominicans and Franciscans who exploited the narrative to determine who was saved and who wasn’t. They then used the power of threatened eternal damnation to terrorize and enslave. Not every Catholic missionary did this but the powerful ones did.

Or you can witness something unexpected, beautiful, weird, and loving and just remain who you are - a witness. Someone who experiences something surprising such as a woman with roses. Or a kid with strawberry juice. Or smiling people at the door with tamales.

A witnessed miracle inspires you to create such as writing about what you saw. Or building something to honor that place and time. Painting, dreaming, taking a friend for a ride to look at lights. Fixing something that was broken, singing, baking cookies to give to people you already love and maybe to people you barely know.

Take what’s given and use it to be an authority? Or experience a  surprising moment and be a witness to it for as long as its love and power lasts.

I wasn’t going to write about Christmas this year but I guess I just did.

Roses growing in Guatemala in February. 



Leonard's picture

One of the things I like about your writing is the way you take something that everyone knows and you look at it from the other side. Like Christmas. I always thought of Christmas as a gift, just like the gifts you get from your parents. But it’s also something to witness, looking at Christmas trees and tacky inflatables. It’s one of those things, like Heisenberg’s electrons, that are changed when we look at them. Christmas was was Juan Diego saw in the bed of roses, that was Christmas that year. We make Christmas every time we celebrate it, and then we pack it up until we take it down from the attic and set it up to re-invent it the next year.

Christmas when someone folds you into their family activities on Christmas Eve because they know you are alone for the evening. They don't make you feel sorry for yourself, they just make you feel comfortable and loved :) Merry Christmas!!
Mary Beth's picture

Thanks. I felt sorry sometimes that our kids didn't have more close and warm and available aunts and uncles, but then they did.

friends that turn into family are some of life's treasures for sure

"Christmas is something to be witnesses." Oh, Yes! Your writing ( and Len's comments) always stir emotions in me. Thank you. Patricia
Mary Beth's picture

And your (and others') comments give me oomph for the writing ahead. Thank you.

I had a student named Juan Diego a few years ago. Every December 12, his parents dressed him as Juan Diego from the story.
Mary Beth's picture

Wow, he is going to have some karma and/or trauma to build his life on and around! The kid in the cloak with the Mother of the Universe inside it...

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