Director Jesús Manuel Muñoz analyses the importance of the Virgin of Guadalupe as an icon that will continue to unite Mexicans.

By: Eduardo Gutiérrez Segura

Mexicos first flag during the beginning of its struggle for independence - when it was still New Spain - was precisely an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which led the armies of the priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, while fighting for national freedom.

On December 9, 1531, the apparitions of Saint Mary of Guadalupe began on the hill of Tepeyac, a little more than a decade after the Spanish conquest of the territory, but it was not until 1649, with the publication by Luis Lasso de la Vega of the Nican Mopohua, written in Nahuatl by Antonio Valeriano, that the "miracle" was made public.

A silence of almost 100 years

It took 96 years after the encounter between Juan Diego and the Virgin of Guadalupe for Valeriano's text to be published, so the director Jesús Manuel Muñoz asked himself the question: How necessary was the Guadalupan miracle for the evangelisation of New Spain?

To answer that question, he embarked on the adventure of filming the documentary "Tonantzin- Guadalupe: the making a nation", in which, without questioning the veracity or otherwise of the apparitions at Tepeyac, he analyses the significance of the Marian figure for (Mexicos) national identity and unity.

"We can't ignore that spirituality has been present throughout the history of humanity, even reaching the mystical (...) I tried to give voice to scientific reality, relying on the best historians on the subject in Mexico, and for the spiritual reality, we interviewed several believers," Muñoz explained to Chilango.

To achieve this portrait from a mystical perspective, the filmmaker followed several cyclists who every year on December 12 visit the Basilica to see how they practice their faith, all spun with an artistic narrative, in which Jesús wanted to highlight the period of silence of almost a hundred years.

"One thing that led me to reflect a lot is that historians think that the Nican Mopohua, most likely, is a play; that doesn't mean that the Virgin didn't appear, simply that whoever wrote it did it in a mystery play format.

"I tried to make it (the documentary) respecting believers, honouring their faith and (at the same time) the veracity of the texts 100 percent", said Jesús Manuel, who also accepted that the Virgin of Guadalupe is "one of the strongest elements of unity that we have, as a culture and a country".

Muñoz insisted that one of his major research efforts examined the widespread idea that the Virgin of Guadalupe made a decisive contribution to the evangelisation of the native peoples, but detailed in his documentary that this was not necessarily the case.

"Because of the early non existence of the story of the apparitions there is a lot of prejudice, people think that (the genesis of) the Virgin was to deceive the indigenous people, but I don't think that's the case because when the Church decided to promote the cult, publish the Nican Mopohua and venerate the image of Tepeyac, the whole population was already Christianised", explained Jesús Manuel.

With that premise in mind, Muñoz investigated why the Church decided to publish the Nican Mopohua and in Nahuatl; the answer he found is that it was presented in a native language because the text was based on another one that was written 100 years earlier, during the evangelising theatre movement of the 16th century.

"At that time New Spain was trying to establish that here they were not second-rate lands, but that they were important in relation to the Iberian Peninsula, although even the Creoles (of European descent born in the Americas) were considered second-rate, therefore (the Virgin) begins to be that seed of Novo-Hispanic patriotism that ends up blending into the religious.

"But it distinguishes itself, to such a degree, that it ends up being part of that patriotism that culminates in Mexico's Independence, so much so that our first flag, that of Hidalgo, is the Virgin of Guadalupe... (the image) has been handed down for so many years, under different perspectives and uses, giving it a very strong power that ended up uniting us," Jesús Manuel added.

In this investigation, Muñoz was also able to confirm that Mexican Catholicism is very different from any other in the world, one of the elements that differentiates it is precisely the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which the filmmaker believes is not in danger of disappearing, despite the secularism that has taken hold of the world in recent times.

"I like the fact that Catholicism here is different from Catholicism in Europe. Survey studies from the last 100 years to see how secular or religious society is in different cultures, show all of them have become increasingly secular. In the case of Mexico, it is likely that within Catholicism there is a push towards secularism among young people," the director said.

However, in the case of the cult of Tonantzin-Guadalupe, he did not consider it to be at risk. "Another thing that is happening in Mexico is that more and more recognition is being given to the native peoples, more importance is being given to their culture; with this development and the current political landscape, being Guadalupano will only become stronger," he said.

"On the one hand comes secularism and on the other the Guadalupano, which goes beyond Catholicism, so it seems to me that this is an opportunity for the Church to strengthen its permanence by joining in this recognition of the native cultures. I would have to bet that the cult of the Virgin will continue to grow", he concluded.