In Mexico you can be an atheist, but always a Guadalupan. From the Marian invocations of the Catholic religion to the underground cult of pre-Hispanic deities, from the patron saint of a neighbourhood to the continental title of Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas, the Virgin of Guadalupe condenses deep-rooted symbols of Mexican identity: the indigenous, the mestizo, the Creole (t/n: of European descent born in a Spanish American colony). Its image and story are so powerful that it is almost impossible, even bordering on the blasphemous, to attempt to analyse or deconstruct them. 

In his documentary, Tonantzin Guadalupe, Jesús Muñoz attempts this by scrutinizing different aspects of the Guadalupan myth. He visits the Basilica, markets, recognises it in the hills of Oaxaca or in poor neighbourhoods. And he goes further: he prowls the mysteries of the canonical account of the ‘Nican mopohua’, which sets the story of Juan Diego and the apparitions, and its untimely dissemination, which could cast doubt on such event at Tepeyac Hill. 

From within the confines of this polemic, Muñoz undertakes a bold and complex exercise: to propose the Virgin of Guadalupe, her depiction, and her story, as a first moment in the construction of Mexican identity. From iconography, literature, and film, he explores various possibilities of the Guadalupan. And he creates an alternative narrative which at no time ceases to be moving: Guadalupe alludes to those who were there, to those who arrived, to those who were the offspring of that other uncertain moment of chiaroscuros: the Conquest, the evangelisation, the shaping of the country. 

Tonantzin Guadalupe was supported by Eficine Producción and is part of the Made in Mexico section of DocsMX 18. 

How did you decide to approach the subject of the Virgin of Guadalupe? 

It all started about 30 years ago, when I read an article by Carlos Castillo Peraza about the Virgin of Guadalupe in Extremadura and her similarities with the Mexican Virgin. I was 24 years old and I asked myself: "How is it possible that I didn't know about this? So I found a subject that needed to be explored in depth. 

I learned that this topic had been central to Mexican historians since the 19th century. However, their work had not been adequately disseminated due to the sensitive nature of the subject. Some historians who explored and published on it were harassed and even expelled from Mexico. Important work existed and I set out to bring it to light. 

I identify you as a director of polemics. In ‘A philosopher in the arena’ you take part in debates about bullfighting. Here you address issues such as mestizaje, indigenous and Creole identity, 

which is now at the centre of many discussions, and in which the Virgin of Guadalupe is crucial. How do you balance the different perspectives in these conversations? 

My approach tends to be more in line with Anglo-Saxon documentary than European documentary, which tends to be more contemplative. My aim in dealing with controversial and complex issues is to present a nuanced perspective, which encourages constructive dialogue. 

Our main condition was to not disrespect the sensibilities of believers. I have no religious beliefs, but I recognise that spirituality is an important part of the human experience. So, I think it is important to respect that. In that context, we also agreed on another rule. When I started reading what historians had published, I noticed something intriguing: the apparitions, the story we know about Juan Diego and Tepeyac, the roses and the tunic, are said to have happened in 1531. But the first document mentioning this account, the ‘Nican mopohua’, does not appear until 1648. There are 117 years without any record of the apparitions. 

I found this gap impossible to ignore. Historians debate it. The subject is so broad, with almost 500 years of history and many political implications, that we decided to focus on this period of silence. So, I focused on the perspective of Dr. Gisela von Wobeser and Dr. Rodrigo Martínez Baracs, who have been very clever in avoiding the controversy over whether the apparitions occurred or not, and have focused on disclosing what is known for certain. 

Why did it take 117 years for the account of the apparitions to appear, and why was it in Nahuatl? What happened at that time? This is where the thesis of the documentary, which focuses on the concept of identity, took shape. In this clash of cultures, the Virgin of Guadalupe was the first genuinely Mexican thing, regardless of whether her apparition was real. This is why it happened at that time and why Nahuatl was used. 

This happened because the 17th century Novo-Hispanics no longer felt peninsular; they sought to create their own nation. Announcing that the Mother of God had appeared in New Spain gave them something to be proud of. Consequently, the Virgin of Guadalupe has become one of the most significant factors of Mexican identity, whether you are Catholic or not. In that sense, we are all guadalupanos, no longer from a religious perspective. This is what we explore in the documentary. We want to underline the importance of identity formation. 

I think the incorporation of the Mixe community in Tonantzin Guadalupe is important. It must be one of the most significant parts of the documentary. 

From an ethnographic perspective, this is the most important part. One of the producers, Marion d'Ornano, has excellent connections in the Mixe community, having previously worked on another film in that area. She put me in touch with the Mixe community. 

It took place in the mountains, in the upper part of the community. It was the first time this ceremony was filmed in a documentary. It was a real team effort, where each member contributed their part and we managed to put all the pieces together. In this sense, I must greatly appreciate the efforts of Marion, who also connected me with Yohualli López. 

Near the end you compare the ‘Nican mopohua’ with ‘The beginning of the songs’, a collection of pre-Hispanic poems. You compare two discourses, two forms of writing and two conceptions of the world; this comparison unravels aspects of the myth but also makes a literary exercise. 

The ‘Nican mopohua’ can be a literary exercise and the ‘Songs are also a literary exercise from pre-Columbian times. The first person to make this comparison was Miguel León-Portilla. He observed this influence of the ‘Songs’ on the narrative of the ‘Nican mopohua’. Besides, it's a beautiful piece. 

Moreover, it was difficult to approach it because, according to my research, these poems were sung, although we don't know how. Apparently, they were accompanied by percussion, but we don't know what it sounded like. We opted to do a recitation. We included pre-Hispanic music to accompany the poem. For me it was revealing in terms of the high capacity for philosophical and existential discourse that pre-Hispanic peoples had. Their reflections were astonishing. 

Another element of representation is film. You use fragments from films such as ‘Tepeyac’ (Carlos E. González, José Manuel Ramos and Fernando Sáyago, 1917), ‘La virgen que forjó una patria’ (Bracho, 42), ‘Las rosas del milagro’ (Soler, 60) and others, and Tonantzin Guadalupe will be part of this collection. How do you feel about it being incorporated into the filmography, the discussions and "guadalupanismo" as a whole? 

From the beginning we were aware that this was a possibility. It led us to make a crucial decision: that this film would be written and directed for a Mexican audience. That is to say: this film may be interesting for foreigners, but we decided that our purpose was to contribute to a new representation and interpretation, which rescues the work of historians. We decided to create an indigenous Virgin of Guadalupe and the selection of Juan Diego was also crucial. It was important to represent the Virgin of Guadalupe and the ‘Nican mopohua’ as a mystery play, which was used to seek to connect with the indigenous people. That's why we also represent some gods. 

It is a different interpretation and I hope it contributes to enrich the discussion. If you have any doubts about the faith of the Guadalupanos, take a trip to the Basilica on 12 December, and it will be clear to you that it is real. Whether you share that belief or not is another matter. The reality is that this is the origin of Mexico, the core of our identity, despite the incredible diversity and plurality that Mexico represents. Let's hope that this idea becomes ingrained in the (collective) imaginary. 

How did Dalia Xiuhcoatl take on the role of the Virgin of Guadalupe? How did you direct her? 

During the casting process of the actresses for the role, two of them arrived with a perfect command of Nican mopohua and Dalia was one of them. Her first approach was extremely professional. She is also very proud of her Nahuatl heritage. She took on her role with a lot of responsibility and a deep interest in vindicating the participation of indigenous culture in the creation of this story. 

You told me you were not a believer, but an agnostic. However, I was immediately struck by a phrase that appeared later: "Even the most atheistic of us are Guadalupanos". After reading, researching and reflecting on the subject, what does the Virgin of Guadalupe mean to you? 

It represents a manifestation of hybrid spirituality. Anthropologically speaking, it is the first Mexican symbol and the seed of the nascent Novo-Hispanic patriotism, as we see in the film. So much so that the first Mexican flag bears the image of Guadalupe. For me, the Virgin of Guadalupe is Mexico, she is like the Mexican flag. Every time I see her, I feel a great pleasure. And it's true, I'm agnostic, but I'm also a Guadalupano.