Proceso

Demystification through knowledge was the starting point for filmmaker Jesús Muñoz to bring forward the torrid topic of the origin of the Virgin of Guadalupe, in "Tonantzin Guadalupe", a documentary that Cinemex is already showing in its theatres. 

MEXICO CITY (Proceso) - The documentary "Tonantzin Guadalupe", by Jesús Muñoz, exposes in 91 minutes several historical documents from 1524 to 1648 about the origin of the Virgin of Guadalupe "in a respectful, constructive and unprejudiced way, to enrich us and help us better understand who we are," says the director. 

The also director of "A philosopher in the arena" (2018), co-directed with Aarón Fernández, continues: "Whether one believes in the miracle of the apparitions or not, is an individual, personal decision, which must be respected. Fortunately, the Mexico we live in allows for freedom of worship. It is one of the things that makes us great as a nation". 

The feature film, narrated by actress Mabel Cadena, offers a journey through Mexican culture and spirituality, searching for the origins of the Virgin of Guadalupe, an icon that emerged after the clash between Europe and the Mesoamerican peoples. With all its lights and shadows, this brown virgin is the first and most important sign of Mexican identity. The feature film is being shown at Cinemex movie theatres in Mexico. 

With testimonies from several historians, the film reveals that 7 years before the apparitions of the Virgin, in 1524, the historical document "Colloquy of the Twelve" was written (which was discovered in 1926 in the secret archive of the Vatican) "where the intention of influencing the natives to achieve their conversion is evident". 

This since on May 13, 1524, twelve Franciscans arrived in Mexico and met with Hernán Cortés and the Mexica tlamatinime. The text was written by the same friars, according to the film, in which the essential moments of the evangelization are found. 

The plot also talks about the "Nican Mopohua", where the apparitions of the religious image in 1531 are related, but this document was published 118 years later, in 1649. It is specified in the documentary that it is a very theatrical document and that it is very similar to the Nahuatl poem "Beginning of the songs". 

The film interviews father and historian Juan Carlos Casas García, Nahuatl speaker and ritual dancer Jesús Yohualli López Javier, historian Rodrigo Martínez Baracs, historian and linguist Rafael Tena, anthropologist Liliana Vargas and historian Gisela von Wobeser. 

In addition, a group of Mexican and Spanish actors explain the content of the historical documents in theatrical scenes. 

Muñoz (Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, 1969) recalls in an interview that 30 years ago he happened to read an article by Yucatecan politician Carlos Castillo Peraza (1947-2000), in which he referred to the Virgin of Guadalupe in Extremadura, Spain: 

"I thought: 'how can it be possible? I thought that our Virgin of Guadalupe was the only one.' And there began the idea that this was a very interesting topic to explore further. For two reasons, one because it is the most important icon of our culture; and two, because there is a taboo to talk about the historical origins of the Virgin of Guadalupe." 

Muñoz studied film at the London Film School and his work has participated in several international festivals. 

Five years of work 

The filmmaker began "Tonantzin Guadalupe" at the end of 2018 and finished it in July 2023. It was screened for the first-time last October at the DOCS MX. International Documentary Film Festival of Mexico City. He tells how the project began: 

"First I started to see what materials were out there. It was a very difficult task because to begin with we’re talking about five hundred years of history. And I found a lot of material that is not serious. It is not scientific historical material. That was a challenge. I was also aware that almost 80% of Mexicans believe in the apparitions of the Virgin of Guadalupe. So how to approach the subject without hurting sensitivities? Because that's not what it's about either, I'm not interested in hurting or provoking anyone. 

"I am not a believer, I am not religious or Catholic, but I think you have to respect everyone, which is very important especially in a country that is learning to live democracy. Respect is essential. I made the decision to say: 'Let's focus only on the facts that are historically proven'. This, because it is also about rescuing the work published by historians. 

The documentary's website (tonantzinguadalupe.mx) informs about the books on which it is based, such as "Cartas y memorias (1511-1539) de Alonso de Zuazo", edited by Rodrigo Martínez Baracs; three by Miguel León-Portilla: "Tonantzin Guadalupe. Nahuatl thought and Christian message in the 'Nican Mopohua", "Colloquios y doctrina cristiana" and "Cantares mexicanos I"; and "Orígenes del culto de nuestra señora de Guadalupe, 1521-1688", by Gisela von Wobeser, among others. 

"I realized that during the last century many Mexican historians have done a superb job in this regard, and many of them have been persecuted, attacked for how delicate the subject was, and two sides emerged: the “apparitionists” and the “anti- apparitionists”. The stance between them is radically opposed ". 

He then learned about the work of researchers Von Wobeser and Martinez Baracs: 

"They both appear in the documentary, being kind enough to participate. They are a generation of historians who are doing something very interesting with the subject. They mention that they don't talk about what didn't happen. And it struck me as a very mature and intelligent position. I said to myself: 'I'm going to do the same thing they did. We must reveal what did happen. It's not about attacking or denying the apparitions. It's more about trying to understand what is the origin of our identity". 

He emphasizes that so far, the public that has seen the film has thanked him: "I have not received any aggression or confrontation, nothing. People leave with a sense of pride in their identity, regardless of whether they are believers or not, it’s as if they are happier to know where their virgin comes from, their faith practice or their identity". 

-How complicated was it to raise a topic like this and get it distributed? 

-The documentary genre in general is difficult to distribute, especially in the commercial cinema circuits because they are 100% focused on entertainment. Nobody likes to go to the movies to be lectured about history or religion, in that sense it is a challenge. Fortunately, the film is very approachable, entertaining, and we managed to find a distribution opportunity at Cinemex, which is incredible. It is a great opportunity. Then we are going to release the film in the cultural circuit as in the National Film Theatre, art cinemas and cultural centres in order to tour the country. 

Scenes with actors 

When told how the scenes with actors in the film to illustrate the documents, are very attractive, he explains: 

"These scenes were very important for me because at the end of the day it is a very difficult subject, regardless of what we were talking about, the taboo that is, talking about religion is very complicated. As there has always been a tendency for human beings to recognize themselves through the arts, I thought: 'This is a very good opportunity to dramatize historical texts and make an artistic expression of them but respecting the historical rigor of the documents'". 

As for the idea that the "Nican Mopohua", could be a mystery play, he points out: 

"When I found out, I was awestruck that it could be a theatrical work, but, this was after all a common practice in the 16th century, one of the most used and effective tools by the Franciscans was staging religious theatre in Nahuatl which was very similar to the 'Nican Mopohua'; that is why it is believed it was written around 1556 as part of the evangelization effort using religious Nahuatl theatre. This does not mean that the virgin did not actually appear, the story’s author may have been following an oral tradition. Again, the idea is not to talk about what didn't happen, but about what did". 

Another important aspect in the film is when it is mentioned that the Spaniards were never able to completely subdue the Mixe community, which resides in Tlahuitoltepec, Oaxaca, since they continue to worship their gods alongside the Virgin of Guadalupe. Muñoz emphasizes: 

"The mixes are such an intelligent people. There was no syncretism there. They continue with their religion and practice a parallel Catholicism. Visiting them is like traveling to the past in a time machine. Very interesting the mixes, I really respect them". 

He states about actress Mabel Cadena, who narrates the feature film: 

"The narrator had to be a woman. That's the first thing we decided on because of the subject matter and Mabel was our first choice, besides the fact that I think she's an excellent actress. I 

really like the colour of her voice, very appropriate for serious documentaries because she brings a great balance and equilibrium. 

He is pleased that "Tonantzin Guadalupe" is in cinemas: 

"I am pleased that people really like the film even though it is a difficult topic. It was a complicated decision to get into it, because these are complex topics to keep people's attention and keep them from getting bored, we put a lot of effort so this wouldn't happen. 

"The artistic endeavour was to make it as visual as possible. That's what we artists live for, that people see a piece like this and that it communicates something to them, and in this case, it also enhances the audience’s knowledge allowing it to reflect in a positive, constructive way. It is something that had to be done. It's about time that we can talk about these things openly in Mexico.