Seeing myself in Juan Diego


I am an American Catholic of primarily Irish, Swiss and English descent.  The part of my background that I identify with the most is my Irish cultural heritage perhaps because I am way over the top passionate about so many things and also maybe because I find tragedy and sadness elegant and beautiful in its own way.  I also love my Catholic heritage, the rain, good friends and James Joyce.  Given my cultural identification I never had much exposure to the tradition of Our Lady of Guadalupe until I was an adult working in a Catholic parish. As a young Catholic I was unaware of my white privilege and the ways in which my catholic experience was the normative Catholic experience in the culture I lived.  I remember hearing subtle jokes and digs at the “funny” section of the grocery store where you could find things mexican american catholics would buy including candles for Our Lady of Guadalupe.  I didn’t make these jokes but nor did I find them particularly offensive until I was educated about my white privilege later in life.  I thought my experience of catholicism was the normal experience of Catholicism and that the pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe on candles and hanging from the rear view mirrors of cars were harmless but had essentially nothing to do with me.  I could not see how I was a part of the story.

In the intervening years I was afforded the privilege of reading women like Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz and Shawn Copeland and through conversations with friends including Katie Grimes and Nichole Flores I learned about white privilege and the complicated reality of the ways in which the catholic faith and colonialism are intertwined.  Implicit in this chaos is the way in which white privilege as the normative Catholic experience undergirds the conversation.  I am so grateful for the education I’ve received from these women and for the ways in which I am continually learning about the blind spots that white privilege creates in my own perception of reality.

As an adult working in parish religious education the vast majority of the people I work with come from a mexican american background.  I think it’s important in ministry to meet people where they are so I wanted to be present at the mass for Our Lady of Guadalupe.  I learned that first year that Our Lady of Guadalupe is not a regular feast day with a special evening mass.  Our Lady of Guadalupe is a massive festival that begins days before with a novena of anticipation, tons of amazing cooking (especially life changing hand rolled tamales), 5am mananitas on the day of, traditional aztec dancing, the mass itself with mariachi (which is a liturgically transformational experience), a play about the story of Juan Diego and then a huge feast including some of the best food I’ve ever eaten.  Having never experienced these rituals I was totally taken in by the experience.  My personal experience of Mary had always been a pretty sanitized.  When I would pray I would usually picture a white, blond lady who wore white and was really special because she had lived her life so perfectly that God chose her to be the mother of Jesus.  (The psychology behind the mariology I just described deserves a whole other post).  Especially during the presentation of the play about Juan Diego’s experience I found myself enthralled by the story.  I tend to be uneasy with the concept of “miracle.”  I know that believing in miracles is integral to our faith but I am uneasy with the description of miracle outside of scripture.  But nonetheless I was totally taken in by the story of Juan Diego and his encounter with a incredibly powerful, beautiful woman with bronze skin and dark hair and his presentation of the spanish roses spilling out of his tilmatli in his conversation with the bishops.  A few months later I was assisting in our parish presentation of Fr. Barron’s catholicism series and I learned that within 10 years of our Lady’s encounter with Juan Diego that Mexico had almost completely converted to Catholicism.   The real miracle of the story is not only the image our Lady imprinted on Juan Diego’s tilmatli but in fact the conversion of Mexico that took place soon after.

As much as I was taken with my first experience of the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe I was still trying to process and integrate the story of Juan Diego and my own encounter with faith.  The story of Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe is so deep and integral to the experience of especially mexican and mexican american Catholic faith that it really serves as an entry point into north american catholicism both historically and theologically.  My perception of the experience of mexican american catholicism is that Mexico became the Catholic country that it is because of the evangelization of the 16th century Our Lady of Guadalupe event; one cannot separate one from the other.  This is why she is the patroness of the Americas and particularly north america.  In this way she is my patroness as a north american.  If I can suspend my white privilege long enough to see it and subvert the power dynamic such that I see this event in Mexico as the normative American Christian event then I am a child of this event as well.  In other words, Our Lady of Guadalupe should not be seen as some fringe event that is important to some people in our parishes.  Our Lady of Guadalupe is the american catholic event; all american catholics should be claimed by this event.  Even though I sometimes feel like an outsider because I don’t speak spanish and because this wasn’t my experience of catholicism growing up Our Lady of Guadalupe in our parishes offers all especially north american catholics the opportunity to flip the normative white narrative of catholicism in north america and see this event in Mexico as the normative event.  I can see myself as part of the story if I make the story the normative event in north american catholicism.