“God and Gold” was the two-pronged mission of the conquistadores. Most of them concentrated on gold, while missionaries tried to shift the emphasis to God. They were famously successful; more than 90 percent of Mexicans profess to be Catholics.
Catholicism, spreading its doctrine of equality of all persons before God and incorporating native gods into the church rituals, eventually brought the indígenas into the fold. Within 100 years, nearly all native Mexicans had accepted the new religion, which raised the universal God of humankind over local tribal deities.
Conversion of the indígenas was sparked by the vision of Juan Diego, a humble farmer. On the hill of Tepayac north of Mexico City in 1531, Juan Diego saw what he described as a brown-skinned version of the Virgin Mary enclosed in a dazzling aura of light. She told him to build a shrine in her memory on that spot, where the Aztecs had long worshipped their earth mother, Tonantzín. Juan Diego’s Virgin told him to go to the cathedral and relay her instruction to Archbishop Zumárraga.
The archbishop, as expected, turned his nose up at Juan Diego’s story. The vision returned, however, and this time Juan Diego’s Virgin realized that a miracle was necessary. She ordered him to pick some roses at the spot where she had first appeared to him (a true miracle, since roses had been previously unknown in the vicinity) and take them to the archbishop. Juan Diego wrapped the roses in his rude fiber cape, returned to the cathedral, and placed the wrapped roses at the archbishop’s feet. When he opened the offering, Zumárraga gasped: Imprinted on the cape was an image of the Virgin herself—proof positive of a genuine miracle.
In the centuries since Juan Diego, the brown Virgin—La Virgen Morena, or Nuestra Señora la Virgen de Guadalupe—has blended native and Catholic elements into something uniquely Mexican. In doing so, she has become the virtual patroness of Mexico, the beloved symbol of Mexico for indígenas, mestizos, negros, and criollos alike.
Pope John Paul II, in the summer of 2002, journeyed to Mexico to perform a historic gesture. Before millions of joyous faithful, on July 31, 2002, the frail aging pontiff elevated Juan Diego to sainthood, thus making him Latin America’s first indigenous person to be so honored.
With few exceptions, every Puerto Vallarta regional town and village celebrates the cherished memory of the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 12. This celebration, however joyful, is but one of the many fiestas that Mexicans, especially the indígenas, live for. Each village holds its local fiesta in honor of its patron saint, who is often a thinly veiled sit-in for a local preconquest deity. Themes appear Spanish—Christian vs. Moors, devils vs. priests—but the native element is strong, sometimes dominant.