Faith brought together hundreds of Maderans to walk the streets of Madera for hours long before dawn.
“About 200 people spent part of the night in prayer,” said Rev. Guadalupe Sanchez of St. Joachim’s Catholic Church. “At 3 in the morning they start a procession with prayer and singing while marching on foot as a pilgrim Church.”
The “pilgrims” ended their two-hour walk at St. Joachim’s Church to sing “Las Mananitas” and celebrate mass in honor of the anniversary of an alleged appearance of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in 1531 A.D.
The singing of “Las Mananitas,” a traditional Mexican birthday song, will be especially appropriate since this Roman Catholic “feast day” commemorating “Our Lady of Guadalupe” also coincides with the birth of Sanchez in Stockton, California.
“[I was born] on Dec. 12, 1931 at exactly 400 years to the day she first appeared,” said Sanchez.
“So for a birthday present he walks from out there [by Ave. 13 1/2] all the way to the church,” chuckled Victor Rubio, whose wife Celia organized the event.
“Las Mananitas” isn’t sung only on birthdays however.
“It was actually sung to people who passed away because you were being born into eternal life,” said Ramiro Garza, one of the founders of the local Spanish Christian music group, “Nueva Vida.”“We sing it to our mother [Mary] and we sing other songs. We sing the story of her apparition.”
The story could be said to have begun with the birth of Quauhtlatoatzin in 1474 A.D. at the village of Cuautitlan in the Aztec empire of Mexico. Only 18 years later Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas.
In 1521 A.D. Hernan Cortez conquered the capital city of the Aztecs, Tenochtitlan. Then in 1524 A.D. the first Christian missionaries, a dozen Franciscan priests, entered the renamed capital, now Mexico City.
In 1525 A.D. Quauhtlatoatzin was one of the few to be baptized, and he took the Christian name of Juan Diego.
The story of Diego
“Because the missionaries were having a hard time converting the indians to the Christian faith, God sent his mother, and when she appeared they could relate to her,” said Garza.
In 1531 A.D. a young dark-skinned woman called to Diego by name from atop Mt. Tepeyacac, outside of Mexico City at the time.
Speaking in the Aztec language of Nahuatl, the lady called herself the “ever virgin Holy Mary, mother of the True God,” and asked for a church to be quickly built for her on the plain.
Diego went to Mexico City to deliver the message to the bishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumarraga. “And the bishop didn’t believe because of prejudice,” said Sanchez.
Mary allegedly appeared again and urged discouraged Diego to return to the bishop. At the second visit the bishop asked for a sign from heaven.
Mary allegedly promised a sign if Diego would return to Tepeyacac the next day, but Diego’s uncle Juan Bernardino became gravely ill with the plague and Diego stayed with him.
Only by necessity did Diego pass by the mount two days later at dawn on his way to fetch a priest for his dying uncle. The woman intercepted him and reassured him that his uncle was cured. Then she asked him to climb the hill to collect flowers as a sign for the bishop.
On the hilltop, Diego found a variety of Castillian roses in bloom out of season and brought the flowers back to the lady in his “tilma,” a roughly woven cactus fiber cloak. She arranged the roses and secured his tilma, which he had folded in half to carry the flowers.
When Diego unfolded his tilma in the bishop’s residence the flowers scattered and all were stunned by an image on the tilma of a woman standing on the moon and in front of the sun.
“She showed she was more powerful than the sun god because the sun was behind her,” explained Garza. “But she had her hands folded in adoration to the True God.”
Sanchez noted the black belt tied around her waist on the image signifies pregnancy in Aztec culture.
“The people feel that Mary brought them the greatest treasure of Christ,” said Sanchez. “It’s interesting that in the book of Revelations [chapter 12] that a ‘sign appeared in the sky’ of ‘a woman with the moon under her feet and a crown of 12 stars.’ ‘The woman’ who gives birth to a son who rules forever.”
A crushed serpent
After the sign, the bishop and others accompanied Diego to Tepeyac and to his uncle’s home. Bernardino claimed a “lady from heaven” appeared to him, cured him, and identified herself as the “ever-virgin Holy Mary coatlaxopeuh.”
The Spaniards mistook “coatlaxopeuh” (pronounced “quatlasupe”) for the similar sounding “Guadalupe,” the name of a village in Spain where a statue of Mary was found after an alleged apparition. But coatlaxopeuh is actually Nahuatl for “who crushes the serpent.”
“It comes from Genesis [3:15] in the Old Testament,” explained Sanchez, “where ‘the woman’ will crush the head of the serpent.”
Aztecs offered over 50,000 human sacrifices annually to their gods, including Quetzalcoatl (meaning "feathered serpent") Huitzilopochtili (AKA the Hummingbird Wizard, Lover of Hearts and Drinker of Blood) and Tezcatlipoca (AKA the Smoking Mirror, Lord of the Dark). In 1487, a four day dedication of a new temple in Tenochtitlan involved 80,000 human sacrifices, more than all the U.S. soldiers killed in the Viet Nam war.
In 1541 A.D. a Franciscan priest and historian, Motolinia, wrote that about nine million Aztecs had become Christians. Aztec human sacrifices were no more.
“In Mexico City,” said Rubio, “people make processions for days, weeks. We’re trying to keep this for our kids, our generations.”
“Today in Mexico City you can’t even get near the Basilica. People come from all over on foot,” said Sanchez. “It’s all because of Christ. He’s the savior. He’s the redeemer. He’s the source of every grace.”
Why all the fuss over Mary then?
“For me personally, she’s brought me closer to Christ. If God chose her to be his mother she must be really important,” said Sanchez. “We honor Mary because of Christ.”
Sanchez doesn’t see any threat to Jesus in honoring Mary.
“I enjoy when people honor my mother, but I’m not happy when they dishonor my mother. It doesn’t lessen me when they honor my mother, and in fact I’m delighted. We honor Mary to honor Christ,” Sanchez said.