San Juan Diego
The One Who Speaks Like an Eagle
By Most Rev. Ricardo Ramírez, C.S.B., Bishop Emeritus of Las Cruces
The event of Guadalupe, the apparitions of Our Lady the year of 1531 to the Indian Juan Diego, is one of the greatest moments in the history of the Evangelization of the Americas. The inspiring story of Our Lady of Guadalupe did not end with her last apparition on Mt. Tepeyac, the site of the present basilica and where her miraculous image is venerated. Her story is open ended, for she continues to evangelize, that is, to lead people to faith in her son, Our Savior Jesus Christ. Her image is found in almost every church in the United States and her devotion is growing, due in great part to the spread of Latin Americans to cities, towns and villages throughout the country.
The blessings of Our Lady of Guadalupe are but one of so many that have come to this country through the mobility of Latino Catholics. As they move from the Southwest and other parts of the country to new areas, they bring with them devotion to the Blessed Mother under the name of Guadalupe.
The person of Our Lady of Guadalupe and that of Juan Diego are inseparable. We cannot envision one without the other. Centuries-old drawings and images almost always show the two together.
Juan Diego was declared a saint by St. John Paul II on July 31, 2002. A group of us from our Diocese of Las Cruces were present at the beautiful Mass. The ceremony honored the language, music and ritual traditions of the Indigenous peoples of Mexico. In the presence of the Pope and inside the Basilica, Indian dancers opened the Mass. Indian women incensed the Holy Father as part of the penitential rite while a massive choir accompanied by a symphony, sang in the native Nahuatl language, used by Our Lady when she spoke to Juan Diego. It was an unforgettable moment especially for the Indigenous people as one of their own was being declared a saint.
Juan Diego, whose Aztec name, Cuauhtlatoatzin means “the one who speaks like an eagle,” is recognized by biographers and historians as from a lower class of Indians and represented the poor, the excluded and unappreciated people as the Indians were regarded. There was a time when European theologians debated as to whether they even had souls. The violent and bloody clash between the Europeans and the Indians resulted in the oppression of the Indian peoples, as well as destruction of their sacred temples and brought on the devastating disease of smallpox that almost decimated the Indian population.
In choosing Juan Diego to be her messenger, Our Lady wanted to go to the margins, to the little people, the forgotten, the excluded and the ignored. She instructed Juan Diego to go to the bishop and ask him that she wanted a temple erected in her honor. When Juan Diego reports to the Virgin that the bishop would not see him, he asks her to send someone else. He says, “Send someone of importance, well-known and esteemed, so that they may believe in him, because I am a nobody, I am a small rope, a tiny ladder, the tail-end, a leaf, and you, my Lady, you are sending me to a place where I never visit nor frequent.”
Of course she does not change her plan to use Juan Diego as her messenger. He represents the undervalued, those who go unnoticed, the belittled in every way. By encouraging the Indian and encouraging him, she is encouraging all peoples of all times to recognize their value. The temple that she wished erected in her honor is for all people, men and women of every race and culture, that they come and seek her comfort and intercession.
By her presence and reassuring words, she encourages all people at the margins of society to be builders of their own destiny, and transforms them from the paralysis that comes from oppression, to lives filled with self-worth, confidence and sense of belonging. They are just as important as anyone else.
The message of Juan Diego is for everyone, for those going through times they feel demeaned and excluded. It conveys a special meaning for those at the margins of society because of their poverty, their immigration status, and who are ridiculed and unvalued.
The message of Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Juan Diego is we all recognize our God-given dignity and embrace the legacy of our race and cultural heritage.