Conversions of the religious kind have always been controversial. Even in India – a country where you would think Hinduism is secure because of its sheer strength in numbers – the efforts of Christian missionaries cause a lot of consternation. But go to Mexico and the Indian complaint will seem a whine. Mexico in the early sixteenth century was bursting with its own beliefs but with the arrival of the Spaniards, it became the proselytizer’s paradise. Unlike India, which demonstrates an astonishing continuity in religious tradition dating back millennia, Mexico lost its old faiths and gave in to Catholicism.
It wasn’t easy in the beginning. The Spanish defeated the Aztecs in 1521, but the tipping point came only ten years later, when the brown-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe miraculously appeared to Juan Diego. Diego was Indian, and he saw the virgin on the slopes of the Hill of Tepeyac in Mexico City. News of the miracle spread rapidly and resulted in mass conversions.
But the story isn't that simple. Tepeyac is believed to have been the worship site for the pre-Columbian, Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin. So what seems Catholic actually has indigenous roots; indeed, that must have been part of the appeal. Today, the Virgin is the preeminent religious figure and icon in Mexico.
Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City -- probably the second most visited Catholic shrine in the world. The church is at the summit of Tepeyac Hill, the same place Juan Diego saw Guadalupe. The principal attraction is an image of the Virgin at the lower end of a massive gold cross. Draped below is the flag of Mexico: at its center is the aggressive image of an eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus; a serpent wriggles in the clamp of its beak.
At first glance, the cross and the virgin suggest a common Christian theme. But when you learn that the virgin is not Mary but Guadalupe, and that the depiction on the flag captures the vision that inspired the “pagan” Aztecs to build the surreal lake city of Tenochtitlan – which the Spanish destroyed comprehensively and renamed as Mexico City – you realize that there is more to Mexico’s mass conversion than meets the eye.