There is no doubt that when it comes to religious iconography in Mexico there is no more prominent symbol than that of Our Lady of Guadalupe. There are, of course, many reasons for that, even aside from its miraculous origins. The Virgin of Guadalupe appealed to the natives of Mexico. It was a figure of the Virgin Mary with dark skin and straight, black hair, done in a style familiar to the natives of central Mexico. The devotion began with a miraculous vision on the Hill of Tepeyac where the natives had previously worshipped a pagan goddess, also a mother figure, called Tonantzin and it should come as no surprise that many natives in Mexico continued to refer to the Virgin of Guadalupe by that name. The devotion was also easily taken up by the Creole population (those of pure Spanish blood but born in Mexico) as a symbol of Mexican nationalism as it was a Mexican icon rather than one imported from Europe. As such, it highlighted the fact that Christianity first came to the mainland of the Americas in Mexico and was thus part of a narrative that placed Mexico as the ‘Eldest Daughter of the Church in the Americas’ and as a sort of Promised Land that would be prominent in the New World. Taken altogether, it is easy to see why the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was taken up by both revolutionaries and both of the ill-fated Mexican Emperors.
When the renegade (and heretical) priest, Father Miguel Hidalgo, launched the Mexican War of Independence he emblazoned the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on his revolutionary standard and would carry it into each city he occupied on the way to the capitol with great ceremony as a way to rally the natives of Mexico against their Spanish rulers and those Mexicans of Spanish blood who were loyal to the Crown. His famous “Grito de Dolores”, which is still marked by Spanish presidents every year on September 16, climaxed with the cry, “Long Live Our Lady of Guadalupe!” and, “Death to the Spaniards!” Observers across Latin America, including no less a figure than Simon Bolivar, noticed that the use of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe inspired the revolutionaries with a religious fervor that was far stronger than anything any mere philosophy or political ideology could ever inspire. Even when Hidalgo failed in his efforts, and was eventually executed by the Spanish authorities, his successors carried on with the Virgin of Guadalupe as their badge. The symbol became so prominent that when Mexican independence was finally achieved, by a coalition led by General Agustin de Iturbide, the new Emperor made the highest national honor the Order of Our Lady of Guadalupe and when his short-lived monarchy was overthrown, the first President of Mexico changed his name to Guadalupe Victoria; Our Lady of Guadalupe victorious.
However, while certainly the most well known today given how things worked out, Our Lady of Guadalupe was not the only version of the Blessed Virgin Mary that played a prominent part in the Mexican War of Independence. In some ways, the war could be seen as a clash between two competing incarnations of the Blessed Virgin Mother. While the Mexican revolutionaries had Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Spanish royalists opposing them had a Virgin Mary of their own in Our Lady of Los Remedios. The devotion to the Virgin of Los Remedios has a history which long predates the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe but had the misfortune to be most associated with the losing side in the war. The devotion grew up in the Trinitarian Order in Spain during the bitter struggles for liberation from Muslim rule known as the Reconquista; the longest war in history. Over time, the Virgin de los Remedios became more and more associated with the Reconquista and, as such, with the ultimate victory of Catholic Spain over her non-Christian enemies. The devotion became very popular in Spain and, because of its origins and associations, was also quite popular with the conquistadores who set out for the New World and quickly clashed with a new, powerful, non-Christian enemy.
One of the soldiers of the great Cortes brought a small statue of the Virgin de los Remedios with him on that historic expedition to the Aztec Empire, making it the oldest Marian icon in what was to become New Spain and ultimately Mexico. More than one miracle was attributed to the Virgin de los Remedios by the Spanish soldiers during the conquest of the Aztecs, the most famous being related to the events of La Noche Triste (the ‘night of tears’) so well known to Mexican history. The soldier carrying the statue, Gonzalo Rodriguez de Villafuerte, hid it under a maguey plant while Cortes and his men were fleeing an Aztec attack. Not far away they were later forced into battle and several of the Spanish reported seeing a young girl, moving untouched across the battlefield, throwing dirt in the eyes of the Aztec warriors, allowing the Spanish to prevail. This was attributed to the Virgin of Los Remedios and after the conquest a chapel was built on the sight where the Virgin was said to have appeared. The Virgin de los Remedios was thus strongly associated with the Spanish triumph in Mexico, Spanish victory and, because of that, that Spanish rule was ordained by Heaven. Devotion to the Virgin de los Remedios remained very popular with the Spanish population in Mexico and amongst those who accepted Spanish rule and Spanish culture; it was a symbol of the winning side.
Of course, when the devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe began to grow, it was taken up by many Spanish as well and by Catholics all over the world. Yet, the more that particular icon came to be associated with the revolutionary movement against Spanish rule, the more the Spanish and Mexican royalists were alienated from it. Given the history of the Virgin of the Remedios, it is not surprising that it was taken up in large part by the royalist side just as the Virgin of Guadalupe was taken up by the revolutionary side. When the War for Mexican Independence broke out seriously in 1810, the image of the Virgin de Los Remedios was removed from the cathedral in Mexico City and taken to Naucalpan (the place where the miracle occurred on the Night of Tears), dressed in the clothes of a general, where it was placed in the Sanctuary of Los Remedios and named “guardian of the Spanish army” (today this is in Los Remedios National Park). The revolutionaries did something similar when Padre Hidalgo named Our Lady of Guadalupe “Captain-General” of the rebel army. So, although it was never totally uniform of course, the battle lines of the war were drawn with the Mexicans and Our Lady of Guadalupe on one side and the Spanish with the Virgin of the Remedios on the other. This was fostered somewhat by the fact that Hidalgo was, to some extent, trying to spark a racial war, encouraging those of native blood to kill those of Spanish blood.
For those with such a mentality, the iconography made complete sense; it was the Mexican Virgin Mary against the Spanish Virgin Mary. There was the image of the Virgin made to a native, at a place sacred to the natives and with a native appearance arrayed against the imagine of the Virgin that had come from Spain, was beloved by the Spanish army and aristocracy and which had for centuries been invoked by Spanish soldiers against enemies from the Moors to the Aztecs. So intense did this rivalry become during the war that stories began to circulate of each side not only honoring their own Virgin Mary but denigrating that of the other such as the account of Spanish royalists putting images of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the souls of their shoes so as to tread on it with every step on the march. Whether such stories were true or were invented to inflame the hatred of the other side will probably never be known for sure. For both the Virgin Mary became a military figure as well as a religious one. For the rebels, every “viva” for Our Lady of Guadalupe was followed up with a cry of death to the Spanish and as the Captain-General of the rebel army, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe was saluted as one would a superior officer. On the royalist side, the Virgin of the Remedios was the general and when the nuns of San Jeronimo dressed the figure in military attire they did not neglect to include a golden sword and baton to illustrate her rank.
Although Hidalgo failed in his campaign, his cause ultimately prevailed so that the devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe is most remembered but the devotion by the royalists to Our Lady of the Remedios was no less significant at the time. In symbolic terms, it was the Virgin of the Remedios who had brought Christianity to the New World and began its spread across Mexico, she was the Conquistadora just as she had been in Spain against the Moors. Those who fought against the revolutionaries under the image of the Virgin of the Remedios were the heirs of Cortes and his men who had done the same against the Aztecs centuries before. With the defeat of Hidalgo, it seemed that the Virgin de los Remedios was victorious and the Catholic clergy in Mexico City, relieved to be saved from the advancing horde of native rebels, held a special procession and novena in February of 1811 to give thanks to the Blessed Virgin for their deliverance. For the time being, the side of the Virgin de los Remedios was victorious, Spanish rule was restored and those loyal to the Crown could breath a sigh of relief. However, as we know, that situation was not to endure. In reaction to events in Spain, the key moment came when Don Agustin de Iturbide, formerly a royalist, united with the revolutionaries to unite Mexican society behind the cause of independence, a unity illustrated by the famous embrace of Iturbide and Vicente Guerrero.
The alliance would prove short-lived and Guerrero would go on to briefly serve as the second President of Mexico before being overthrown. So it was that the Virgin of Guadalupe was further exalted to the status of a national icon while the Virgin of the Remedios (while retaining devoted adherents to this day) became a significantly less popular focus of devotion, being associated with the Spanish royalists or more bluntly the losing side. Of course, Our Lady of Guadalupe had her royalist devotees as well and in fact, though it is not something those in the Church wish to dwell on these days, the religious authorities at the time of the war (who were solidly supportive of the Spanish Crown) decried the use of the image by Hidalgo and his rebels as a sort of desecration. Likewise, the Zacapoaxtla Indians who opposed the forces of Hidalgo, were outraged at his use of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe as they had long claimed her as their own special patroness. After the war was over, they received permission from the civil and religious authorities, in 1813, to build a church in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe who they credited with their own victories over Hidalgo and his forces. Given that, it is hardly surprising that even into the Twentieth Century, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was still being used by factions as diverse as the revolutionaries of Emiliano Zapata to the Catholic army known as the Cristeros in their struggle against the PRI.
It could be said that, in terms of the iconography, the Virgin of the Remedios won the battle but the Virgin of Guadalupe won the war. Today she is one of the most prominent Mexican symbols, encompassing every political ideology and even religious beliefs. As a famous Mexican writer once said, “not all Mexicans are Catholic but all Mexicans are Guadalupanos”. Since this devotion has become so widespread, it is perhaps all the more valid to remember that it might not have been so. If the royalists had been victorious, if the bonds of the Hispanidad had not been broken and the Spanish empire not fallen apart, it might today be the Virgin of the Remedios who would be best known around the world, a symbol of the unity and shared history of the Spanish-speaking peoples everywhere rather than a symbol of Mexican nationalism alone. With the history of the competition between the two images, it is also important to remember that they are supposed to represent the same person and while Our Lady of Guadalupe is supreme today, it should not be considered a slight to do honor to the Virgin de Los Remedios and remember those who were devoted to her and what they stood for 204 years ago.