Historiography of the Apparition of Guadalupe

Daniel J. Castellano (2010, rev. 2011)[1]

Part III

5. Guadalupe according to Luis Becerra Tanco

5.1 Prologue
5.2 Apparition Narrative
5.3 Explanation of the name Guadalupe
5.4 Anotaciones
5.5 Proof of the Tradition
5.6 Testimony
5.7 Conclusion
5.8 Comparison with the First Edition

Lasso de la Vega’s work had little impact in its day, as only a few hundred copies were made, and very few Spaniards knew Nahuatl. In 1666, when an ecclesiastical inquiry into the historicity of the apparitions was conducted, Sánchez’s account remained the only widely known written history of Guadalupe. Among those who gave testimony during this inquiry was the priest Luis Becerra Tanco (1603-1672), an erudite Mexican scholar who held the title of bachiller in arts and mastered eight foreign languages including Nahuatl. Becerra Tanco was aware of both Sánchez’s and Lasso de la Vega’s work, but found that both authors lacked understanding of the provenance of the indigenous tradition. Wishing to establish the tradition on a more solid basis, grounded in what he had learned from native written and oral histories, he published a pamphlet detailing all he knew about the history of Guadalupe, and submitted this in support of his testimony. This pamphlet was titled Origen milagroso del Santuario de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (“The miraculous origin of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe”). A second edition was published posthumously by Antonio de Gama in 1675, under the title Felicidad de México (“Happiness of Mexico”), with a prologue and additional material by the late author, who explained that he had recovered some lost notes and was now able to give a more accurate rendition of the tradition.

Becerra Tanco’s posthumous 1675 edition of the Guadalupe narrative, reprinted in Seville in 1685, Mexico in 1780, and Madrid in 1785, became regarded as the most comprehensive and definitive account of Guadalupe until the early twentieth century, when interest in Lasso de la Vega’s version revived. Although both his predecessors were well-educated clergymen—Sánchez held the title of bachiller and Lasso de la Vega was a licenciado—Becerra Tanco was the first to attempt a rigorous scholarly history of Guadalupe, correcting perceived factual errors and applying his linguistic knowledge to indigenous source documents. Much like St. Luke the Evangelist wrote his Gospel “after investigating everything accurately anew,” so that his reader could know what he had been taught rested on a sound basis (Lk. 1:3), so too did Becerra Tanco seek to establish the historicity of the Guadalupe tradition that his readers knew by word of mouth.

Throughout the Felicidad de México, we can see Becerra Tanco’s manifest concern for establishing the historical basis of the Guadalupe tradition. He repeatedly refers to the ecclesiastical inquiry of 1666, and we may see his work as an attempt to present a synthesis of the factual findings from that inquiry and his own investigations. The ecclesiastical inquiry, to be discussed later, was motivated by a request from Rome for testimony in support of Mexico’s petition for December 12 to be declared a liturgical feast day. Becerra’s goal, then, was to show that the Guadalupe tradition was sufficiently well established to merit the Church’s recognition of this devotion.

[Top of page]

5.1 Prologue

Becerra Tanco opens his prologue by mentioning the Church of Mexico’s juridical inquiry of early 1666 into the apparition of the Virgin Mary at Tepeyácac and the origin of her miraculous image called Guadalupe. This investigation found no authentic documents on the matter in the ecclesiastical archives, so the author felt obligated “to put in writing what I knew by memory, and what I had read and examined (registrado) in my adolescence, in the pictures and characters of the Mexican Indians, who were able persons of distinction in that primitive century.” He then wrote all he could from memory, because his handwritten notebooks, in which he had copied these and other Mexican antiquities, had been lent to a person of authority, who died before returning them.

Sánchez and Lasso de la Vega are never mentioned by name, though Becerra Tanco certainly knew of them, as certified in his testimony to the ecclesiastical inquiry. They do receive an oblique mention in the prologue, when he says:

Y aunque es así que otros ingenios muy aventajados han expresado con más vivos colores esta tradición; no han sido tan exactos en el escrutinio de esta historia, que no les haya quedado algo por falta de noticias, y por no haber tenido de quién poderlas saber radicalmente, con que el progreso de lo historial quedó diminuto; y así mismo por no haber tenido entera comprensión de la lengua mexicana, en que se escribió y pintó lo acaecido en este milagroso principio de la bendita imagen de la Virgen Santísima Señora Nuestra, por mano y letra de los naturales que lo pintaron y escribieron luego, como prodigio memorable.

And although it is true that other men of outstanding talent have expressed this tradition in more vivid colors; they have not been so exact in the scrutiny of this history, which does not contain some things for lack of information, or for not having someone from whom they could learn from the source, and so the accomplishment of the historical work is left diminished; and also for not having complete understanding of the Mexican language, in which is written and painted that which happened in this miraculous beginning of the blessed image of the Most Holy Virgin Our Lady, by the hand and letter of the natives who painted and wrote it later, as a memorable prodigy.

Becerra Tanco acknowledges that his predecessors were accomplished men of letters, but finds deficiencies in their historical exactitude, on account of their lack of access to native accounts and a full understanding of the Nahuatl language. Such criticism obviously applies to Sánchez, but it is more surprising that this critique should be applied to Lasso de la Vega. Evidently the chaplain, despite his knowledge of the Nahuatl tongue and apparent familiarity with some indigenous traditions, was not aware of the pictographic annals that Becerra Tanco knew, and accordingly even his account is found wanting.

Some modern scholars think that Becerra Tanco’s account of the apparition narrative is primarily derived from the work of Sánchez and Lasso de la Vega. While these accounts may have shaped the structure of Becerra’s narrative, he subjected all their facts to scrutiny against his own sources, and introduced many details that are omitted or even contradicted in the previous accounts. Thus he is able to say:

Con que recayó en mí este cuidado, por el que yo puse en mi adolescencia en adquirir la inteligencia del idioma mexicano, y de los antiguos caracteres y pinturas con que historiaron los indios hábiles los progresos de sus antepasados, antes que viniesen los españoles o estas provincias, y lo que sucedió en aquel primero siglo de su agregación a la monarquía de España.

And so this concern fell to me, for I had taken care in my adolescence to acquire knowledge of the Mexican language, and of the ancient characters and paintings with which the skillful Indians told the history of their predecessors' achievements, before the Spanish came to these parts, and what happened in that first century of their annexation to the monarchy of Spain.

The author’s special knowledge came to the attention of those who were investigating the miracle, and so they required him to present what he had written to give sworn testimony. He did what was asked, with pleasure, “because the passage of time does not erase from the memory of men a benefit so singular, worked by the Most Holy Virgin in honor of the country, whose glories her sons should always preserve.” After this testimony, many people moved him to print something to the glory of the same Lady (of Guadalupe). Several notebooks were printed and distributed, and on this occasion Becerra discovered the papers he had lost and given up on recovering.

Above, Becerra Tanco is referring to the first publication of Origen Milagroso del Santuario de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in 1666, which was composed from memory, as his notebooks were believed lost. Now, with his recovered papers, he saw fit to print a second edition, since he found in these papers a more specific and expanded (más expresa y dilatada) version of the miracle tradition, “with some circumstances that do not substantially alter the first writing, but rather they corroborate their truth and satisfy doubts.” Becerra Tanco saw fit to make a second printing in order to expand and amend the first version and make it less subject to strange impressions (menos sujeto a peregrinas impresiones). Some modern scholars (e.g., D.A. Brading) have imputed ideological motives to Becerra’s re-working of his narrative, but the second edition is sufficiently accounted for by the reappearance of his notebooks and his concern for accuracy. Whether it is right or wrong, we will present what Becerra considered to be his definitive testimony on the history of Guadalupe.

The author shuns adorning his narrative with ornate words, judging elegant style to be superfluous, and proper to those who obtain no other fruit from their writing than its sweetness. Following Plato and Boethius, he endeavors only to present the unadorned and uncorrupted truth. This might be an oblique criticism of his predecessors: Sánchez for his florid commentary and Lasso de la Vega for his romantic literary style. Becerra Tanco purports to give us plain factual history, not a work of literature. Given this emphasis, we will be less concerned with the wording of his narrative, and more with its factual content.

[Top of page]

5.2 Apparition Narrative

Becerra Tanco’s apparition narrative (titled Tradición del Milagro) opens with the chronological data found in Sánchez and Lasso de la Vega: the year is 1531, and it is ten years after the conquest. Unlike his predecessors, Becerra provides a more orderly presentation of facts by giving Juan Diego’s biographical details up front, including the name of his wife Maria Lucia. He takes care to provide as much precision as possible. For example, he says it is ten years and four months after the conquest, on Saturday morning before dawn, on the ninth of December, and that Cuautitlán is four leagues north of Mexico City. Interestingly, he implies that Juan Diego was still married, and will state this more explicitly later.

The introductory narrative contains details not found in the other published accounts. Maria Lucia came from the same town as Juan Diego, Cuautitlán, or more precisely, the neighborhood of Tolpetlac. The name of the hill, Tepeyácac, means “extremity or sharp crest of the hills,” because it sticks out from the other hills circling the valley and lagoon of the city of Mexico.

The Indian heard on the top of the hill, “and on a rim of rocky spires that is raised over the plain over the bank of the lagoon,” a sweet and sonorous song, that sounded like a variety of songbirds, the choruses responding to one another in concert. As he went to the place of the song, he saw a resplendent white cloud, on the edge of which was a beautiful rainbow, formed from of extremely bright rays of light in the middle of the cloud. The Indian was absorbed and outside of himself in a trance, yet without fear. Instead he felt an inexplicable joy in his heart, so that he said to himself: “What is this that I hear and see? Where have I been taken? Perhaps I have gone over to the paradise of delights, that our elders, the origin of our flesh, called a garden of flowers or heavenly land, hidden from the eyes of men?”

Becerra Tanco’s account has some significant differences from the previous versions discussed. First, he specifies that the song was heard not only on top of the hill, but also on a rocky ridge (una ceja de peñascos) overlooking the plain facing Mexico. This may be an attempt to explain why the shrine was built on the plain rather than on top of the hill. Becerra is the first to mention a cloud and a rainbow (though the Nican mopohua mentions gemstones of every color of the rainbow). He is clearly not simply copying or paraphrasing Sánchez or Lasso de la Vega. His rendition of dialogue, which is italicized throughout the narrative, sounds as if translated from some indigenous source. For example, instead of saying simply "ancestors," he uses the clumsy expression, “our elders, the origin of our flesh” (nuestros mayores origen de nuestra carne). The content of the dialogue differs markedly from what is presented in the Nican mopohua, though there are some notable similarities. To compare:

[Nican mopohua:] Could I be worthy of what I am hearing? Perhaps I am only dreaming? Maybe I am waking from my sleep? Where am I? Where do I find myself? Maybe over there, where our elders, our predecessors, our grandparents had spoken of, in the land of flowers (Xochitalalpan), in the land of our sustenance (Tonacatalalpan), or perhaps over there in the land of heaven (Ilhuicatalalpan)?

[Becerra Tanco:] What is this that I hear and see? Where have I been taken? Perhaps I have gone over to the paradise of delights, that our elders, the origin of our flesh, called a garden of flowers or heavenly land, hidden from the eyes of men?

The textual parallels—“hear,” “see,” “where am I,” “our elders, our predecessors,” “land of flowers,” “land of heaven”—occur in the same order, suggesting that Becerra Tanco may be paraphrasing the dialogue of the Nican mopohua. However, he omits much, and adds the expressions “paradise of delights” and “hidden from the eyes of men.” We will have to examine further dialogue to determine a dependence on the Nican mopohua more decisively.

Supposing, for argument’s sake, that Becerra Tanco did use the Nican mopohua as his source for dialogue, he evidently did not regard its every word as sacrosanct. He says only that a woman’s voice called the Indian by his name Juan, and does not give the full “Juanito, Juan Dieguito” found in Lasso de la Vega. He says the voice came from the aforementioned cloud.

He saw in the midst of the brightness a beautiful lady, very similar to the one that is seen today in her blessed image, according to the descriptions the Indian gave verbally, before it was copied, or anyone else had seen it, whose robe, he said, shined so brightly that its splendors, striking the rough crags that rose over the hill’s peak, made them appear to be carved transparent gemstones, and the leaves of the thorny plants and prickly pears, which there grow small and stunted due to the desolation of the place, seemed like an abundance of fine emeralds, with their branches, stem and thorns of burnished shining gold, and even the ground of the small plain on that peak seemed like jasper blended with different colors. [Italics in original]

The text that is highlighted by Becerra Tanco is extremely similar in content to that of the Nican mopohua. We will find that the same is true of the dialogue, which is also italicized in the printed work. This suggests that something very similar to the Nican mopohua was used as a source by Becerra Tanco, and excerpts from this written source, translated into Spanish, are embedded in a narrative composed by Becerra. The other parts of the narrative contain facts not recorded in Lasso de la Vega’s account, and are presumably the fruit of Becerra’s own research.

Again, we see evidence of translation from a Nahuatl variant of the Nican mopohua in the dialogue, as Becerra writes:

My son, Juan Diego, whom I love tenderly, as a most little and tender one (for the expression of the Mexican language sounds like this), where are you going? [Italics in original]

The author’s parenthetic comment gives a clear indication that he is translating from Nahuatl, though he does not identify his source, written or oral. However, the similarity with the Nican mopohua is much too strong to deny any relation at all, so there must be at least an indirect literary relationship. Rather than belabor this point, we will focus on the additional facts that Becerra Tanco contributes, not found in the Nican mopohua, as we proceed with the rest of the narrative.

Having heard the Blessed Virgin’s request for the bishop to build a shrine, Juan Diego went down the hill taking the road to the city, going down the west side of the hill. The city was a league away. The bishop’s servants would not admit him, “either because it was morning or because they saw him poor and humble.” Finally, moved by his patience, they admitted him. Kneeling before the bishop, Juan Diego delivered his message, “saying to him that the Mother of God sent him, whom he had seen and spoken with that dawn.” Again, Becerra Tanco italicizes dialogue, though this is not a direct quote, and neither Sánchez nor Lasso de la Vega use this expression in their account of Juan Diego’s first interview with the bishop.

Bishop Zumárraga heard Juan Diego’s story with admiration, but he did not give it much credit, “judging that it was the imagination of the Indian, or a dream, or fearing that it was an illusion of the devil, for the natives were recently converted to our holy religion.” He dismissed the Indian, telling him to return in a few days (a algunos días) “because he wanted to look into the matter in more depth, and he would hear him more slowly, to learn (it is clear) the quality of the messenger and to give time for deliberation.” Though he does not say it explicitly, Becerra Tanco seems to imply that the bishop wanted to make his own inquiries into Juan Diego's reputation before seeing him again. In this account, Juan Diego returns the very next day not because the bishop requested it, but solely because the Blessed Virgin commanded it.

When giving the dialogue of the second apparition, Becerra Tanco makes the following remarkable comment: “This colloquy in the form that has been referred, is contained in the historical writing of the natives; and it has no other thing of mine, except that it is the translation from the Mexican language into our Castilian tongue, sentence by sentence.” This comment immediately follows the first part of the dialogue, which we reproduce below.

Niña mía, muy querida, mi Reina y altisima Señora, hice lo que mandaste; y aunque no tuve luego entrada a ver y hablar con el obispo, hasta después de mucho tiempo, habiéndole visto, le di tu embajada en la forma que me ordenaste: oyóme apacible y con atención; mas, a lo que yo vi en él y según las preguntas que me hizo, colegí que no me había dado credito, porque me dijo que volviese otra vez, para inquirir de mi más despacio el negocio y ecudriñarlo muy de raíz. Presumió, que el templo que pides se te labre, es ficción mia, o antojo mío, y no voluntad tuya; y así te ruego que envíes para esto alguna persona noble y principal, digna de respeto, a quien deba darse crédito; porque ya ves, dueño mío, que soy un pobre villano, hombre humilde y plebeyo, y que no es para mi este negocio a que me envías; perdona, Reina mía, mi atrevimiento, si en algo he excedido al decoro que se debe a tu grandeza; no sea que yo haya caído en tu indignación o te haya sido desagradable con mi respuesta.

My very dear child, my Queen and most high Lady, I did what you commanded; and although I did not obtain entry to see and speak with the bishop, until after a long time, having seen him, I gave him your embassy in the form that you ordered: he heard me peacefully and attentively; what is more, from what I saw in him, and by the questions that he asked me, I gathered that he did not give me credence, for because he told me to come another time, to inquire more slowly of me about the business for which I came and to scrutinize it in great depth. He presumed that the temple that you asked that he build you is a fiction of mine, or a fancy of mine, and not your will; and so I beg that you send for this some noble and important person, worthy of respect, who will be believed; because you now see, my owner, that I am a poor villager, a humble and plebeian man, and that this business on which you send me is not for me; pardon, my Queen, my daring, if in something I have gone beyond the decorum that your grandeur deserves; let it not be that I have fallen under your indignation or that there has been something disagreeable in my response.

From a casual comparison with the Nican mopohua, it is clear that Becerra Tanco did not make a simple sentence-by-sentence translation from Lasso de la Vega’s narrative. There are many similarities in content, but Lasso’s version is much more verbose, and is often phrased quite differently, even including the words of the bishop in the first person. We can see these differences as we reproduce Lasso’s text below, following León-Portilla’s literal translation into Spanish.

Mi señora, señora, noble señora, hija mía la más pequeña, mi muchachita, ya fui allá, a donde me enviaste como mensajero, en verdad fui a que se cumpliera tu reverenciado aliento, tu reverenciada palabra, Aún cuando con mucha dificultad, entré allá donde es su lugar de estar, del que manda a los sacerdotes, en verdad lo vi, en verdad ante él expuse tu reverenciado aliento tu reverenciada palabra, como tú me lo mandaste. Me recibió él con agrado, y con atención escuchó pero así me respondió como que su corazón no lo reconoció, no lo tuvo por verdad.

Me dijo: Otra vez vendrás, así despacio te escucharé, así podré ver desde el comienzo por qué has venido, lo que es tu deseo, lo que es tu voluntad. De eso pude ver, del modo como me respondió, que en verdad piensa él que tu reverenciada casa divina, que quieres que aquí te hagan, tal vez yo sólo la he inventado, tal vez no viene de tus reverenciados labios. Por esto, mucho te ruego, señora mía, noble señora, mi muchachita, que a alguno de los preciosos nobles, los conocidos, reverenciados, honrados, así le encargues que lleve, que conduzca tu reverenciado aliento, tu reverenciada palabra, para que así sea creída.

En verdad yo soy un infeliz jornalero, sólo soy como la cuerda de los cargadores, en verdad soy angarilla, sólo soy cola, soy ala, soy llevado a cuestas, soy una carga, en verdad no es lugar donde yo ando, no es lugar donde yo me detengo, allá a donde tú me envías, mi muchachita, mi hija la más pequeña, señora, noble señora. Por favor, perdóname, daré pena con esto a tu rostro, a tu corazón, iré, caeré en tu enojo, en tu cólera, señora, señora mía.

My lady, lady, noble lady, my littlest daughter, my little girl, I went there, where you sent me as a messenger, in truth I went to accomplish your revered breath, your revered word. Although with much difficulty, I entered there which is the residence of he who commands the priests, and truly I saw him, truly before him I expounded your revered breath, your revered word, as you commanded me. He received me pleasantly, and he attentively listened, but he answered me as if his heart did not recognize [the message], he did not take it as truth.

He told me: Another time you will come, so I will listen to you slowly, so I can see from the beginning why you have come, what is your desire, what is your will. From there I could see, from the way he replied to me, that in truth he though that your revered divine house, that you wish them to build here, perhaps I had just invented it, and maybe it did not come from your revered lips. For this, I beg you greatly, my lady, noble lady, my little girl, that to one of the esteemed nobles, the well known, revered, honored, you entrust that he may carry, he may convey your revered breath, your revered word, so that it may be believed.

Truly I am a wretched laborer, I am only like a porter's rope, truly I am a handbarrow, I am only a tail, I am a wing, I am carried on one's back, I am a burden, truly this is not a place in which I go, it is not a place in which I stay, there where you send me, my little girl, my littlest daughter, lady, noble lady. Please, pardon me, [if] with this I will give offense to your face, to your heart, I will go, I will fall under your anger, in your rage, lady, my lady.

Becerra Tanco’s version retains many indigenous expressions, indicating that he was indeed translating from a Nahuatl source. If that source had been Lasso de la Vega’s version, Becerra was inexplicably liberal with his translation, completely omitting the emphasized text, and elsewhere radically reworking the sentence structure and wording, even going so far as to change the bishop’s dialogue from the first person to the third person. There would be nothing dishonest or irregular in such paraphrasing, except for the fact that Becerra takes care to emphasize that he is writing the text exactly as he finds it in the Nahuatl, save that he has translated it. Among seventeenth century Catholic ecclesiastics, translations from one language to another were expected to be as literalist as possible; there was little tolerance for what we would today call free translation. If we accept that Becerra Tanco at least intended to make an exact translation of his Nahuatl source, it is clear that this source was not Lasso’s version of the Nican mopohua.

If there was indeed a written Nahuatl source distinct from Lasso de la Vega, these two texts must have had some literary relationship. Either Lasso’s text (or his source) is an embellishment of Becerra’s source, or Becerra’s source is a paraphrastic version of Lasso’s source. Becerra Tanco knew about Lasso’s text, so he evidently considered it less authentic than the simpler version he chose to translate. He might not have been correct in this judgment, but at any rate, at some point we will need to justify our inference that another source existed and attempt to identify it.

The rest of the dialogue likewise resembles a simpler version of the Nican mopohua, and such is the case for the dialogue in the rest of the apparition narrative, which should account for why it is italicized in Becerra Tanco’s publication. In the remainder of this narrative, we will focus on the distinctive factual details that Becerra appears to contribute.

On the following day, Sunday the tenth of December, Juan went to the church of Santiago Tlatelolco to hear Mass and learn Christian doctrine. Becerra adds that the ministers took a count of those who attended according to their neighborhoods, since in those days Santiago Tlatelolco was a single parish for many neighborhoods. Later, when there were more priests, it was divided.

When describing Juan Diego’s second meeting with the bishop, Becerra Tanco gives a slightly more positive assessment of the prelate’s response. Lasso de la Vega simply says that the bishop would not fulfill his request (yece amo niman ic omenelchiuh, interpreted by Velázquez as sin embargo, no le dio crédito, “still, he did not believe him”). Becerra, by contrast, adds that, from the description Juan Diego gave of Our Lady, the bishop “recognized that it could not have been a dream nor a fiction of the Indian.” Nonetheless, in order to attain greater certainty in this matter, rather than lightly give credit to such a simple story from a poor Indian, he requested a sign. In Becerra’s account, Bishop Zúmarraga was at this point convinced that Juan Diego is sincere, but felt he could not take the serious act of building a chapel without some confirmation of the apparition's authenticity.

When Juan Diego eagerly agreed to provide a sign, and even asked the bishop to choose whatever sign he would prefer, the ecclesiastic again became suspicious, and summoned two of his servants. Becerra Tanco says that the bishop spoke to them in Castilian, which the Indian did not understand. He sent them to secretly follow the Indian, to see where he went, but when he escaped their sight, they suspected he was a deceiver, and gave an unfavorable report of him to the bishop, recommending that he be punished.

Juan Diego gave his report to the Blessed Virgin, who instructed him to return the following day to receive the sign. The following day, which was Monday the 11th of December (Becerra Tanco specifies the date), Juan Diego was unable to carry out his charge, since his uncle Juan Bernardino had “a malignant fever, which the natives call cocoliztli” (this term is used in the Nican mopohua). Becerra adds the detail that the doctor arrived and administered medicines, but the patient's illness worsened. “Feeling himself weakening that night, Juan Bernardino begged his nephew to depart that morning before sunrise and head to the convent of Santiago Tlatelolco to summon one of the religious to administer the sacraments of penitence and extreme unction, because he judged his illness was mortal.” Becerra makes clear that Juan Diego was fulfilling the explicit request of a dying man.

Juan Diego set off on his errand on the morning of Tuesday, December 12. When arriving at the place where the path climbs the hill on the east, he recalled that he had not returned the previous day as the Blessed Virgin had ordered. In his simplicity, he chose another path that went down near the skirt of the hill, so that the Lady would not detain him, as his errand required urgency. Becerra Tanco relates this in the third person, while Lasso de la Vega gives Juan Diego’s thoughts in the first person. Becerra also adds the detail that the Blessed Virgin now appeared to Juan Diego where there was a fountain of aluminous water.

The dialogue of the fourth apparition is again abbreviated in comparison with Lasso’s version of the Nican mopohua. There is a significant factual distinction regarding the flowers to be gathered as a sign. In the Nican mopohua, the Blessed Virgin tells Juan Diego that he will see “various flowers,” but Becerra has her say that he will find “roses.” When Juan Diego climbs the hill, there he finds “various precious flowers, like those of Castile,” according to the Nican mopohua, but Becerra says there was “a beautiful garden of fresh Castilian roses.” He repeatedly refers to the flowers strictly as “roses,” while the Nican mopohua indicates there were various flowers besides roses, which would give rise to the varied colors of the miraculous image.

As in Lasso’s Nican mopohua, Becerra recounts that the bishop’s servants thrice tried to grab the beautiful, sweet smelling flowers (“roses” in his version), but found that they suddenly seemed painted or woven into the fabric. They notified the bishop, who had the Indian brought before him. Juan Diego unfolded his mantle, and the roses fell to the floor, and the painted image of Most Holy Mary was seen there, as it is today.

The bishop admired the miracle of the sweet, freshly cut roses in the harshest part of winter, as well as the holy image that appeared painted on the mantle, having venerated it as a heavenly object. He untied the Indian’s cloak from his neck, and brought the image to his oratory.

The Spanish accompanied Juan Diego to the house where his uncle Juan Bernardino had lain ill. There they found him recovered, and the old man described how the Lady had appeared to him and restored his health. She told how it was her wish to build a temple on the place where his nephew had seen her, and that her image should be called Santa María de Guadalupe. She did not say the reason for this name.

The fame of the miracle spread, and the bishop displayed the holy image in the major church above the altar, until the shrine was built in the place the Indian had indicated. There it was translated with a solemn procession and feast.

Becerra Tanco concludes:

This is all of the plain tradition, without adornment of words, and this relation is true to such a degree that, whatever circumstance is added to it, if not absolutely false, is at least apocryphal, because the form in which it has been recounted, is very much in agreement with the precision, brevity and fidelity with which the wise natives and historians of that century wrote, drew and narrated memorable events.

This comment contains several interesting claims. First, Becerra claims that his unadorned version is the entirety of the authentic tradition. He is fully aware that his version is much less verbose than those of Sánchez and Lasso, yet he holds that any additional facts mentioned by these recent authors are false at worst or suspect at best. Further, he attests that the no-frills style of his source is consistent with how Indians of the sixteenth century recorded their history. They certainly had none of Sánchez’s baroque theologizing, and neither, it would seem, would they have the effusive and florid language found in Lasso’s Nican mopohua. Becerra was fully competent to make such a claim, as he had studied indigenous histories since his youth. For what it is worth, he finds that his more austere version of the tradition is consistent with a sixteenth century indigenous composition.

[Top of page]

5.3 Explanation of the name Guadalupe

Having completed his relation of the primitive tradition, the author follows with some commentary on certain questions of fact. First is the problem of the origin of the name Guadalupe. The simple tradition says that Juan Bernardino heard the name from the Blessed Virgin, yet an Indian would not have been able to pronounce such a name, as Nahuatl lacks the ‘g’ and ‘d’ sounds. Even in Becerra’s own day, Indians who did not know much Spanish pronounced the name as Tecuatalope. Juan Bernardino would have had no way of knowing about the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Spain, and at any rate the images were so dissimilar that it could hardly have occurred to anyone to equate the two.

Becerra opines that, since the Indians could not pronounce Spanish well, nor could the Spaniards pronounce Nahuatl properly, the name Guadalupe likely came about through a mishearing of a native name by the Spanish. He gives examples of this butchering of the indigenous tongue. The place the natives called Atlauhtlacoloayan was referred to by the Spanish as Tacubaya for ease of pronunciation. Similarly, the town of Cuauhnahuac was called Cuernavaca, and Quauhaxallan was called Guadalajara. All of the indigenous names have intelligible meanings in Nahuatl. In the case of Guadalupe, Becerra supposes that the original Nahuatl could have been Tequatlanopeuh, which means “that which originated on the peak of crags.” Another possibility is Tequantlaxopeuh, a more figurative name which would mean “that which scared away those who eat us.” Here the Blessed Virgin would be depicted as driving away lions and other predators. This image has a striking parallel with Mateo de La Cruz’s explanation that Our Lady of Guadalupe drove away wolves, representing demons, following the Arabic meaning of the name, “river of wolves.” Both of Becerra’s proposed names resembled the indigenous pronunciation Tequatalope.

[Top of page]

5.4 Anotaciones

The author continues with a section of historical notes to provide context for the state of the evidence for the Guadalupan tradition. These Anotaciones que deben suponerse para la prueba de la tradición (roughly, "Notes that should have weight as evidence for the tradition,") try to explain why the Guadalupan tradition is credible, despite the lack of official sixteenth century documents.

The year of the apparition, 1531, was before the Gregorian reform of the calendar (1582), and ten years after the annexation of New Spain in 1521. The pope at the time of the apparition was Clement VII, who had crowned Charles V as emperor the previous year (1530). The year 1531 was three years before the main episcopal church was built in New Spain by Fray Juan de Zumárraga, the Franciscan who was already the first bishop of the church, even prior to the construction of the church and the assignment of a diocese. The papal bull authorizing the building of the cathedral was dated September 9, 1534.

From these facts it can be gathered why there are no official documents as evidence of the apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary in her image. The apparition occurred before there was a cathedral church or meeting hall, nor was there yet an episcopal archive. Any documents from before this period would have been held by Fray Zumárraga’s secretary or some notary. The city was still governed by the second Real Audiencia (Royal Audience), which was presided by D. Sebastián Ramírez de Fuenleal, bishop of Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola, so we can hardly expect civic records from this period.

According to the native computations in their pictures and wheels (calendars), the year 1531, at Christmas time, was in their year 590 since the founding of the capital city Tenochtitlan. This year is marked in their annals as when the Holy Gospel was proclaimed in these parts of North America, in the West Indies (en las provincias de esta Septentrional América, en las Indias Occidentales).

Becerra Tanco gives his educational background, because it is necessary to explain how he knows what he claims about indigenous tradition, not in the spirit of aggrandizing his insignificance (no con ánimo de engrandecer mi tenuidad). He affirms, as previously, that he learned of the native traditions since his childhood, when he understood and spoke properly the Mexican language, having been raised among the natives outside of the city. He perfected his knowledge through his activity as their minister of doctrine for thirty-two years, having conversed with intelligent and aged Indians, and with the old ministers of pagan practices. In his youth he was a lecturer on the Mexican language in the Real Universidad (Royal University) in Mexico. Though the University did not yet have its own chair, many students submitted requests for his appointment to the rector of the University, who was Dr. D. Nicolás de la Torre, bishop of Santiago de Cuba. For this reason, he was named synodal examiner of this language, by Lic. D. Francisco Manso y Zúñiga, Dr. D. Mateo Sagade Bugueiro, and D. fray Marcos Ramírez de Prado, archbishop of Mexico. Becerra adds that with many long nights of study he learned how the ancient Indians computed the ages, with their wheels, numbers, pictures and characters that their histories contained. He also mentions that he knows Latin, Tuscan and Portuguese well, and also Greek and Hebrew well enough to read, write and pronounce. Noting that knowledge of languages depends on knowing how to compare the similarities various languages and dialects, Becerra intends to show that he is eminently qualified to translate indigenous thought accurately into Spanish.

As an authority on Nahuatl, Becerra Tanco in some ways may be better qualified than any modern scholar, for he knew from the Indians themselves what they meant, and did not have to deduce their meaning through fallible inferences, as modern scholars of antiquities must do. As anyone who has learned a language knows, there is a big difference between formal book learning and mastering a language fluently the way the native speakers actually use it. Becerra Tanco would have been attuned to all the subtleties of meaning and usage from which today’s scholars are far removed, and even the Indians themselves have likely lost some nuance, just as we are poor judges of sixteenth-century English diction. Present-day discussions of the meaning of extant Indian annals are riddled with controversy, as various scholars favor conflicting interpretations in support of their pet theories. In Becerra Tanco, at least, we have someone who did not have to guess at the meaning of these sources.

[Top of page]

5.5 Proof of the Tradition

The news of the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the origin of her miraculous image is more vividly impressed in the memory of the native Mexicans, for it was to Indians that she appeared. They have preserved it as a memorable event in their writings and papers, among other histories and traditions of their elders. First, it is necessary to establish the credibility that should be given to their writings and memories.

The natives of this kingdom, especially the Mexicans (or Aztecs, which Becerra Tanco distinguishes from other indigenous nationalities) preserved the records of their histories, laws, judicial acts and traditions of their elders, in two ways. One was through paintings of events on a coarse paper, similar to what the Spanish called papel de estraza (“rag paper”), or on animal skins used as plain parchment. On each one of these documents, at the head or on the foot and margin, they painted the characters of the years of each of their ages (siglos), which consisted of fifty-two solar years of 365 days. A month was counted between each appearance of the new moon. For this reason, a month was called Metztli, the same as their word for “moon.” He notes that this is similar to Hebrew, where the word for “month” (chodesh) also meant “moon.” However, for the purposes of their pagan rites, ceremonies and feasts, they used a year composed of eighteen months of twenty-days, followed by five “intercalary” days a the end of the year, which belonged to no month. They also inserted the characters for months and days where needed, and the figures of the kings or lords in whose reign a certain event occurred.

These paintings, Becerra says, are as authentic as our own public writings, because they were not made by ignorant commoners, but only by the priests, who were their historians, and whose authority and credibility were highly esteemed in the time of paganism. Since these paintings were exposed to the sight of all in every time period, if they were not in close agreement with the truth, the priests would have been discredited. Setting aside, then, the superstitious parts relating to the rites with which they worshiped their false gods, to whom they attributed various fortunate or unfortunate events, the historical aspect of their work is authentic and truthful.

The second way that the natives retained the memory of important events, passing it from father to son for centuries, was through songs that the same priests composed in a certain kind of verse. They would sometimes add some insignificant insertions, which served only to maintain the cadence of the song. These were taught to the children who were known to have the best memory, so that they would keep them memorized. When they were old enough, they sang these songs at festivals and at saraos (soirées) and mitotes (ritual dances). The instruments played were either teponaztli or tlalpanhuehuetl (used for war dances). Through these dances, 1500 years of traditions and events were passed through the ages, recounting wars, victories and defeats, famines, plagues, births or deaths of kings and illustrious men, the beginning and end of their reigns and the memorable things that occurred in each age.

From these maps, paintings, characters, and songs, Becerra notes, P. fray Juan de Torquemada gathered what he wrote in the first volume of Monarquía indiana, which refers to the foundation of the city of México and even greater antiquities. Indeed, he is correct that most of our knowledge of pre-Columbian Mexican history comes from the work of early ecclesiastics referring to these traditions. There is no written Nahuatl language from which archaeologists could independently reconstruct this history. If the veracity of these documents were to be generally impugned, we would have to admit we know nothing reliable about the history of Mexico before Cortés.

This form of recording their histories was continued by the learned natives even after the Spanish conquest, Becerra says. And after the Indians learned to read and write with the Latin alphabet, many of them wrote in the Mexican language (using Latin letters phonetically) the memorable events that occurred, and the ancient events that they copied from their maps and painting. From these works, many pious and religious men have written their histories of these provinces, giving the works full faith and credit. The natives also used pictures and characters to write of the propagation of the Holy Gospel in this New World, and the articles of the Catholic faith.

It is well known, he continues, that the Franciscans founded a college in their convent of Santiago Tlatelolco, which was called Santa Cruz. There the Indians learned to read and write, and the Castilian language, as well as music notation, Latin grammar and rhetoric, and other liberal arts. Many young Indians became accomplished men in the city, and it was these who taught the Spanish how to understand their characters and paintings, and how to compute their ages (siglos, or 52-year cycles), years, months and days.

From these works it can be inferred that the Mexican Indians (called ‘Aztecs’ today) descended from the Toltecs and Acolhuas were the most rational and politically minded of the New World, though they were also most affected by the pagan rites and ceremonies with cruel sacrifices.

The natives who were students of the College of Santa Cruz were mainly sons of important men, so they would have been familiar with indigenous annals. Becerra says that some of these students painted annals, for those who could not read our letters, in traditional characters, while making notes in Latin letters for those who could read them, and among the events so recorded is the miraculous apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe and her blessed image.

Becerra Tanco certifies that he has seen and read (for he is giving testimony to an ecclesiastical commission) a “map” (likely a chronological chart) of noted antiquity, inscribed with ancient figures and characters, in which are recorded events more than 300 years before the Spanish arrived. The map had some lines added in Latin letters to aid comprehension. This map was in the possession of D. Fernando de Alva, a translator for the viceroyalty’s Indian tribunal. He was a very capable, elderly man who understood and spoke the Mexican language with eminence, and had full knowledge of the characters and paintings of the natives. Since he was descended on his mother’s side from the kings of Tezcuco, he inherited many maps and historical papers. Among the events recorded after the conquest of the city of Mexico was the miraculous apparition of Our Lady and her blessed image of Guadalupe. He also had in his possession a notebook written in letters of our alphabet in the Mexican language, in the hand of one of the oldest students of the College of Santa Cruz. This notebook described the four apparitions of the Blessed Virgin to the Indian Juan Diego, and the fifth to his uncle Juan Bernardino.

This is a striking testimony, to which we will return and examine at some length, for it is the first identification of a sixteenth-century written source for the Guadalupe narrative. The gentleman Fernando de Alva will figure prominently in assessing the provenance of both the Nican mopohua and Becerra Tanco’s narrative, as we shall see later. For now, it suffices to note that he possessed at least two sources mentioning Guadalupe: an old “map” or annal in traditional pictography (with clarifications in Latin letters added later), and a notebook in Nahuatl using Latin letters, written by one of the earliest students of the College of Santa Cruz, which describes all five of the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Juan Diego and Juan Bernardino.

Becerra Tanco also testifies that he had heard the old Indians sing in their mitotes and saraos, which the natives were accustomed to do before the flood of the city (1629), when they celebrated the feast of Our Lady in her shrine of Guadalupe. This was done in the plaza to the west, outside the shrine’s cemetery. Many dancers would dance in a circle, and in the middle the elders stood singing to the sound of a teponaztli. The song referred to the miraculous apparition of the Most Holy Virgin and her blessed image, and in the song it was said that the image was on the cloak or tilma of Juan Diego, and how it appeared in the presence of D. fray Juan de Zumárraga, first bishop of the city. At the end of the song is added the miracles that Our Lord worked on the day when the image was placed in its first shrine, and the celebrations that the natives held during this translation of the image. Up until this point the most ancient and true tradition reaches.

This explains why Becerra Tanco does not include any narrative of the later miracles, since he does not consider this to be part of the most ancient tradition. The native custom of preserving the story of Guadalupe through song might also account for they lyrical style of the dialogue, and why it appears to be in a relatively fixed form, so that even disparate authors relying on different sources might agree on the substance of this dialogue. Becerra, for his part, seems to have derived his dialogue from a written source, as mentioned earlier, though the other parts of his narrative might come from traditions such as the dances he attended. The only written sources he has mentioned so far are those owned by Fernando de Alva.

Becerra Tanco continues with other facts he finds relevant to establishing the truth of the narrative. First, it is well attested in ancient native histories that the hill of Tepeyácac, where the Blessed Virgin appeared to Juan Diego, was formerly the site of an idolatrous cult for a goddess named Teontenantzin, which means “mother of the gods.” She was also called Toci, meaning, “our grandmother.” As was a common interpretation of paganism at the time, Becerra Tanco avers that the devil set himself up for worship in this guise, arrogating to himself the title that rightly belongs to the Blessed Virgin. Thus it is only fitting that the true Mother of God should manifest herself here, and the past history of the site, in Becerra Tanco’s eyes, corroborates the veracity of the story.

He also says it was fitting that Divine Providence, having chosen to make these revelations to recently converted natives, rather than a bishop or religious or any person of importance, saw that the Indian Juan Diego should be poor and humble, a man of no importance. This is because the miracle is not accredited by human authority, but with the evidence of the event, in accordance with Our Lord’s saying, “I confess to thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them to the little ones.” (Mt. 11:25) Similarly, St. Paul writes: “And the base things of the world, and the things that are contemptible, hath God chosen, and things that are not, that he might bring to nought things that are.” (1 Cor. 1:28)

Regarding the character of Juan Diego, Becerra Tanco believes it is clear that he was a very humble and virtuous man, as can be seen from how he addresses the Blessed Virgin, and how Our Lady wished for him and no other should be her messenger. He carried out his duties with profound humility and obedience, and the natives of that century recalled that he lived virtuously for the rest of his life in her temple, where he assisted with vigilance and reverence.

Regarding the image itself, he says that the greatest craftsmen in the art of painting have confessed that the image of her beautiful face could not be made by human hand, since it was made on an untreated rough canvas made not of cotton, but of palm thread that the natives called izotl. The colors, including the gold, are all natural colors used by the natives. This does not diminish the miracle, since God, as Author of nature, may fittingly use nature as the effects of His providence. Nor does it diminish the miracle that the canvas has become corrupted as all natural objects are corruptible. In fact, it is admirable that the colors have not lost their luster in 135 years (1531 to 1666, when Becerra originally gave his testimony).

The author also notes that the tradition does not say that the image was drawn in the presence of the bishop, but that when the Indian opened his cloak to show the sign of the flowers, the bishop saw the image on the unfolded cloak.

[Top of page]

5.6 Testimony

Next, Becerra Tanco affirms, as a witness, what he heard “from persons worthy of full faith and credit, and well known in this city.” These men understood and spoke the Mexican language perfectly, and certified having heard the tradition, as it is written, from those who knew the natives to whom the Blessed Virgin had appeared, and had known D. fray Juan de Zumárraga and other elders from that century. Becerra Tanco’s testimony is third-hand, relating what certain men told him about what they had heard from those old enough to have known the protagonists of the Guadalupe narrative. It is not clear whether these elders of the sixteenth century witnessed the miraculous events themselves, or heard it from the eyewitnesses, which would make Becerra Tanco’s account fourth-hand testimony.

The first of Becerra Tanco’s indirect witnesses is Lic. D. Pedro Ruiz de Alarcón, a priest who was quite erudite in the Mexican language, and died at the age of eighty-six in 1659 (hence born c. 1573). The second is Lic. don Gaspar de Prabez, a secular priest, who had long ministered to the Indians, and was a “Cicero in the Mexican language.” He attested to have heard the tradition from D. Juan Valeriano [sic], an Indian of noble ancestry who studied in the College of Santa Cruz de Santiago Tlatelolco, and mastered Spanish and Latin rhetoric. The Spanish government entrusted him as governor of the natives in the city for forty years. He taught Nahuatl to R. P. fray Juan de Torquemada, as that author attests in the second book of his Monarquía indiana. Gaspar de Prabez was a maternal uncle of Becerra Tanco, who spoke with him at length until his death in 1628 at the age of eighty (hence born c. 1548). Thus Becerra’s uncle was old enough to have known those who were contemporaries of the Juan Diego and Juan de Zumárraga, who both died in 1548. Obviously, “Juan Valeriano” is actually Antonio Valeriano, who was a close friend of Juan de Torquemada, and figures prominently in the historiography of Guadalupe, being the reputed author of the Nican mopohua, according to later Guadalupan scholars.

Lic. don Pedro Ponce de León (c. 1546-1626), another priest, and a friend of Gaspar de Prabez, had also spoken of the tradition to Becerra Tanco. Both men had explained to the author how to understand the characters and figures used in the native annals.

Gerónimo de León, another wise elder who spoke elegant Nahuatl, described the tradition to the author. He died more than thirty-five years ago at the age of more than eighty-five. Counting back from 1666, this would mean he lived from 1546 to 1631 at the latest.

The tradition was also recounted by Francisco de Mercado, an interpreter of the royal chancery who was exceptionally talented in the Nahuatl tongue. From him, Becerra learned the true meaning of certain Nahuatl expressions. This man had spoken with many Indians of nobility and talent in the city.

Becerra omits many other witnesses, who do not deserve the same credit as the men mentioned, since they did not know anything about the affairs of the natives. The author asserts that the tradition, which he has written, “is more vividly impressed in the memory of the Indians of this city,” since it was to them that the Blessed Virgin appeared. This was sufficient cause for the Spaniards of that era not to esteem the miracle as much, regarding “the Indians as beasts or incapable of reason, as our historians affirm.”

In Becerra Tanco’s discussion of Spanish witnesses, it seems that only those familiar with indigenous traditions know much about the miracle of Guadalupe. Given the character of the witnesses he has cited, if Becerra is to be believed, this would prove at least that the indigenous tradition extends back to the mid-sixteenth century. It does not prove, however, that a tradition of similar antiquity persisted among the Spanish. In fact, Becerra attempts to explain the lack of a Spanish tradition by referring to the disdain with which they held the Indians. He refers to the Spanish “of that era,” for in the seventeenth century such prejudices had subsided, and the tradition of the Guadalupe miracle was well known among the Spanish at least since the 1620s, as we shall see later.

More recent memories of the natives include the tradition that Juan Diego and his wife María Lucía remained chaste, at least after baptism, having heard a sermon praising virginity, which is loved by God. It is said that the preacher was Fray Toribio de Benavente (c. 1482-1568), a famous Franciscan missionary called Motolinia by the Indians. This term, which means “poor,” was how the natives referred to the friars, who dressed in much simpler clothing than the soldiers. When Fray Toribio came to understand what this meant, he declared that he wished for this to be his name. The continence of Juan Diego and his wife was well known among those who knew them. Juan Diego spent many hours praying and meditating each day, in the manner he was capable, and practicing mortifications.

According to tradition, Juan Diego died in 1548 at the age of seventy-four, so he was born in 1474. Also, he was baptized when the first Franciscans came. Becerra says this was in 1524, from which deduces that he was baptized at the age of forty-eight. This is an evident mathematical error, as Juan Diego had to have been forty-nine or fifty in 1524. He may have been forty-eight in the year 1523, which is when the very first Franciscans, Peter of Ghent and two others, arrived in Mexico. Yet as we shall see in the first edition, Becerra is referring to the arrival of Fray Toribio de Motolinia and the rest of the “twelve Apostles” who came in 1524. Another apparent error is Becerra Tanco's claim that María Lucía died two years after the apparition rather than before it, in 1534. Juan Bernardino died in 1544, aged eighty-four, “and both were buried in the shrine of the Most Holy Virgin.” It is not clear if “both” refers to uncle and nephew, or to Juan Diego’s uncle and his wife. If the latter, this would be consistent with the claim his wife died after the apparition. However, the first interpretation is more consistent with what follows immediately. “It is held for certain that the same Most Holy Virgin had appeared at the hour of death to the uncle and nephew, and had consoled and comforted them.” Becerra regards all these facts (from the story of their chastity onward) as “the second tradition, written by the natives in their language with letters from our alphabet.” Apparently these facts were to be found in later glosses in the native annals, written in Latin letters.

Becerra Tanco cautions that no credence should be given to anything else that the natives of his day might say on this matter, if it does not come from persons of distinction. This is in part because those Indians who have learned to read and write in Latin letters do not understand the ancient characters of their histories, and have forgotten how to compute the ages, being accustomed to the European calendar, with its months of the year and Church feasts. Also, much of what the elderly Indians affirm is with many errors, confused and without order. Only those evangelizing ministers who applied themselves to scrutinizing the maps and pictures could give their meaning. As for the author himself, it took him much effort to adjust their computation to ours, and to separate the superstitious from the natural. This is the clearest indication yet that Becerra Tanco has personally looked at indigenous annals, from which he derived the above computed dates. The difficulty in making the translation to the Spanish calendar may account for the irregularities we have mentioned above.

He adds that the witness who deserves most credit, being still alive, is the blessed image that is preserved intact. Confirming the tradition that this was once the cloak or tilma of a poor, humble Indian, the material is woven palm thread, as opposed to the white cotton thread used for the cloaks of nobles. This can be seen from the fringe of the cloth, which has been clipped for relics. The image is on a poor Indian’s cloak because Juan Diego had left his home not with the intent of carrying miraculous signs to the bishop, but to find a priest for his uncle. He even tried to avoid being seen by the Blessed Virgin, and knew only about the flowers, not the painting. Undoubtedly, the bishop made the necessary scrutiny in order to publicize the miracle, which was proved by the roses that could not grow on the hill. Becerra Tanco assumes that Zúmarraga formally publicized the miracle, a claim we will later examine more carefully.

At any rate, the author finds that the bishop cannot be accused of credulity, when he twice disbelieved the Indian. Nor is it credible that his ministers and other prudent men would believe such a prodigy without examining it carefully, especially when the Spanish in Mexico believed that the Indian were brutes incapable of reason. From this we can conclude that the painting was not made by the hand of man, but must have appeared instantaneously. This is based on the fact that Juan Diego did not know about the painting, or even intend to gather a sign when he departed from his house.

[Top of page]

5.7 Conclusion

The author comments that there is no other miraculous image in the New World that is of such venerable origin as that of Guadalupe. This singular prodigy happened at the city of Mexico, the head of the Aztec empire, where innumerable human souls were sacrificed to false gods. While many were led to Hell being deceived by the devil, many would be led to Heaven through the cult of the true Mother of the true God. He cites Romans 5:20: “And where sin abounded, grace did more abound.” What Pope St. Leo said of Rome was now true of Mexico: “What has been a Teacher of error is now a Disciple of truth.”

He adds that there are innumerable different devotional images and figures of the Blessed Virgin, expressing various ideas of beauty and decency through human artifice, which knows nothing of what is in heaven. Yet Divine Wisdom has repressed our vain imaginings, sending us a drawing of Our Lady the Virgin Mary on a coarse Mexican canvas, to teach us to be humble and not put our trust in material things, for even in sensible things, nothing is what it seems. Although it is true that this blessed image and even painted copies of this image have worked many miracles, including the deliverance of the city from the flood that lasted from 1629 to 1633, these are not written here because they would require a large volume, and the image itself is the greatest miracle. Besides, it is not a new thing that the Most Holy Virgin works miracles through whichever of her images, so these are left to the consideration of the faithful.

Finally, Becerra offers some chronological clarifications. “The invincible captain don Fernando Cortés” arrived at the port of San Juan de Ulúa,rdquo; later called Nueva Veracruz, in the year 1519. This year was beginning of the (52-year) cycle in the Aztec calendar. They held by tradition that in this cycle the monarchy would fall and cease, and so it happened. The entire city of Mexico fell to Spanish on August 13, 1521. Don fray Juan de Zumárraga, with the title of bishop elect and protector of the Indians, arrived in the year 1528, a commission that was indicated in a royal certificate (cédula real) from Charles V, dated January 10, 1528. In 1532, he returned to the kingdoms of Castile to be consecrated, being called by the Empress, as shown by a certificate dated February 7, 1531.

Zumárraga’s return to Spain was a few months after the apparition of Our Lady. It is unknown with whom he left his writings, or if he took them with him, which is more credible. He returned within three years, consecrated, to Mexico, and died as archbishop elect of the city in 1548, having been prelate of this Holy Church for twenty years. He was a very humble man, of rare virtue and example.

Becerra Tanco again says that the Franciscans first arrived in Mexico in 1524. He is not counting the three Flemish Franciscans who arrived in 1523 (sent from Spain in 1522). Possibly, the indigenous annals that said Juan Diego converted “when the Franciscans arrived” meant the arrival of Peter of Ghent in 1523, while Becerra Tanco took this to mean the arrival of “the Twelve” Franciscans in 1524, who started evangelization in earnest. The author’s ability to compute indigenous dates is not to be impugned on this account, since a one year discrepancy can arise from the fact that the Aztec and Spanish calendar years do not start at the same time.

Lastly, he notes that these first evangelists, being unable to learn much of the difficult and elegant Mexican language in a brief period, preached and catechized to those who requested holy baptism, through Spanish children, raised among the Indians, and through Indian children. They dictated to the children what they had to teach and say, and these children taught what they had retained by memory. In this manner, the Holy Gospel spread throughout the provinces. We note that, from the very beginning, Spanish children lived among Indians, and that the Indians came forward requesting baptism. This account of early racial integration is consistent with many other testimonies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in sharp contrast with later revisionist history. Also, the idea of using boys to memorize and propagate important teachings is adopted from the indigenous culture.

[Top of page]

5.8 Comparison with the First Edition

As noted previously, the account just described was actually the second edition of Becerra Tanco’s testimony, published posthumously. His original paper of 1666 has some substantial differences from the second edition, and some scholars, most notably D.A. Brading, have seized upon these differences to insinuate that Becerra Tanco was falsifying his original testimony in order to give his now preferred interpretation of Guadalupe. In particular, Brading claims that the first edition was based on Mateo de la Cruz’s summary of the Sánchez narrative, and the second edition was based on Lasso de la Vega’s Nican mopohua. For his part, Becerra Tanco said that the second edition was made in order to incorporate the more factually exact testimony of his recovered notebooks, which had been missing in 1666, forcing him to write from memory at that time. This may suffice to account for differences in the apparition narrative, but there are other changes that we will need to scrutinize closely as well.

Becerra Tanco’s original paper was published as a pamphlet in 1666, but this is no longer extant, as the Guadalupan scholar José Fernando Ramirez has attested. (José Fernando Ramirez, “Adiciones a la Biblioteca de Beristain,” in: Jose Fernando Ramirez, Ernesto de la Torre Villar, Obras históricas, p. 50.) The last known mention of an extant copy was in 1794, when D. Francisco Javier Conde y Oquendo transcribed the title verbatim from a copy he possessed. This title, and a brief summary of the tract’s contents, can be found in his Disertación histórica sobre la aparición de la portentosa imagen de María santísima de Guadalupe de México. (VII, n. 463)

According to Conde y Oquendo, the exact full title of Becerra Tanco’s original pamphlet was: Orígen milagroso del santuario de Ntra. Sra. de Guadalupe, extramuros de la ciudad de México. Fundamentos verídicos, con que se prueba ser infalible la tradicion que hay en esta ciudad acerca de la aparicion de la Vírgen María Señora Nuestra, y de su milagrosa Imágen (“Miraculous origin of the sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe, outside the walls of the city of Mexico. Truthful foundations, with which is proved to be infallible the tradition that there is in this city regarding the apparition of Our Lady the Virgin Mary, and of her miraculous Image.”) The word “infallible” is emphasized, showing Becerra’s strident purpose to unequivocally defend the veracity of the tradition. The title speaks of the tradition as it is known in the city, not as something that is the product of Miguel Sánchez’s writing.

Conde y Oquendo says that the tenor of what is related in this pamphlet is the same as that testified by Becerra Tanco to the ecclesiastical authorities in 1666. In the copy he holds, which was printed in 1666, there is a dedication to “M. V. Sr. dean y cabildo metropolitano, sedevacante” (the unoccupied ecclesiastical office of dean in the metropolitan chapter). This is signed by Dr. Tanco. In the prologue, Tanco expounds the motives for this printing. Then, after the story of the holy image, “which is related clearly and sufficiently with a serious and energetic style,” there is added other good news of the treasure which shows the erudition of the author, and “that although it does not cast down the other accounts that give knowledge of this affair, it is very conducive to the full and exact proof of the tradition of the miracle.”

Although there is no longer a copy of the original pamphlet, its content was incorporated into Becerra Tanco’s official testimony given in the Informaciones of 1666. The oldest extant copy of the Informaciones, which dates to 1737, includes the full content of Becerra Tanco’s original paper, enabling us to compare it with what was published in Felicidad de México.

As recorded in the Informaciones, Becerra Tanco’s submitted paper consists of six parts: (1) Tradition of the miracle, (2) The tradition is proved; (3) Testimony; (4) Notice regarding the festivity of the apparition of the Image; (5) Conclusion of everything; (6) Re-examination of the Holy Image. The second edition of 1675 also has all these components, but it adds another section of “Annotations” inserted between (1) and (2), while comments on the festivity of the Image (which he recommends to be moved to December 22 to account for the reform of the calendar) are moved to the end with his discussion of physical examinations of the image. Since we are studying only the historiography of the apparition and subsequent events, sections (4) and (6) do not concern us much.

According to the Informaciones, Lic. Luis Becerra Tanco, aged sixty-one years, testified as the last witness on March 22, 1666. (This is stated at the end of the witness’ testimony.) Becerra Tanco’s testimony was in the form of a paper he presented, which is reproduced in its entirety in the ecclesiastical records. The title given is similar to that cited by Conde y Oquendo from his pamphlet copy, with slight differences in wording: Fundamentos ciertos, con que se prueba ser infalible la tradición, que ay en esta Ciudad de México, cerca de la Aparición de la Virgen María Señora nuestra, y de su Imagen milagrosa, que se llama de Guadalupe, que sacó a luz el Licenciado Luis Bezerra Tanco Presbytero natural de este Arzobispado, Cabeza y Metropoli de la Nueva - España, en la Septentrional America de las Indias Occidentales. The year 1666 follows the title.

Becerra Tanco opens by explaining his motive for writing. It had come to his notice that the Dean of the Church in charge of the investigation could not find any juridical documents regarding the origin of the apparition or image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the church archives. The author speculates that perhaps this was because this miracle was worked in the Indies, and it was then common to look upon those born in this kingdom with discredit.

…it is no wonder that it was considered as unauthorized being Indian, one hundred thirty-five years after its birth, though that tradition was preserved constantly among the inhabitants of this City, passing from fathers to sons, as true, and without controversy, as is related by Licenciado Miguel Sánchez, model of preachers... in the tract he printed in the year one thousand six hundred forty-six [sic], in which are paired the Apparition of the Blessed Virgin to the Indian Juan Diego, and the blessed image seen by St. John the Evangelist, mentioned in Chapter Twelve of the Apocalypse; and in the year one thousand six hundred forty-nine Licenciado Luis Laso de la Vega, gave to the presses the same tradition in the Mexican language, as it is preserved in the memory of the natives, being Vicar of the Sanctuary in which the image is venerated...

Brading finds it disingenuous that Becerra Tanco’s praise of his predecessors by name should be suppressed in the second edition, and suspects that this omission was intended to deny them credit for shaping his narrative. On the contrary, even in the first edition the author tempers his praise with the qualification that “neither one nor the other discussed the means of finding out, nor by what means this news passed to them.” This is consistent with his position in the second edition, where he praises his predecessors as “ingenious” and “very superior,” while lamenting that “they had not been so exact in the scrutiny of this history.” In the first edition, as in the second, he does not pretend to know the provenance of these works, nor does he indicate that he is utterly dependent on them for his knowledge of the apparition. In fact, he will assert the contrary.

I, with my trifling importance, having come in my youth to understand, having seen, and having read the origin of the tradition in the paintings and characters of the natives, and other writings of that century, in which the miracle occurred, and there not being found an eyewitness today that can attest to having known the persons that intervened in the affair, it seemed to me, that I would give an homage to the devotees of this Lady to put in writing the foundations that prove the Tradition in order to have it infallibly, in which all those born in this Archdiocese find ourselves interested.

Even in the first edition, Becerra Tanco clearly indicates that he was familiar with the tradition in his youth, which was long before Sánchez or Lasso de la Vega published their works, and that he had seen various writings and paintings testifying to the miracle. He contrasts his testimony with those of the other witnesses who, though ancient, did not personally know Juan Diego or any other personages in the history of the apparition. He concludes his introduction, as in the second edition, by claiming that he will give the narrative as simple factual truth, without dressing it in ornate words, quoting Boethius in support of this stance.

So much for the introduction of the first edition, but what of its apparition narrative? Brading claims that this is copied from Mateo de la Cruz’s abbreviated version of Sánchez’s narrative. This is not supported by the facts, as can be seen by comparing some critical passages.

First, the Blessed Virgin introduces herself to Juan Diego:

[Mateo de la Cruz:] Sabe hijo, que yo soy María Virgen Madre de Dios verdadero: quiero que se me funde aquí una casa, ermita y templo, en que mostrarme piadosa Madre contigo y con los tuyos, con mis devotos y con los que me buscaren para el remedio de sus necesidades. Ve al palacio del obispo de México, y en nombre mío dile, que es mi voluntad que se me edifique un templo en este sitio. Dile todo lo que has visto y oído, y yo con mis beneficios te pagaré agradecida este cuidado.

[Becerra Tanco:] Sábete, hijo mío, que yo soy María Virgen Madre del verdadero Dios, y que es mi voluntad que en este sitio se me edifique un templo en honra mía, donde mostraré a todos mis devotos los cariños de Madre; y para este fin has de ir con mensaje mio al obispo, que reside en la ciudad de México; y habiéndole referido lo que has visto y oído, le dirás que yo te envío y que es gusto mío que me labre un templo en este lugar y sitio.

It is obvious from inspection that the wording is very different between the two passages, even though the substance of the dialogue is similar. Even in substance, there are notable differences. De la Cruz’s version ends with the Virgin promising that she will gratefully repay Juan Diego for his diligence, while this is unmentioned in Becerra Tanco.

Taking another example, describing the Sunday morning when Juan Diego goes to Mass, Becerra Tanco in his first edition, just as in the second, mentions that the parish of Santiago Tlatelolco was later divided into multiple parishes, a fact omitted by de la Cruz and Sánchez. In fact, Becerra Tanco’s presentation of the events of Sunday morning is completely different from that of Sánchez and de la Cruz, since he describes them as they happen, while his predecessors give a recapitulation when Juan Diego meets with the Blessed Virgin at the end of the day.

To make another comparison of direct quotations, consider Juan Bernardino’s testimony:

[De la Cruz:] …el cual dijo que a la misma hora que su sobrino había ido a llamar al religioso ministro de los sacramentos, la Santísima Virgen María Madre de Dios le había dado salud, asistiéndole a su cabecera; y que le había mandado, que cuando viese al señor obispo, le refiriese lo que por él había pasado, y le intitulase con título de Santa María Virgen de Guadalupe, en la imagen que le había ofrecido…

[Becerra Tanco:] …afirmó Juan Bernardino que en aquella misma hora había visto él a la misma Señora en la propia forma que le decía, y le había dado salud perfecta, y que le había dicho era gusto suyo que se le edificase templo en el sitio que le habia señalado a su sobrino, y que su imagen se llamase Santa María de Guadalupe…

Again, the wording of these narratives, though both were composed in Spanish, are completely dissimilar, even in the title that Our Lady is to be given (Becerra Tanco omits the word Virgen). Many more such examples can be given, all to the effect that Becerra Tanco’s first edition does not closely follow De la Cruz’s version of the narrative, and in many places resembles his second edition more closely than it does any other version of the narrative. The idea that Becerra Tanco followed de la Cruz in his first edition, and suppressed this dependence in the second edition, is without sound foundation in the texts.

Brading’s belief in a literary dependence on Sánchez and de la Cruz seems to be grounded in his a priori assumption that the Guadalupe narrative was invented by them, in which case any factual similarities in Becerra Tanco's account is proof of literary dependence. Without this assumption, however, there is no basis for asserting that Becerra Tanco was dependent on these earlier authors. His first edition was an independent literary composition, which recounted many of the same facts, because as he, Sánchez, and many other witnesses attested, these details were part of a well-known, oft-repeated story.

As for Becerra Tanco’s supposed reversal in the second edition, suddenly turning to Lasso de la Vega’s version of the narrative, we have already seen that he does not closely match Lasso’s Nican mopohua, even if we account for imprecisions in translation from Nahuatl. Again, similarities in the dialogue portions can be accounted for by the fact that these would have acquired a relatively fixed form in indigenous traditions, particularly in their dramatic recreations through song and dance. If Becerra Tanco wanted to copy Lasso de la Vega, he could have done so in 1666, as he certainly knew of his work. The changes in the second edition are accounted for by the recovery of his notes, and any similarities to the Nican mopohua only indicate that both draw upon similar indigenous traditions. Brading’s aggressive denunciation of Becerra Tanco, practically calling him a fraud, though he was of unimpeachable character, is made necessary by his a priori assumption that the Guadalupe narrative was composed in the 1640s. Once we discard that unfounded prejudice, we can account for all the facts without doing violence to the texts.

There are some places where there are factual errors in the first edition, which are corrected in the second. For example, in the first edition’s Sunday morning narrative, he says Juan Diego went to the “convento de Santiago Tlatelolco,” though no convent for the friars was yet built in 1531. In the second edition, this is corrected to “templo de Santiago Tlatelolco.

At the end of the apparition narrative, which is where the other witnesses end as well, Becerra Tanco’s paper says “This is all of the simple tradition and without adornment of words,” just as in his second edition. This is immediately followed by content similar to that of the Anotaciones in the second edition, beginning with noting that the year 1531 was 51 years before the Gregorian correction of the calendar. The second edition’s discussion of the origin of the name ‘Guadalupe’ is omitted in the first edition.

The first edition’s second section, the “Proof of the tradition,” is retained almost entirely verbatim in the second edition, though the latter adds some details, such as the Nahuatl term Metztli. In short, Becerra Tanco’s detailed testimony about the various methods by which the natives preserved their traditions is the same in both the 1666 and 1675 versions of his testimony. Brading’s idea that Becerra Tanco tried to “Indianize” Guadalupe in the second edition is not substantiated by the facts, as he was consistent and steadfast in his assertions of the existence of oral and written indigenous sources.

There is, however, an important difference in Becerra Tanco’s testimony regarding the notebook possessed by Fernando de Alva. In the second edition, he says it was written “in the hand of an Indian who was one of the eldest of the College of Santa Cruz.” However, in the first edition, he instead says the following:

…and I saw a notebook written with the letters of our alphabet in the hand of an Indian, in which was recounted the four apparitions of the Most Holy Virgin to the Indian Juan Diego, and the fifth to his uncle Juan Bernardino, which was that which was given to the presses in the Mexican language by order of Licenciado Luis Lasso de la Vega, vicar of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe, [in] the year one thousand six hundred forty-nine…

Here Becerra Tanco makes the astonishing claim that Lasso de la Vega’s apparition narrative is that which was possessed by Fernando de Alva. Why does he suppress this claim in the second edition? It is possible that he later believed it to be false, having recovered his notes on Fernando de Alva’s version and finding discrepancies with Lasso de la Vega, which may have been only superficially similar to Fernando de Alva’s version on casual inspection. Another possibility, suggested by Brading, is that Becerra Tanco wanted to give the impression in the second edition that his account was based on Alva’s mysterious notebook rather than Lasso de la Vega, and wished to hide his dependence on the latter. However, in the second edition, Becerra Tanco makes no explicit claim to have copied or taken notes from this notebook, only to have seen it. In fact, he nowhere indicates that his narrative is derived principally from a single source. From what he says in the “Proof of the Tradition,” and indeed from what can be gathered from the content of his apparition narrative, Becerra Tanco freely composed his narrative based on his notes from various sources, so as a whole it is not a verbatim translation or transcription of any single source document.

The idea that Becerra Tanco’s apparition narrative was based principally on Alva’s notebook was never put forward by Becerra Tanco himself, but was advanced by later Guadalupan scholars. We cannot properly evaluate such a thesis until we have a more precise knowledge of the content of Alva’s notebook, an issue we will examine later.

In his observations about the image on the tilma, Becerra Tanco includes a discussion of the three kinds of maguey, which is omitted from the second edition.

One of these is not a tree but a plant very similar in form to the aloe, though it is not bitter; from this a very medicinal drink is extracted, which serves as wine to the Natives, which they call Pulque. From the pulpy leaves of this plant, which are fibrous, crushed and thrown into any water current, is extracted a thread called Pita, rough like hemp thread, from which cords are made, and a very rough cloth is woven, which serves only for bags or sackcloths, and is called ayate. This is not the cloth of the Image.

There is another species of smaller magueyes, whose pulpy leaves are narrower and longer, from which is extracted pita for sewing and embroidering, and this thread is softer, and no cloth of any sort is made from this.

The third species is very similar to this second one, but it grows on the tip of certain palms, which the natives call Iczotl, which is the same as threaded palm. After being cultivated like flax, a thread is extracted that is softer than the other two of which we have spoken, and from this was woven in antiquity a cloth like canvas but softer, which the poor and humble people used as Tilmas or cloaks, and today it is in use in some places far removed from this Court, and this too is called Ayate. The image is depicted on this kind of cloth.

This fuller explanation gives context to Becerra Tanco’s simpler statement in the second edition that the cloth is made “not of cloth, but of palm thread, which the natives call yzotl.” In the original, he explains that the cloth made from this thread is also called ayate, though it is from a different plant than the coarser ayate used for sackcloth. This answers the modern critics who complain that the cloth is too fine to be made from maguey, and gives further evidence of Becerra Tanco’s detailed knowledge of native culture. We further note that the first and second editions are fully consistent with each other.

The Testificación or “Testimony” of the first edition closely matches the second edition, except there is additional testimony tries to explain physical attributes of the Blessed Image. Becerra Tanco says that the seeming imperfections of the Image actually give evidence of miraculous origin. First, he notes that the tradition does not say that the image was formed as the Indian untied his cloak before the bishop, but only that the image was then seen. Rather, the Virgin forbade Juan Diego to open the cloak to anyone besides the bishop because the Image was already on it. Becerra Tanco also infers that, since it was the intention of the Holy Virgin that a Temple be built on the site where she appeared, to be honored by the faithful of Mexico, it was appropriate to give an image of her person that could only have come from here.

In support of his belief that the image was formed at Tepeyac, Becerra Tanco observes that Juan Diego walked south, which is where the sun would have been at that time of year, so when he saw the Blessed Virgin, the sun would have been behind her, as in the image, and she would be in shadow. As the Indian rose from kneeling to carry out the Virgin’s order to gather flowers, God ordered an angel to paint the Image on his cloak, which was then folded in some places, flattened in others. Accordingly, the image is distorted in some places on account of the perspective from which the Blessed Virgin’s image was projected onto the cloth in that instant.

Becerra Tanco’s theory about how the image was formed is of little concern to our historical inquiry. The same may be said of his argument that the feast date ought to be moved to December 22 to account for the Gregorian reform of the calendar, in order to preserve the significance of her appearing on the vernal equinox and shortly before the birth of her Son.

There is, however, some relevance in his explanation of the lack of official Church documents on the apparition. He notes that Zumárraga was then only bishop elect, and that in his role as Protector of the Indians, he had already embroiled himself in controversy by opposing their sale as slaves. His enemies among the notables in Mexico and in the Royal Chancery had him brought to Castile before the Emperor. Any Acts pertaining to the Apparition were presumably lost on his person during the trip, as there was no Church archive yet in Mexico.

His conclusion is very similar to the second edition, with some minor variations in wording. The first edition does not contain any mention of the later miracles that are briefly alluded to in the second edition. In the first edition, he mentions that the year in which the Mexican kingdom was predicted to fall was called Ceacatl. He also mentions by name Fray Toribio de Venavente, also called Motolinia, as arriving in 1524 with eleven other Franciscans. In the second edition, he only says that the first Franciscans arrived in 1524, which we have noted is not quite accurate, since Peter of Ghent and two others arrived earlier.

At the end of the paper, Becerra Tanco attests that, on the orders of the Dean, he has seen and touched the cloth of the Image on March 20, 1666, and gives the following further testimony:

I certify that it is woven from the thread of some palms, from which is mentioned both in the time of the natives’ paganism and today, that which is called in their language Iccotilmatli, and is worked like flax, and not thread of maguey. From this is woven a type of cloth like canvas, though not as rough, and from which the humble and poor people dress themselves, and from which are made cloaks for the men, which hang from the neck to the ankle, and it is seen with all certainty, that the cloth does not have the preparation that painters use…

This statement is consistent with what was said earlier in the paper, where the cloth material was called Iczotl. However, here he does not again mention that this material is equivocally referred to by the natives as a kind of maguey. It is doubtful that this is a retraction of his previous statement, since his written testimony, signed on March 22, was not certified by the Apostolic Notary until April 2, so he would have had time to amend his paper if he desired to do so.

In sum, Becerra Tanco’s testimony is internally self-consistent, and adds much to our knowledge of the Guadalupan tradition as it was preserved among the natives. Nonetheless, despite his criticism of his predecessors for not indicating their sources, Becerra Tanco himself often gives confusing and indeterminate sourcing of his narrative. We do not know which elements of his narrative came from which sources, and the sources he does cite are of uncertain provenance. The document of greatest importance for the future historiography of Guadalupe is the mysterious notebook he saw in the possession of Fernando de Alva, both in the original Nahuatl and in Alva’s own paraphrased translation. This notebook will reappear in some equally confusing and often misinterpreted testimony by the last of the four original Guadalupan evangelists, P. Francisco de Florencia.

Continue to Part IV


[1] Revised several lines on September 3, 2011, to make clear that there is only an indirect literary relationship between the texts of Lasso and Becerra Tanco.

© 2010-2011, 2015 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org