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Historiography of the Apparition of Guadalupe

Daniel J. Castellano (2011)

Part VII

The Witnesses at Mexico City in 1666
Argument from Silence

The Witnesses at Mexico City in 1666

Significance of the Testimony
Credibility of the Testimony
The Painters' Testimony

The remaining twelve witnesses in the Informaciones of 1666 gave their depositions in Mexico City. Their testimony serves to establish that the traditional Guadalupan narrative was well known in the capital long before the publication of P. Sánchez's work. However, they do not give probative evidence that the apparition tradition extends all the way back to the 1530s or 40s, much less that there was ever any formal documentation of the event by Archbishop Zumárraga. Rather than focus on their confirmation of what was said by the Indians at Cuautitlán, we will instead emphasize what is absent from the Spanish testimony, namely any knowledge of earlier written accounts or contemporaries of the protagonists. These omissions will lead us into our later discussion of the problem of silence among sixteenth century Spanish writers.


The first witness interviewed at Mexico City (and ninth overall) was none other than P. Miguel Sánchez, author of the famous 1648 narrative. On February 18, 1666, then aged sixty, he gave his answers to the questions formulated by Francisco de Siles, whom he had known for over thirty-five years. He solemnified his testimony in verbo sacerdotis, and even skeptical historians such as Stafford Poole have acknowledged that P. Sánchez was an extremely scrupulous and conscientious priest.

Sánchez testified that he had heard the apparition narrative from many persons of quality, nobility, and education for fifty years (i.e., since c. 1615). Unlike the Indian witnesses, he does not identify which specific elders taught him the story, nor is it clear which details he heard fifty years ago and which were learned later.

Sánchez does offer some explanation about the absence of documentation of the apparition. He claims to have spoken with Lic. Bartholomé García, the Vicar of the Shrine of Guadalupe, who died at the age of sixty-eight to seventy and would be more than ninety years old today (i.e., lived c. 1575-1645). The Vicar said that many papers were missing from the archiepiscopal archives, and could be found for sale in stores, as they had been robbed during a paper shortage.

Lic. García also told Sánchez that he heard from D. Alonzo Muñoz de la Torre, Dean of the Metropolitan Cathedral, about an occasion when the latter had gone to visit Archbishop García de Mendoza, of the Order of St. Jerome, who reigned during the 1600s, as he recalled. (In fact, he reigned 1600-1606, to be precise.) Don Alonzo saw the archbishop reading the official juridical acts (los Autos, y Proceso) of the apparition. Even if we accept the honesty and fidelity of P. Sánchez, this testimony about the acts comes at thirdhand, via the Vicar Bartholomé García, who in turn heard from D. Alonzo de Muñoz de la Torre. Even if we were to accept the accuracy of these recollections, it is still possible that Muñoz de la Torre was mistaken regarding the authenticity or subject matter of the documents being read by the archbishop. While this testimony is a tantalizing suggestion that official acts of the apparition existed as late as 1600, we should prefer stronger evidence before declaring the fact proven or even probable.

P. Sánchez's answers to the remaining questions add little to what has already been said by the witnesses at Cuautitlán, who were better positioned to verify most of the pertinent claims. His testimony basically establishes that the Guadalupan narrative, as he recorded it in 1648, had been known in Mexico City at least since the very early seventeenth century.

Notably, P. Sánchez does not make reference to any written sources whatsoever, implying that his 1648 work was freely composed by himself, based on oral tradition. His book's similarity in content to the Nican mopohua and other variants is sufficiently accounted for by the basic consistency in the Guadalupan tradition. His wording diverges considerably from the other sources (even accounting for loose translation to or from Nahuatl), so that there is no strong reason to believe one text is derived from the other. Similarity of factual content alone does not prove textual dependence, but it does help establish that Sánchez was not inventing what he wrote in 1648. Since he had no written sources, he could only have gathered the facts of his narrative from oral tradition, which in most respects matched what is recorded in the Nican mopohua. His claim that this apparition narrative was well known among the Spanish at least since around 1600 will be corroborated by the other witnesses in the capital.

The second witness at Mexico City (and tenth overall) was Fray Pedro de Oyanguren, a preaching Dominican who lived in the royal convent and had known Francisco de Siles for more than twenty-five years. He testified in verbo sacerdotis that he had heard the apparition story since he had the use of reason - he was aged over eighty-five years - from elders of every station in life, including his own parents and grandparents, as well as persons of civic dignity. His brief account of the miracle is consistent with that of other depositions, and like some of the others he says Juan Diego saw the Virgin three times.

Fr. Oyanguren also says that he heard from his elders and from people in the highest positions in the kingdom that Zumárraga established the veneration of the image, hanging it for fifteen days from the wall of his chapel, by which the miracle was publicized. The image was then translated to its chapel built on the site of the apparition, with a procession full of dignitaries, including all the clergy and religious, the viceroy, the Real Audiencia, and the various civic tribunals. The witness said this occurred on the first or second [day] of Christmas in that month in 1531. This is consistent with the traditional date of December 12 for the Guadalupe miracle, for the image would have been in the chapel from the 12th to the 26th inclusive, which is fifteen days.

Oyanguren's testimony otherwise does not add much to what was stated by P. Sánchez, except that, being about eighty-five years old, he can establish an earlier date for the popularization of the Guadalupe story in Mexico City. He would have attained the age of reason (age seven) around 1588, so by this time the Guadalupe story as we have it was already undisputed in that city.

The third witness in Mexico City (eleventh overall) was P. Fr. Bartholomé de Tapia, a Franciscan who was Father Provincial of the Holy Gospel in New Spain. He solemnly testified that he had heard the Guadalupan narrative since his childhood (he was aged fifty-five). His testimony has no substantial addition to what was already stated by previous witnesses, but is valued because he is man of high position and esteem.

The fourth witness (twelfth overall) was P. Fr. Antonio de Mendoza, an Augustinian who was Difinidor of the Province of the Holy Name of Jesus in New Spain. A native of Mexico City aged sixty-six, P. Mendoza testified that he had heard the Guadalupe story since his youth from men of high station. Among these were his grandfather Lic. D. Antonio Maldonado, President of the royal chancery of Mexico, and his father D. Alonso de Mendoza, who was the captain of the guard for the Viceroy Count of Coruña. This last must have been Lorenzo Suárez de Mendoza, Fourth Count of La Coruña, who was Viceroy of New Spain from 1580 to 1583, roughly "ninety years ago" as the witness says.

The next witness (thirteenth overall), P. Fr. Juan de Herrera, a religious of Our Lady of Las Mercedes Redempcion de Captivos, had held the high university faculty position of catedrático in theology three times. Aged 71, he also testified that he had heard the Guadalupe miracle narrative since childhood from his elders and other persons of esteem.

The next witness (fourteenth overall) was P. Fr. Pedro de San Simon, a Carmelite, former Provincial and thrice Prior, was aged sixty-five and had lived in New Spain for thirty-two years. Since he first arrived, he had heard much about the Guadalupe story from many persons of esteem from every social class.

The next witness (fifteenth overall) was P. Diego de Monroy, who was the superior (preposito) of the Jesuit Casa Profesa in Mexico City. He was sixty-five years old. He says (in answer to the second question) that he heard the traditional apparition story from reputable elders more than forty years ago, yet he also says (in answer to the first question) that he has heard of the apparition since he had the use of reason, which would have been nearly sixty years ago. This apparent discrepancy is not resolved. It is possible that P. Monroy did not learn the full apparition narrative in detail until the 1620s, around the time of the flood when there was a revival in Guadalupan devotion.

P. Fr. Juan de S. Joseph, a seventy-six-year-old Franciscan provincial who was prelate of all the Franciscan houses, said that he had heard about the apparition narrative for more than fifty-four years, as long he has had lived in New Spain. Although he could not establish the tradition as far back as the witnesses raised in Mexico, he was evidently selected as a witness on account of his high office and reputation.

The next witness, P. Fr. Pedro de San Nicolas, had been a prelate of several of houses of the order of St. John. Aged seventy-one at the time of the interrogation, he testified that he had heard the traditional apparition narrative from elders of authority since he had the use of reason.

The tenth witness at Mexico City (eighteenth overall) was Fray Nicolás Cerdan, Provincial of the Order of St. Hippolytus. Aged sixty-one, he merely corroborates the testimony that the traditional narrative had been well known for decades (since around 1610, when he reached the age of reason).

The next witness (nineteenth overall) was D. Miguel de Cuebas Davalos, the first non-ecclesiastic interviewed at Mexico City. Don Miguel had been the alcalde ordinario or chief magistrate, and also held offices of alcalde maior (an imperial administrator or corregidor) in New Spain. The witness professed that, although he is very devoted to Our Lady of Guadalupe, he will testify only in accordance with his conscience, what he knows and is true. Here he shows careful scruples about testifying only to what he witnessed, rather than exaggerate in order to express devotion.

The witness says he knew about the traditional apparition narrative since he had the use of reason (c. 1592). He had heard it from his parents and many other elders of authority, and had never heard anyone say anything to the contrary, as this was common knowledge throughout the kingdom.

The last witness interviewed at Mexico City (twentieth overall) was D. Diego Cano Moctezuma, a knight of the Order of Santiago. This mestizo nobleman was a "grandson" of the last Aztec emperor Moctezuma (c. 1480-1521). He had served as alcalde ordinario of Mexico City twice, in 1638 and in 1658, and he also served regularly in the higher offices of alcalde maior in New Spain. At the time of his testimony given on March 11, 1666, he was aged sixty-one years (e.g., born in 1604 or 1605).

Other historical sources indicate that Diego Cano Moctezuma was the grandson of Gonzalo Cano Moctezuma (c. 1545-97), the son of the Spaniard Juan Cano de Saavedra (d. 1572), who in 1526 became the fifth husband (not counting her unrecognized marriage to Hernan Cortez) of Princess Tecuichpo de Moctezuma (1500-1551), a daughter of Moctezuma also known as Isabel de Moctezuma. [Hugh Thomas, Who's Who of the Conquistadors, pp. 25, 45, 348] Thus he was actually the great-great-grandson of Moctezuma. His father was Juan Cano de Moctezuma y Calderon (born c. 1590), and his paternal grandmother was the mestiza Ana de Prado Calderon. He became a knight of the Order of Santiago in 1620.

Don Diego's testimony affirms that he had heard the traditional apparition narrative from his parents and other elders of authority. He confirms the various details of the narrative, and, consistent with earlier witnesses, says that the flowers included many lilies (azucenas) and Castilian roses. The questionnaire did not mention lilies, so this is the only factual detail that the witnesses at Mexico City independently contributed.

The twenty-first witness of the Informaciones was Luis Becerra Tanco, who gave his testimony in the form of a paper, which we have already discussed at length.

Significance of the Testimony

Since the witnesses at Mexico City did little more than confirm what was already commonly accepted, it is clear that the judges could have gathered many more witnesses if they desired. They limited formal depositions to persons of high office and reputation, in order to maximize the quality of testimony. The fact that this was the nature of the best available testimony in 1666 suggests that all written records of the apparition in Mexico City had been lost by then, if they ever existed. Unlike the Cuautitlán witnesses, none of the witnesses in Mexico City (with the exception of Becerra Tanco's paper) allude to the previous existence of formal or informal documents about the apparition. The tradition appears to have been purely oral prior to P. Sánchez' publication of his history.

None of the witnesses in Mexico City say anything that deviates from or adds to P. Sánchez' account, except their mention of lilies, which is not found in Sánchez. This concurrence is unsurprising if we accept that Sánchez simply borrowed from what was already common oral tradition in 1648, as he himself appears to attest in his preface.

The most that these witnesses can establish is that the traditional Guadalupan narrative was widely known and accepted throughout Mexico City since the late 1580s. We would have to accuse all the witnesses of false testimony in order to sustain the thesis that this narrative was the invention of P. Sánchez in 1648.

Credibility of the Testimony

Remarkably, some of the more strident anti-apparitionist authors have found themselves forced to accuse the most upstanding citizens of Mexico of false testimony, in order to sustain their improbable thesis that no one knew of the apparition story before 1648. While it was relatively easy to dismiss the Indian witnesses as ignorant, credulous or mendacious, it is much more problematic to do the same for the witnesses in Mexico City. As Stafford Poole confesses:

This would not bother me if it involved only the Indian witnesses, because they have always been inclined toward marvelous narratives and not well known for telling the truth; but when I see that serious priests and illustrious gentlemen affirm the same falsehood, I cannot but be confused, considering how far moral contagion and distortion of religious feeling can go. There is no reason to say that those witnesses undoubtedly came close to perjury but it is clear that they affirmed under oath what was not true. It is a common enough phenomenon among the elderly, and I have often observed it, even to the point of being persuaded what they have imagined is true.

Poole elsewhere has admitted that P. Sánchez and other ecclesiastic witnesses were men of extraordinarily fine character. We have noted that at least one of the witnesses was self-conscientious enough to distinguish between his devotion and the need to give truthful testimony, so the "moral contagion" argument is far from convincing. Poole grasps at the straw of senility in order to reconcile his conviction that the testimony is false with his esteem for the witnesses' moral character. Yet this too, rings hollow, as several witnesses were not that old, being only in their sixties.

Poole and other, less thoughtful, anti-apparitionists (who have no compunction about accusing the ecclesiastic witnesses of lying) have forced themselves into this implausible position by creating a false dichotomy. They are convinced, on the basis of sixteenth-century evidence, that the Guadalupan narrative had to have been of later invention. Since the earliest published written narrative is that of P. Sánchez, he must have invented the Guadalupan tradition as we know it.

Yet a middle way is also possible, namely that the Guadalupan tradition developed some time in the sixteenth century, and had already come to be universally accepted by the time the witnesses were alive. P. Sánchez would have then simply written down a version of the popular tradition in 1648, when he was unable to find written documents. This is the most parsimonious conclusion, as well as the one that is most respectful of all the evidence. If historians are free to disregard high quality testimony simply because it does not comport with their predilections, then we can use evidence to prove anything we please. I, on the other hand, always try to take the approach that requires the least amount of violence against received data.

Even from an anti-apparitionist perspective, then, there is no need to accuse the witnesses of lying. Poole and others try to prove more than is necessary when they insist that the tradition can be no older than 1648.

As for the supposed "moral contagion," we should recall that the purpose of this inquiry was to obtain papal approval of a special feast date for Guadalupe, not to establish the historical accuracy of the Guadalupe narrative. We have seen from the repeated delays and lapses in the process that the Mexicans were in no special hurry to receive this official recognition. There was no reason to be, as the cult of Guadalupe was not forbidden, and Our Lady of Guadalupe could be honored on the traditional Marian feast days. With this lackadaisacal attitude, it is hardly likely that the judges would pressure witnesses to give "correct" answers, nor is it probable that they could have exerted much coercive influence over retired men of high office.

As to the supposition that they were all imitating Sánchez, this is highly unlikely since books were not copied in great abundance in those days. It certainly was not the case for the Indian witnesses, since none of them were literate, yet they all gave testimony that either corroborated or at least did not falsify that of Sánchez. They even independently contributed details about Juan Diego not given by Sánchez, such as the fact that he was from the neighborhood of Tlaiacac.

The unjustified disdain certain authors have shown toward the testimony of the Informaciones sometimes arises from an inability to learn to make use of oral testimony. While oral traditions are generally less reliable than writing when it comes to preserving accurate facts over several generations, there is little basis for believing that a witness is more likely to lie when speaking than when writing. The same assessments of a witness's character and access to pertinent sources of information apply whether testimony is given orally or in writing. This is why we have taken the care to examine each testimony carefully and weigh its merits against others. In the case of the witnesses at Mexico City, their characters and positions are sufficient to establish the probable existence of a widespread Guadalupan narrative, similar in its general outline to that published P. Sánchez, since the beginning of the seventeenth century. This is consistent with what we have found regarding the antiquity of the Nican mopohua and other variants of the indigenous tradition.

The Painters' Testimony

The Informaciones also included the testimony of seven master painters, who were permitted to examine the Image and handle the cloth. They attested it was impossible to paint on or even prepare such a cloth.

The Image, including its colors, could be seen distinctly through the reverse of canvas. The painters attested that the cloth had no preparation; otherwise the colors would have been obscured through the reverse. The colors seemed to be included in the threads, as if the threads were individually colored.

The painters' testimony is followed by Becerra Tanco's paper (previously discussed). Regarding the cloth, Tanco says it is made of Iczotl (in agreement with one of the Indian witnesses), which is softer than other kinds of maguey.

We are only obliquely concerned with testimony about the cloth itself, since our purpose is not to determine whether its Image is of miraculous origin, but to compare what people in different time periods have said about the cloth. This historiographical approach to the Image is part of our broader investigation into the origins of the apparition narrative.

Argument from Silence

The evidence presented thus far establishes that the Guadalupe narrative, in written and oral forms, probably extends back at least to the late sixteenth century (c. 1580). This does not suffice to determine the historicity of the account, since the events described purportedly took place in 1531. Historians are often able to accept a fifty to seventy year gap between an event and the earliest recorded testimony, especially when dealing with places and time periods from which written evidence is scarce. Can this account for the paucity of written evidence regarding Guadalupe in the mid-sixteenth century?

New Spain was conquered in 1521 with only several hundred Spanish troops, yet only a few decades later a fully functioning European-style civilization was swiftly established, with political, ecclesiastical, academic, economic, and social institutions. The printing press was soon introduced (1539), but books remained relatively scarce in the New World, and even seventeenth-century scholars of the caliber of Sigüenza struggled to keep abreast of scientific developments in Europe. In the mid-sixteenth century, paper was an expensive commodity that had to be imported from Europe. Accordingly, there was strong incentive to reuse or even steal paper documents. As many Mexican scholars have learned to their lament, gaps in sixteenth-century documentation are not limited to Guadalupan affairs. Many other ecclesiastical and civil matters are very imperfectly known, and often it is impossible to glean even the barest biographical data of important personages. There is nothing intrinsically suspect, therefore, about the loss of early Guadalupan documents in ecclesiastical and civic archives.

Nonetheless, although the records from this period (1530-1580) are far from complete, there is much that has been preserved, and perhaps enough that we should expect at least some mention of Guadalupe to appear among the thousands of leaves. Indeed, there are some early mentions (1550-1580) of a devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and even of miracles accredited to this image, but nothing of the apparitions to Juan Diego and the appearance of the miraculous image, except for the oldest version of the Nican mopohua, whose precise dating is uncertain.

There are no written records of the Guadalupe cult that can be verifiably dated before the 1550s. This silence is significant, considering the level of writing activity in Mexico at the time, especially from the Franciscans who lived among the Indians. The famous Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas lived in Mexico from 1538 to 1546, yet he never wrote of any miracle among the Indians there.

In particular, we should perhaps be troubled by the silence of the Franciscan missionaries, and of Fray Juan de Zumárraga, the most notable Spanish protagonist of the whole affair. Surely, we should find some direct mention of the great prodigy among his extant writings. In fact, we find none whatsoever.

The argument from silence is the most potent weapon in the arsenal of the anti-apparitionist, and it has led even faithful Catholics to doubt or disbelieve in the historicity of the Guadalupan narrative. Any attempt to discern the origin of the narrative must take this early silence into account, and give it its due weight.

To take the most difficult omission first, let us consider the silence of Zumárraga. His extant writings fall primarily into two categories: books on doctrine and letters. We should not expect there to be any mention of private revelation, no matter how remarkable, in his books on doctrine. No Catholic is ever bound to accept any private revelation as an object of faith. In the sixteenth century, the Holy Office was especially strict against permitting cults of non-canonized saints or images to be proclaimed from the pulpit or in any act of official teaching. Zumárraga himself was quite stern in doctrinal matters, and he even adjudicated Inquisition cases from 1536 until 1541, when he was rebuked for an overzealous prosecution, which had led to the execution of an Indian noble. Given his doctrinal severity, we should not be surprised if Zumárraga scrupulously avoided including private revelation in any official ecclesiastical document or public teaching.

In light of the above considerations, we find nothing probative of Zumárraga's ignorance of the Guadalupan miracle when his Regla christiana breve (1547) says, "The Redeemer of the world does not want any more miracles, because they are no longer necessary." This merely states conventional doctrine as to why the abundance of miracles in apostolic times does not continue into the present day. He is not denying that miracles ever happen anymore, as no faithful Catholic would say that, especially in the sixteenth century, but only that we cannot expect such prodigies as a matter of course, as occurred in the apostolic age in order to establish the faith. The faith needs no further miracles in order to be confirmed, and even a private revelation as prodigious as Guadalupe is not necessary in this sense.

Yet, as José Almoína has observed, the Regla christiana breve is not merely a catechism, but an ascetic tract, where Zumárraga exhorts his reader to lead a Christian life of simplicity and humility. We see such asceticism as early as his 1533 letter Universis et singulis, also known as "Pastoral o exhortación a los religiosos de las órdenes mendicantes, para que pasen a la Nueva España y ayuden a la conversión de los indios". This pastoral letter had urged friars to imitate Christ and the apostles by abandoning worldly pleasures in order to save the Indian from the devil and the conquistador, that he may live in Christi libertatem. Throughout his life, Zumárraga had opposed popular superstition and the pursuit of miracles, as this vain desire to witness great wonders led people away from the faith and into idolatrous practices. For this reason, he severely punished witches in the Basque countries, though he believed such women to be merely hallucinating, and he also took the exceptional step of prosecuting a Christian Indian for idolatrous practices, which caused him to be reprimanded by the king. (The Indians were exempt from prosecution for idolatry thenceforth.)

It is in the context of Zumárraga's brand of asceticism, which shows the influence of Erasmus, that we are to understand his statement in the Regla christiana regarding miracles. This becomes clearer when we quote the document more fully:

Ya no quiere el redemptor del mundo que se hagan milagros... Lo que pide e quiere es vidas milagrosas; ... porque la vida perfecta de vn christiano vn continuado milagro es en la tierra. [Regla christiana breve, ed. José Almoína (México: Editorial Jus, 1951), p. 86.]

The Redeemer of the world no longer desires that there should be miracles... What he asks and desires is miraculous lives; ... for the perfect life of a Christian is a continuous miracle on earth.

Here the moral intent is evident: Christ does not want us to work any miracles other than that of living a good Christian life. This is not a denial that God can still work miracles, as the Church has perennially taught, but an exhortation for Christians to look to their spiritual and moral improvement, rather than for signs and wonders.

Now, if Bishop Zumárraga really did witness the Guadalupan miracle, we should not expect him to react in the same way that those of us who desire miracles as proofs of the faith might do. Instead of proclaiming it loudly and continuously, he would have been much more circumspect, being aware of the danger that such miracle worship could lead to superstition and idolatry. If we look at the bishop who is portrayed in the Nican mopohua, we can recognize an authentic Zumárraga in his initial skepticism, even severity, toward Juan Diego. We may also recognize Zumárraga's character in the humble ascetic leading a barefoot procession toward the newly built shrine. Yet after this initial burst of joy and humble gratitude, he would not invoke the miracle of the Image or any subsequent miracle as a grounds for evangelization. Even the traditional narrative never speaks of Zumárraga returning to Tepeyac after that first procession, a telling omission.

All we have shown is that deliberate silence or reticence to speak about the miracle would have been consistent with Zumárraga's character, but this does not prove he actually did witness the miracle. For that we need positive evidence, yet nowhere in his extant writings is such evidence to be found.

Zumárraga wrote thousands of letters, of which only several small collections are still extant. In particular, we have some of his letters to King Charles V and to Hernán Cortés, as well as some letters to his family written in his native Basque. In most cases, the subject matter is not such that we should expect a discussion of Guadalupe, but it is at least suspicious that there is not a single mention of the cult, much less the specifics of the miracle, in any of his extant correspondence.

Perhaps the best indication of Zumárraga's silence is the weakness of the strongest evidence that apparitionist authors have been able to glean from his correspondence. P. Mariano Cuevas published a letter to Cortés where the bishop writes:

And now I understand in my proceedings and in writing to Veracruz. It is impossible to write the joy of all. With Salamanca it is not necessary to write. I sent the Father Guardian to Cuernavaca. An Indian goes to Brother Toribio and all will be in praise of God...

I want to give the name to the Iglesia Mayor (major church) the title of the Conception of the Mother of God. On such a day God and his Mother have desired this mercy for this land that you won...

Cuevas dates this document to late 1531, and contrasts its joy with the much bleaker attitude Zumárraga had expressed in his 1529 letter to the king, where he feared the Indians would return to idolatry. Even if we accept Cuevas' dating of the document, it is far from certain that this has anything to do with Guadalupe. Certainly, a great blessing had been received, but this might have referred to the conversion of Indians rather than the miracle of the Image. The joyous event probably occurred in December, which sufficiently accounts for why the bishop wished to the dedicate the Major Church to the Immaculate Conception. This evidence is certainly consistent with a belief in the authenticity of the apparition, but it does not do much to establish that fact.

The other Franciscans in Zumárraga's time, who worked directly with the Indians and surely would have been familiar with their beliefs, make no explicit mention of the Guadalupan narrative. There is at best indirect evidence, as they report a sudden surge in spontaneous conversions of the Indians by the hundreds of thousands. Fray Toribio Motolinia noted in 1536 that, inexplicably, Indians began to appear by the thousands to him, asking to be baptized. This was after a period of "five cold years". P. Jeronimo de Mendieta, a disciple of Motolinia, wrote in his Historia eclesiastica indiana (1596) of elderly Indians in that early period walking twenty leagues to find a confessor, which reminds us of Juan Diego's hardy diligence.

These mass conversions could be related to the Guadalupan devotion, or they might have some other cause. Motolinia did not know the cause, though he was familiar with the Indians. Mendieta suggests that the Indians would convert in mass out of obedience to their converted ruler (tlatoque). It is not clear, even on the Guadalupan assumption, why there should have been "five cold years" before the sudden spring of faith in 1536.

Further, the mass conversion of the Indians was not immediately followed by religious peace. Quite the contrary, it was precisely in 1536 that Zumárraga began to use his inquisitorial powers to prosecute idolatry among the converted Indians. This might simply be a result of the fact that now there were suddenly many more Christian Indians who would seem to fall under inquisitorial jurisdiction. At any rate, relapse into idolatrous practices was a serious concern among the Franciscans, which would account for why any new devotion at Tepeyac might have been viewed with distrust as being possibly crypto-pagan. Even if the cult of Guadalupe was recognizably Christian in its origin, it might easily elide into pagan errors and superstitions such as Zumárraga and the other Franciscans deplored.

Naturally, it also possible that the early silence about Guadalupe reflects genuine total ignorance of the subject by the early missionaries. This could be either because the Guadalupan cult did not originate until much later than 1531, or because the Spaniards were not nearly as involved in the promulgation of the miracle as the traditional narrative suggests. We have seen some indications from the Cuautitlán witnesses that the miracle occurred no earlier than the 1540s. Zumárraga's written silence would be better explained if the event occurred shortly before his death in 1548. Alternatively, it is conceivable that the bishop did not play as prominent a role in the affair as tradition records, or perhaps he recognized only the flowers, but not the Image, as miraculous. He could only speak to Juan Diego through an interpreter, and European knowledge of Nahuatl was very imperfect in those early days, so it is possible that the Spanish understanding of Guadalupe was very different form that of the Indians at first.

The problem with arguments from silence is that silence admits of the most diverse interpretations. If indeed, as the anti-apparitionists contend, the silence of Zumárraga and other early Franciscans is evidence that the Guadalupan narrative is of later provenance, we ought to find some positive evidence of this later origin. Otherwise, the anti-apparitionist will be facing an equally difficult argument from silence, perhaps even more difficult, since there is more documentation from the 1550s than the 1530s.

If we are to do real historical research, and not just speculatively interpret the silence of witnesses, we will have to examine positive evidence that gives us some insight one way or another into the origins of the Guadalupan narrative. There is, in fact, a very important piece of documentation which does just that, namely the Información of 1556, a juridical inquiry into a dispute involving Archbishop Montufar and a Franciscan friar. This highly polemical piece of evidence can be interpreted superficially by taking sides with one or the other disputants in the controversy it describes. We, however, will pursue a more cautious approach, taking note of the document's historical and legal context. It is in this document from 1556 that the story of Guadalupe makes its first definite entry into written history, a history that begins immediately in controversy.

Continue to Part VIII

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

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