The first time I heard the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I was sixteen years old. I was in Woodburn, Oregon, sitting in a meeting hall of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (United Treeplanters and Farmworkers of the Northwest), a union for farmworkers. The walls were decorated in colorful murals depicting farmworkers, children, and giants of the farmworker justice movement, including César Chávez, a champion of workers’ and civil rights in California. Some of the people depicted in the murals held signs that read, “¡Respeto y sueldo justo para los campesinos!” and “No somos ilegales. Somos trabajadores” (“Respect and a just salary for farmworkers!” and “We are not illegals. We are workers”). In the mural, an elder held an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the leader gestured to it as he told the story.
Juan Diego was a poor Aztec man walking to Mass when he passed Tepeyac Hill. He heard a voice calling him, and came upon a young indigenous woman wearing Aztec clothing, including a black sash which communicated that she was pregnant. Telling him that she was Mary, the woman asked Juan Diego to tell the bishop that she wanted a church built on Tepeyac Hill, so that she could hear people’s sorrows and comfort them. The bishop ignored Diego, dismissing him as an ignorant Indian. Diego returned once more, only to be rejected again. This time the bishop asked for a miracle, and when Diego returned for a third time, he presented the bishop with roses that the Lady had plucked from the frozen soil and placed in his tilma, his cloak. On his tilma was the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which remains preserved to this day in the basilica devoted to her in Mexico City.
Our Lady presents a compelling call to action. She challenges traditional power structures of every stripe. She appeared to a poor indigenous man in Mexico in 1531. Juan Diego would have been part of the lowest class of people in Mexican society. People like Diego were not considered by Spaniards to be human. In the story, the bishop, a symbol and locus of the power of the Church, is a hindrance to the message of God. Diego, a marginalized, degraded person, is the messenger. The bishop could not fathom that the word of God would come through such a lowly person. In appearing to Diego, and choosing to appear as an indigenous woman, Our Lady challenges the structure of oppression of indigenous people in the Americas.
Of course, there still exist many structures of oppression in the Americas. The Juan Diegos of today are all around us: at Standing Rock, where indigenous people resist nonviolently to protect natural resources; at colleges and universities, where undocumented students bravely announce that they are not afraid. In the voices of peace activists, racial and worker justice advocates, and all people working for justice, Juan Diego continues to proclaim the truth.
Another gift of Our Lady is her simple request. She asked not for a feast day, or to settle some theological argument. She wanted to accompany people in their sorrow, listen to them, and comfort them. Mary, Our Mother, just wants to listen.
This Advent, with the feast days of Saint Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 9 and 12, I am reminded of the pregnant Mary’s appearance to the lowest of the low. Mary was a poor, ostracized woman, and she chose to appear to a poor, ostracized man. Our Lady comforts and shelters all marginalized people, accompanying them in love. The mother of Jesus knows what it is to be rejected. She still loves where there seems to be no hope. She still gathers roses from frozen ground.