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La Morenita: The Mystery in Guadalupe's Eyes


  "She is dark," I whispered when I first saw our Lady of Guadalupe at the Ponce Cathedral.

   "Yes, she is morena and small.  This is why she is called La Morenita (little dark skinned female)."  Abuela continued: "Most of the Virgins are blond, blue eyed, and white.  But La Morenita is all-powerful."

  I still remember that moment as if it was yesterday.  I was nine years old when I first encountered La Guadalupe.  I traveled with Abuela from my hometown Yabucoa, a small town on the southeast coast of Puerto Rico, to Ponce, the island's second major city.  We were going to visit Abuela's relatives. 

  "First things first, " Abuela announced when we arrived. "We will go the Ponce Cathedral to pay our respects to the Virgin of Guadalupe."


  The Cathedral stood in the middle of the elegant Plaza Las Delicias.  It was dedicated to the city's Patroness and it seemed huge to my young eyes.  Our small church back home looked more like a toy shrine, compared to the 300 hundred year-old neoclassical cathedral. When we walked inside the cathedral, I was surprised to find it empty. Abuela walked fast, so I had to run to keep up with her.  She knew where she was heading. Without a sign, Abuela stopped.  I was almost out of breath, and felt dizzy. The smell of fresh cut flowers relaxed me.   When I raised my eyes, I saw her: The Virgin of Guadalupe on top of a Romanesque altar. 

  I could not take my eyes off La Morenita. Abuela kneeled down in front of Guadalupe, closed her eyes, and began to say an Ave Maria. I kneeled besides her, but could not pray.  Instead, I admired Guadalupe's lovely blue-green mantle adorned with stars.  La Morenita's eyes caught my attention.  There was something in them that my young mind could not understand.  I felt as if Guadalupe's eyes were looking at me.  I closed my eyes and felt loved.

  After my Ponce visit, I found out that Guadalupe is a Black Madonna.  The name Black Madonna refers to the Black Virgin Mary. There are hundreds of icons of the Black Virgin around the world.  No one really knows why they are Black.  I became enthralled with a Virgin that looked like me.  My journey into the Black Madonna began.

  The more I read, the more I discovered about Guadalupe.  Her mythistory is well known:  Soon after Mexico's colonization in the 16th century, Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego, an Indian convert and spoke to him in Nahualt--his mother tongue.  She told him that she was the mother of everything.  Guadalupe treated Juan with love and respect, and thus, he believed her to be the Virgin Mary.  La Morenita instructed him to ask the bishop to build her shrine at the Tepeyac hill. The bishop refused, but asked Juan for a sign of what he had witnessed. When Juan communicated the bishop's request to Guadalupe, she instructed him to climb the top of the Tepeyac hill, and gather flowers to take back to the bishop.  When Juan reached the top of the hill, he found Castilian roses, which were not in season nor they were native to that area.  Guadalupe arranged the roses in Juan's tilma (cloak) and asked him to only open his tilma in the bishop's presence.  When Juan opened his tilma in front of the bishop, the roses fell on the floor and the image of Guadalupe appeared on the tilma. The bishop fell to his knees and agreed to build Guadalupe's shrine.

  However, there is a feminist version of Guadalupe's story.  La Morenita appeared in the sacred site of the Aztec goddess Tonantzin.  The Indians called Tonantzin Our Sacred Mother. Even though the Spaniard priests had destroyed Tonantzin's temple, the goddess re-emerged as Guadalupe Tonantzin.  Today, Latina feminists identify Guadalupe Tonantzin as the goddess of the Americas.  La Morenita is a sacred freedom fighter, the protector of the oppressed, the divine mother of the helpless, and the defender of the destitute.  She is an empowering figure who stands for social justice.  Furthermore, Guadalupe Tonantzin is  the goddess of sex, life, and death. Sandra Cisneros, a Mexican American winner of the American Book Award, and a National Medal of the Arts recipient, argues that Guadalupe Tonantzin is a sex goddess because Tonantzin embodies a pantheon of earth goddesses including Tlazolteol, goddess of sexual passion; and Coatlicue, goddess of creation and destruction. La Morenita rescues these Mesoamerican goddesses from the Church's comdemnation.  Indeed, colonization suggests that during the 16th century, a bishop asked a native artist to paint an image that blended the Virgin Mary with Tonantzin.  His aim was to facilitate the Aztecs' conversion to Catholicism.  Nevertheless, his strategy backfired.  La Morenita, a dark poor mestiza, subverted the colonial establishment.  She became a healing, empowering, and liberating symbol for the Mexican people.

  After all, Abuela was right: La Morenita is an all-powerful goddess.


   Continuing my journey to the Black Madonna, I learned about the mystery of Guadalupe's eyes.  Scientists  and ophthalmologists were perpelexed when they examined the original image in Juan Diego's tilma enshrined in Guadalupe's Basilica. Through the use of microscopic, mathematical, and optic procedures, they saw human figures--not painted by human hands--inside La Morenita's eyes.  One image is reported to be the scene when Juan Diego brought the roses to the bishop.  Another image is that of an Indian family with children and a baby carried on the mother's back in the style used in the 16th century. 

  What does this mystery mean? I became intrigued with this question.

  Years after my first encounter with Guadalupe, I traveled to her Basilica outside Mexico City.  This time I traveled alone.  Unfortunately, Abuela was too ill to travel.  I was excited for the opportunity to see the original image in Juan Diego's tilma.  Of course, I also remained quite interested in the mystery of Guadalupe's eyes.  After taking a bus from Mexico City to Tepeyac hill, I joined a peregrination that moved slowly.  Some people were singing, others were walking on their knees, and others were praying the rosary.  I also saw men dressed in Aztec clothes burning incense and sage.  Families of all colors and socioeconomic classes surrounded me.  Women wearing colorful rebozos (shawls) carried flowers and cirios (candles).  The atmosphere was both solemn and festive. When I finally reached the Basilica, my excitement turned into disappointment.  I tried unsuccessfully to get close to Guadalupe's eyes, but the Basilica was full of people.

  I felt dizzy.

  Suddenly, I heard a woman's voice saying an Ave Maria.  The smell of fresh cut flowers relaxed me. I looked around and saw an indigenous woman carrying her baby on her back.   A childhood memory flashed into my mind. I closed my eyes and felt loved. 


Photography by Frederick M. Jacobsen

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As a psychologist, healer, and writer Lillian Comas is interested in spirituality, feminism, and multiculturalism.


  • Lizann Bassham
    Lizann Bassham Thursday, 29 December 2016

    This is exquisite - thank you for the gift of this column.

  • Lillian Comas
    Lillian Comas Thursday, 29 December 2016

    Hi Lizann: Thank you so much for your kind words. I really appreciate them.

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