Who said she called herself "Guadalupe?"
You might say I have a big devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. I’ve been to the Basilica in Mexico City at least a dozen times. But actually when I think of Our Lady, I don’t think of her as Our Lady of “Guadalupe.” I think of her as Our Lady of “Coatlexopeuh.” That’s right. Our Lady of Co-ahh-tla-shu-peh. After all, in 1531 when Mary appeared to Saint Juan Diego on the hill of Tepeyac she didn’t speak to him in Spanish. She conversed with this Aztec peasant in his native language of Nahuatl. Many paleolinguistic scholars (those who study ancient languages) are pretty certain that Mary didn’t introduce herself as “Guadalupe,” (which relates to a place in Spain) but instead, “Coatlexopeh,” the meaning of which gives this story a whole new -and exceptionally awesome- twist.
So how did we get from “Coatlexopeuh” to Guadalupe? Let’s go back a few years to 1517 when the Spaniards first arrived along the glorious coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Encountering the native Mayan peoples the conquistadors inquired of them the name of the land. As culturally sensitive as the conquistadors were, I am sure they spoke loudly and slowly to the Mayans when they asked in Spanish, “¿Cómo se llama está tierra?” (“What is this land called?”). I’m also pretty sure that they asked the question several times, each time progressively louder and slower. Anyway, as history would tell us, the Mayans, in a fit of confusion, looked at each other exhorting, “Uk Athan,” “Uk Athan,” meaning in this Mayan dialect, “What are they saying?”, “What are they saying?” The Spaniards then naturally concluded that their communicative skills had delivered and declared that this land must be called “Yucatán” (get it – Uk Athan = Yucatán?). Keep this story in the back of your mind because it relates directly to naming of Our Lady of “Guadalupe.”
So let’s fast-forward a few years to 1531 and another geographic location in Mexico: Mexico City, the capital of the Aztec empire. This date falls right in the midst of the Spanish conquest, which was working to eradicate Aztec religious practices, which included the sacrifice of tens of thousands of innocent human beings to Aztec “gods.” The notably warring Aztec civilization kidnapped thousands of people from small villages in the countryside around the capital and held them as slaves until they were ready to march them mechanically to the top of their temple pyramids, cut out their beating hearts, and throw their bodies down the pyramid stairs. This was all in an effort to appease their “gods.” How significant was this atrocity against humanity? One historical source reports 80,000 people being slaughtered in this manner in a period of only four days. Several historical accounts attest to an appalling massacre where a ceaseless line of innocent humans were cued up to be murdered one after another 24 hours a day. If you get a chance to visit Mexico City, right in the heart of downtown you can visit the remains the main pyramid where these sacrifices took place. It’s not just stuff of legends, it’s real. You can see where they piled up skulls of their victims. You can see rock-hewn statues with holes in their chest that represent and commemorate the sacrifices. But when you visit this complex you will note one very eerie theme represented in all of the hieroglyphs and artwork on the temple: carved rock serpents. They are found throughout the entire temple complex. It doesn’t take much to recognize that this place and the deeds carried out here were blatantly evil. Dare we say that any episode of genocide is absolutely evil? Does anyone else have “red flags” fly when there are symbols of snakes covering a place where genocide has taken place? After all, isn’t the serpent a universal sign of evil?
So let’s go back to the story of Juan Diego. On December 9th of 1531, this recently converted Aztec peasant found himself traversing the hill of Tepeyac to the north of Mexico City. In the midst of the journey, a woman clothed in red with a blue mantle and “clothed with the sun” appeared to him and asked that he speak to the bishop to get a church built where they stood on the hill. Obviously this is a pretty tremendous occurrence, so Juan Diego went straight to the Bishop. The bishop, Juan de Zumárraga was slightly skeptical (as any good bishop would be), but he did not discount that God could be at work. He requested more evidence of Juan Diego’s encounter on Tepeyac. A slightly distressed Juan returned to the hill only to find the woman again who instructed him to pluck the roses that were miraculously blooming around him and show them to the bishop as a sign of his encounter. Consider this, it was the dead of the Mexican winter (OK, not so cold, but also no flowers would be blooming) and the roses were Castilian roses (a variety from Spain). Juan filled his tilma (the cactus fiber garment he was wearing) with the roses, went to visit bishop, dropped the roses in front of him and, without Juan knowing, an image of this woman has been imprinted on his garment. Again, like any good bishop, there was immediate recognition of a miracle, and the bishop (probably fully knowing that this was the Virgin Mary), asked Juan, “What did this lady call herself?” … And now the crux of the issue. Juan said she called herself “Coatlexopeuh.” The bishop, not speaking Nahuatl (and probably pretty excited) said, “did you say … did you say… Guadalupe?” and probably the humble Juan said, “no… Coatlexopeuh.” So (as we have seen the precedent set with the naming of the Yucatán), the bishop declared that this is Our Lady of “Guadalupe” (which is a place in Spain and has its own revered image of the Virgin Mary). After all “Coatlexopeuh” when pronounced does sound a lot like “Guadalupe.”
What was the significance of this episode? Until 1531 the overwhelming majority of Aztec Indians had resisted conversion to Christianity and continued with their sacrificial practices. However, as the message of Our Lady spread, an estimated 10,000,000 indigenous people converted to the faith and human sacrifices were eradicated. So… you are waiting for it… what does “Coatlexopeuh” mean in Nahuatl?: “I WHO CRUSH, STAMP OUT, OR DESTROY THE SERPENT.” “I who crush, stamp out, or destroy the serpent.”
So now you know why I have a special devotion to Our Lady of Coatlexopeuh. She is indeed a powerful intercessor and we should look to her for intercession especially whenever we see evil working to gain a foothold in our lives or our society – particularly whenever the dignity of life itself is under attack.
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Who said she called herself "Guadalupe?"
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