An apparition later (in 1660) accepted by the church as the Virgin Mary was reported to have appeared to Juan Diego, an Indian peasant, during a three-day period in the sixteenth century on the hill of Tepeyac, just outside Mexico City. Our Lady of Guadalupe (Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe), as the figure came to be called, is Patroness of All the Americas in the Catholic Church. Mexicans and Mexican Americans alike have especially accepted her as part of their cultural heritage, often regardless of their own religious affiliations. So intimate a symbol of collective cultural unity is she for Mexicans that she is often simply referred to as Guadalupe. The appearance of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe occurred approximately a decade after the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés (1519–21) and the ensuing colonization. As an agent of ancient wisdom and loving motherhood, she became a divine symbol to whom the Indians could turn as well as a means to liberate themselves from sin. Guadalupe's complex significance for Mexican Americans was constructed from the roles assigned to her by her chroniclers. These were based on her appearance to Juan Diego and on the subsequent history of Mexican Americans. In both cases, her special designation rose out of the notion that she was the "Patroness and Protectress of Mexico" and, by extension, of Mexican Americans, who became a minority culture at the time of the Texas Revolution (1836). Guadalupe functions as an ally of her people in the "Chicano Southwest," to whom she offers faith, identity, hope, and liberation. She has stood, for example, for the triumph of faith and hope over seemingly impossible repressive circumstances, acted as the social "glue" for ethnic identity and loyalty, and been invoked for the liberation of the poor and women.
Her significance in Mexican-American culture has evolved over time, both strengthening and challenging her place of power. On the one hand, she has remained the object of devotion for many Mexican Americans, most notably the Sociedades Guadalupanas; on the other hand, Mexican-American feminists have objected to her idealization. Guadalupe's importance to the many Mexican-American Catholics in Texas was fortified when she was officially declared to be the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Catholic Church, slow to accept the "Indian Virgin" (the church is slow to accept any alleged apparition of a saint), acknowledged her after it became evident that she was a solid Christianizer of the Indians. In 1754 Pope Benedict XIV designated December 12 as the memorial of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a day that has become a major Mexican-American celebration. The Sociedades Guadalupanas throughout the state join in the festivity. In Austin, veneration of Guadalupe extends into public art spaces where, under the sponsorship of La Peña, the Guadalupanas set up home altars to acknowledge her during December. In contrast to this traditional devotion, Guadalupe has also become the subject of interpretations by feminist artists who have linked her to Ometéotl, the Indians' "supreme duality-the lord and lady of heaven." When represented by a female figure, this deity was also known as "snake woman," who represented wisdom and was called Tonantzín-"a respected, loving mother." In a work of painter Yolanda López, however, Guadalupe became La Lupita, stripped of religious significance and transformed into a contemporary working-class Mexican American. In another of López's works-Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe-a young Guadalupe wearing running shoes and accompanied by a snake-an occasional motif in renditions of the figure-jumps out of the frame. Other artists have also asserted Guadalupe's role as a symbol of cultural and female power. These contrasting views, however, have not discounted Guadalupe's most important role for Mexican Americans, for whom she has continued to represent the divinely sent hope of the lowliest of the low and remained an emblem of moral strength. See also CATHOLIC CHURCH, and MEXICAN AMERICANS AND RELIGION.