ANTH 3311 Mexico: From Conquest to Cancun

To return to the ANTH 3311 Home Page, click here.

To return to the Syllabus and Schedule, click here.


Marianismo in Mexico: An Ethnographic Encounter

Robert V. Kemper

Dept. of Anthropology


From the Rio Grande to Patagonia the cult of the Virgin Mary is the core of religious loyalty . . .

(Foster 1960:3)

Marianismo in Mexico

Marian devotion has a long and well-documented history in colonial New Spain and the independent nation of Mexico. For the contemporary era, ethnographic studies of specific communities and general commentaries about Mexican national character and culture emphasize the important role of the Virgin Mary in her many manifestations in popular Catholic religion (cf. Parker 1996), in popular Mexican literature (cf. Johnson 1980), and in popular art (Giffords 1992). As Puente (1992:219) points out: "Marian devotions are very common in Mexico, with local populations rallying to a particular title of the Virgin. So there is the Virgin of Zapopan in Guadalajara, Our Lady of Health in Pátzcuaro, Our Lady of Light in León, Our Lady of Solitude in Oaxaca, Our Lady of Ocotlán in Tlaxcala, Our Lady of the Lakes in Jalisco . . . to name but a few. There is one devotion, however, to the Virgin of Guadalupe, that has acquired truly national status." Puente goes on to observe that "Devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe has been a constituent of the great moments of Mexican history: independence, the Zapata uprising, the Cristero conflict . . . and equally of the daily lives of workers in factories, peasants on their smallholdings, women in their villages and families" (1992:219-220).

Nevertheless, the range and variation in Marianismo (i.e., all elements of Marian devotion as a broadly perceived cultural pattern) in contemporary Mexico is not well documented. In this paper, we examine rural and urban communities throughout twentieth-century Mexico in order to demonstrate that Marianismo is much more than an artifact of five centuries of syncretic religious devotion. Indeed, we shall see that the ramifications of Marian devotion are played out in the lives of individuals, families, social groups (including communities), and the nation at large. And, despite the growth of Protestantism in recent years, Mary remains preeminent among the icons of contemporary Mexican life and is considered a cross-culturally paradigmatic example of "mother worship" (Campbell 1982).

History of Marianismo in Mexico

The historical chronology of the Virgin Mary in Mexico is well known, although critical "events" accepted by adherents to the cult of Mary remain controversial among scholars. The story begins in 1519 when Hernán Cortés arrived in Veracruz under the protection of the Roman Catholic Church, including the Virgin Mary. The year 1531 saw Juan Diego’s vision of the Virgin of Guadalupe at Tepeyac, to the northeast of Mexico City. By the middle of the seventeenth century, a version of the Nahuatl text known as the Nican Mopohua had been published and Miguel Sánchez began the tradition of representing the Virgen de Guadalupe as the key symbol of Mexican identity. In the following century, in 1754, Our Lady of Guadalupe was proclaimed by the Church as Patroness of Mexico. Finally, in 1900, Our Lady of Guadalupe was proclaimed as Patroness of the Americas (for details of the historical controversies, see Borah 1996, Burkhart 1993, Elizondo 1997, Gebara and Bingemer 1996 [1989], Harrington 1988, Lafaye 1976, Poole 1995, Taylor 1987, Zires 1994).

The results of almost five centuries of Marian devotion, especially as reflected in the Virgen de Guadalupe and related Virgins, are spread across the Mexican landscape -- from the Basilica in Mexico City honoring the Virgen de Guadalupe (and containing the famous tilma with her image) to thousands of small chapels throughout the nation in which images of diverse Virgins are venerated. Moreover, because of the importance of pilgrimages in Mexican culture, these separate "sites" have become an integrated web of "sights" for pilgrims and tourists alike. Each year, literally hundreds of thousands of persons travel -- on foot, by bicycle, and in trucks, cars, and buses -- to visit one or more of these shrines and their images. Of particular significance are shrines in the capital for the Virgen de Guadalupe, in Zapopan (now part of metropolitan Guadalajara) in Jalisco, in Chalma in Estado de Mexico (about 70 miles southeast of Mexico City), and in Ocotlán (located outside the city of Tlaxcala, capital of the state of the same name). For descriptions of these pilgrimage sites, plus a lengthy description of a specific pilgrimage from Querétaro to Mexico City and a comparison of the shrines to the Virgen de Guadalupe (located on a hill on the northeastern edge of Mexico City) and the Virgen de los Remedios (located on a hill on the western edge of metropolitan Mexico City), see Turner and Turner (1978:40-103).

Contemporary Mexico: The Setting

In 1990, Mexico’s population of 81 million persons was distributed among 156,602 localities, of which 108,307 had fewer than 100 inhabitants and another 32,244 had between 100 and 499 inhabitants. These small rural localities had a total population of fewer than 10 million persons. In the range of 500 to 2,499 inhabitants, 13,465 localities contained a total population of around 13 million persons. Between 2,500 and 9,999 inhabitants are 1,973 localities with a total population of nearly 9 million persons and between 10,000 and 99,999 inhabitants are 515 localities with a total population of 13 million persons. The remaining 98 localities with more than 100,000 inhabitants have a total population of slightly more than 36 million (INEGI 1992:239). Moreover, the 1990 census reported the population of persons five years and older consisted of about 70 million, of whom 90% were Roman Catholic, 5% were Protestant (or Evangelical), and the remaining 5% were unspecified/other/none (INEGI 1992:248). Thus, the contemporary Mexican population is primarily Catholic in religious affiliation and increasingly "urban" in residence pattern. This combination contributes to a strong tradition of Marian devotion, especially through the celebration of fiestas in cities, towns, and villages throughout the nation.

Marian Devotion in Fiestas

To gain some idea of the magnitude of Marian devotion, I analyzed an official government publication, the Calendario de Fiestas Populares (León 1988). Although this Calendar lists more than 5,000 local festivals ranging throughout the year and throughout the country, even its compilers recognize that it is far from complete. Nonetheless, the Calendar is the most comprehensive source available and is suitable for our purposes -- namely, to survey those fiestas associated with the Virgin Mary in all of her manifestations, including her role within the Holy Family. It is important to comment that the occurrence of a fiesta means that an entire community organizes to celebrate the Virgin Mary in a special way. Even in places without a fiesta on a given date in the liturgical cycle, individual and family celebrations may occur. The most obvious example is the general observation of Christmas through rural and urban Mexico, even though only 124 communities are reported to have special fiestas at the Christmas period.

Table 1 presents a list of 73 different fiestas associated with the Virgin Mary, arranged by frequency and alphabetically within each frequency group.


Mexican Fiestas with Marian Themes


Guadalupe, Fiesta de la Virgen de


Asunción de la Virgen, Fiesta de la


Candelaria, Fiesta de la


Concepción, Fiesta de la Purísima


Navidad, Fiesta de


Rosario, Fiesta de la Virgen del


Natividad de la Virgen, Fiesta de la


Carmen, Fiesta de la Virgen del


Refugio, Fiesta de la Virgen del


Remedios, Fiesta de la Virgen de los


Soledad, Fiesta de la Virgen de la


Dolores, Fiesta de la Virgen de los


Loreto, Fiesta de la Virgen de


Merced, Fiesta de la Virgen de la


Rayo, Fiesta de la Virgen del


Luz, Fiesta de la Virgen de la


Pueblito, Fiesta de la Virgen del


Fatima, Fiesta de la Virgen de


Angeles, Fiesta de la Virgen de los


Juan, Fiesta de la Virgen de San


María Auxiliadora, Fiesta de Santa


Sagrario, Fiesta de la Virgen del


Sagrada Familia, Fiesta Religiosa de la


Pilar, Fiesta de la Virgen de


María, Fiesta de la Virgen


Ocotlán, Fiesta de la Virgen de


Belén, Fiesta de la Virgen de


Salud, Fiesta de la Virgen de la


Lourdes, Fiesta de la Virgen de


Misericordia, Fiesta de la Virgen de la


Perpetuo Socorro, Fiesta de la Virgen del


Nieves, Fiesta de la Virgen de las


Consolación, Fiesta de la Virgen de la


Tránsito, Fiesta de Nuestra Señora del


Juquila, Fiesta de la Virgen de


Juan de los Lagos, Fiesta de la Virgen de San


Tlatenango, Fiesta de la Virgen de


Zapopan, Fiesta de la Virgen de


Presentación de la Virgen, Fiesta de la


Chila, Fiesta de la Virgen de


Pobres, Fiesta de la Virgen de los


Piedrita, Fiesta de la Virgen de la


Paz, Fiesta de la Virgen de la


Tonatico, Fiesta de la Virgen de


Acahuato, Fiesta de la Apración de la Virgen de


Aves Marías, Fiesta de las Tres


Tetecala, Fiesta de la Virgen de


Talpa, Fiesta de la Virgen del Rosario de


Caminito, Fiesta de la Virgen del


Caridad, Fiesta de la Virgen de la


Buctzotz, Fiesta de la Virgen de


Buen Suceso, Fiesta de la Virgen del


Estrella, Fiesta de la Virgen de la


Lucas, Fiesta de la Virgen de San


Esperanza, Fiesta de la Virgen de la


María, Fiesta del Corazon de


Escalera, Fiesta de la Virgen de la


Izamal, Fiesta de Nuestra Señora de


Guadalajara, Fiesta de la Virgen de


Fatima, Fiesta de la Primera Aparición de la Virgen de


Expectación, Fiesta de la Virgen de la


Lágrimas, Fiesta de Nuestra Señora de las


María, Fiesta del Dulce Nombre de


Cuyutlán, Fiesta de la Virgen de


Nativitas, Fiesta de la Virgen de


Consuelo, Fiesta de la Virgen del


Patrocinio, Fiesta de la Virgen del


Pánuco, Fiesta de Nuestra Señora de


Desamparados, Fiesta de la Virgen de los


María, Fiesta del Purísimo Corazon de


Milagros, Fiesta de la Virgen de los


Defensa, Fiesta de Nuestra Señora de la


Monserrat, Fiesta de la Virgen de





The 73 different fiestas are celebrated a total of 1,216 times each year in Mexico. Fiestas related to the Virgin are to be found throughout the year. Not surprisingly, by far the most widespread fiesta honors the Virgen de Guadalupe (December 12 and parallel dates in other months). The second major group of fiestas includes: the Assumption of the Virgin (August 15), Candelaria (February 2, following 40 days after the birth of Christ and establishing the model of the sacamisa or blessing of the Virgin Mary), the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin (December 8), and Christmas (December 25, but preceded by the Posadas for 9 days beginning on December 16). The third major group includes: the Virgin of the Rosario (October 1, 7, and 8; or the first Sunday in October), the Birth of the Virgin (September 8), and the Virgin of Carmen (July 16).

Recognizing that the Church year begins with Advent in the beginning of December, we see that the Virgin Mary begins the liturgical calendar. Even before the baby Jesus is born, Mary is the focus of anticipation and celebration. To be faithful to the liturgical cycle, Table 2 lists Marian fiestas beginning with Advent in December and continuing through the end of November.

Table 2. Marian Fiestas during the Liturgical Year

Date Fiesta


Dec 8 Purísima Concepción

Dec 12 Virgen de Guadalupe

Dec 15 Virgen de la Piedrita

Dec 18 Virgen de la Soledad

Dec 22 Virgen de la Monserrat

Dec 24-25 Navidad


Jan 2 Dulce Nombre de María

Jan 4 Virgen del Caminito

Jan 7 Virgen del Refugio

Jan 8 Purísima Concepción

Jan 12 Virgen de Guadalupe

Jan 24 Virgen de la Paz

Jan 26 Virgen de Guadalupe [San Pablo]

Jan 27 Virgen del Consuelo

January -- movable fiestas

3rd Sunday "Dulce Nombre"

Last Saturday Señora de Belen

Last Sunday Sagrada Familia


Feb 2 Candelaria

Feb 8 Virgen de San Juan

Feb 11 Virgen de Lourdes

Feb 12 Virgen de Guadalupe


Mar 26 Virgen de Loreto


Apr 13 Virgen de los Dolores


May 12 Virgen de la Misericordia

May 12 Virgen de los Pobres

May 24 María Auxiliadora

May -- movable fiestas

1st/3rd Wednesdays Virgen de Ocotlán

2nd Wednesday: Virgen de la Luz

Last Sunday: María Auxiliadora

2nd Week: Virgen María

All month: Virgen del Pilar


Jun 7 Virgen del Rayo

Jun 25 Virgen de la Misericordia


Jul 2 Virgen de la Luz

Jul 3 Virgen del Refugio

Jul 4 Señora del Refugio

Jul 12/13 Peregrinacióm a la Villa de Guadalupe

Jul 16 Virgen del Carmen


Aug 7 Virgen del Rayo

Aug 15 Asunción de la Virgen

Aug 15 Virgen del Pueblito

Aug 22 Purísima Corazon de María

Aug 31 Virgen de los Remedios


Sep 1 Nuestra Señora de los Remedios

Sep 4 Nuestra Señora de los Remedios

Sep 8 Natividad de la Virgen

Sep 8 Virgen del Sagrario

Sep 12 Virgen de Guadalupe

Sep 24 Virgen de la Merced

September -- movable fiestas

Last Week: Virgen de la Merced


Oct 1 Virgen del Rosario

Oct 7 Virgen del Rosario

Oct 8 Virgen del Rosario

Oct 12 Coronación de la Virgen de Guadalupe

Oct 13 Virgen de Fatima

Oct 22 Aparición de la Virgen de Guadalupe

October -- movable fiestas

1st Sunday: Virgen del Rosario

1st Monday: Virgen del Pueblito

3rd Sunday: Virgen del Rosario


Nov 21 Presentación de la Virgen

Nov 27 Virgen del Rosario

November -- movable fiestas

1st Sunday: Virgen del Rosario

Last Week: Virgen de los Remedios

Even a cursory glance at the above fiesta calendar shows that some Virgins have more than one date on the annual cycle. In particular, the Virgen de Guadalupe is celebrated on the 12th of many months. Indeed, in Tzintzuntzan (Michoacán), every month a celebration takes place to honor the Virgen de Guadalupe. This mass and an accompanying meal are the responsibility of a group of women and men who care for the image of the Virgin kept in the chapel of Guadalupe in the adjacent hamlet of Ojo de Agua (Foster 1948:203).

It is also noteworthy that the end of the liturgical year involves the "Presentation of the Virgin" (November 21), a mass that has a wider geographical domain that Mexico alone -- for it is celebrated throughout the Church (and I participated this year in such a mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.).

So, the Church year in Mexico literally is defined and bounded by veneration of the Virgin, in her many manifestations, from its beginning with Advent to her Presentation. More than 60 different dates are assigned to the Virgin during each year, far more than any saint. Certainly, no specific locality enjoys all sixty fiesta dates, though it is not unusual for persons from a given community to participate in a number of Virgin-related fiestas during the year, including both local events, those in the immediate region, and even those at distances which involve a pilgrimage.

A cross-tabulation of Marian fiestas for each state shows a considerable range and variation in the frequency of these fiestas throughout the nation. What may be surprising to those who conceive of Marian devotion as being primarily an element of "popular" and "Indian" worship is the significant number of celebrations in the Distrito Federal (as well as in other urban areas where major cathedrals and basilicas are located). In addition, central and southern regions are more important for these fiestas than are the northern regions.

The Ethnographic Context

Among the thousands of localities in contemporary Mexico, including those analyzed in the Calendario de Fiestas Populares analyzed above, only a few hundred have been subjected to detailed ethnographic field research. Among the published community studies, most of the "classic" ethnographies included some discussion of religious topics but many of the more recent studies are focused on specific "problems" and do not give coverage to religious matters. In preparation for this paper, I have surveyed well over 100 primary ethnographic sources as well as numerous secondary treatments of ethnographic data.

For instance, in the recently published volume on Middle America and the Caribbean of the Encyclopedia of World Cultures, nearly all of the indigenous populations of Mexico are discussed, including a brief discussion of their "religious beliefs," "religious practitioners," and "ceremonies." Table 3 lists these ethnic groups and their Marian religious practices, at least to the extent that these are described in the individually authored contributions to the Encyclopedia (Dow and Kemper 1995). Among the 48 populations listed below, "no mention" is made of the Virgin or her manifestations for 30. The most common feature of Marianismo, as reported in the Encyclopedia articles, is the tendency to connect the Virgin Mary with a pre-Hispanic Moon deity -- as reported for the Cahita, Ch’ol, Cora, Cuicatec, Nahua (Huasteca), Nahuat (Sierra de Puebla), Pame, Pima Bajo, Tarahumara, Tzotzil (Chamula), Tzotzil (Zinacantan), and Yaqui -- among groups spread throughout the region now defined by the national borders of modern Mexico.


TABLE 3. Ethnic Groups and Marian Religious Practices in Mexico

Ethnic Group Marian Religious Practices

Amuzgo no mention

Cahita the Virgin (Our Mother) equated with the moon

Chatino mentions fiesta celebrating the Virgen de Rosario

Chinantec no mention

Chocho no mention

Ch’ol merging of the Moon with the Virgin Mary, in accordance with pre-Columbian mythology, in which the Moon is the mother of the Sun.. Carnaval includes public dance performances by Black Men and Marias.

Chontal pilgrimages are mentioned, but no mention of Mary specifically

Cora Tatí. "Mother" is the earth goddess of fertility. She lives in the Pacific Ocean, to the west, from where she sends the rains. She is requated with the Virgin of the Rosary and the Virgin of Candelmas.

Cuicatec The dominant image of the fall/harvest phase of the agricultural cycle is of the Virgin Mary, identified with the moon, who is mourning the death of her son. The winter phase, celebrating the Immaculate Conception and the Nativity, is also dominated by the Virgin. Rituals are devoted to petitioning the Virgin, who is identified with the moon and with surface waters (water holes, springs, and irrigation canals) to protect the second crop.

Huave no mention

Huichol no mention

Lakandon no mention

Mazahua no mention

Mazatec no mention

Mixe no mention

Mixtec pilgrimages include those to the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

Nahua (Huasteca) the moon-related Virgin of Guadalupe, a manifestation of the pre-Hispanic earth and fertility deity Tonantsin, is widely venerated.

Nahua (State of Mexico) cargo system; no mention of Mary

Nahuat (Sierra de Puebla) the moon is the Virgin Mary

Opata no mention

Otomí of the Sierra no mention

Otomí (Valle Mezquital) no mention

Pame same term for the moon and the Virgin Mary

Pima Bajo minor celebrations are held to honor the Virgin of Guadalupe (12 December). during Easter week, young men with duties to protect holy relics (a crucifix and a picture of the Virgin Mary)

Popoloca no mention

Popoluca no mention

Seri no mention

Tarahumara Virgin Mary assimilated to "Our Mother" deity associated with the moon

Tarascans community-based devotions to saints and virgins

Tepehua no mention

Tepehuan (Chihuahua) no mention

Tepehuan (Durango) Madre María (the Holy Mother) is represented by several figures, one of which is the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose feast is celebrated on 12 December.

Tequistlatec no mention

Tlapanec no mention

Tojolab’al the "sky" is inhabited by Our Lord God, Our Lady Mary (Nantik Santa Maria), etc.

Totonac no mention

Triqui no mention

Tzeltal no mention

Tzotzil and Tzeltal (Pantelhó) no mention

Tzotzil (Chamula) they merged the Virgin Mary, the Moon, and the Earth into a single female entity, Our Mother, the Earth-Moon/Virgin. Seers [ilols] obtain their gifts for healing in dreams, directly from Our Father and Our Mother.

Tzotzil (San Andrés Larraínzan) no mention

Tzotzil (San Bartolomé de Los Llanos) no mention

Tzotzil (Zinacantan) the Moon, called Our Holy Mother, travels on a similar path around the world. Under the influence of Spanish Catholicism, the Zinacantecos have come to associate the Sun with God the Father or Jesus Christ and the Moon with the Virgin Mary.

Wasteko no mention

Yaqui the Virgin Mary is identified with the Itom Aye (Our Mother). the Matachines ritual dance is attributed to the Virgin.

Yukateko no mention

Zapotec no mention

Zoque no mention

It should be understood that, although "no mention" is made of Marian devotion for a number of populations in the above list, other sources may offer positive documentation of Marian fiestas or practices. For instance, in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, "A number of the saints of Catholic origin were important to the Huave, especially San Mateo, the community’s patron saint, and the Virgen de la Candelaria. San Mateo’s spirit resided in an image hanging above the church altar. . . . The image of the Virgen de la Candelaria also hung above the altar, and her intercessor image was kept in the same chapel with that of San Mateo" (Cheney 1979:62, quoted in Taylor 1989:186).

Because of the space limitations imposed on this paper, I have not included a detailed comparative study of Marian devotion in all communities in which ethnographers have made some mention of religious issues.

Individual Dimensions of Marianismo

Naming Patterns

The most ubiquitous feature of Marian devotion in Mexico is the frequency with which persons are named in honor of the Virgin. María (with or without an additional name) is the most common baptismal name for women in Mexico and even men may be called José María ("Chema" for short). In addition, names such as Asunción, Belén, Carmen, Concepción, Consuelo, Dolores, Esperanza, Estrella, Guadalupe, Lourdes, Luz, Mercedes, Nieves, Paz, Pilar, Rosario, Salud, Soledad, and Virginia, -- all prefixed or suffixed with María -- are common among women. Even among men, J. Guadalupe is not an uncommon name. As a result, in the daily life of most Mexicans it would be impossible to carry out normal social interactions without being reminded -- by name -- of the Virgin Mary. Although the use of non-religious names is on the increase in Mexico, and birthdays are supplanting saints’ days for honoring individuals as they go through their years, the importance of Marian names will endure for generations into the future.

The Virgin as Intermediary

The role of the Virgin, in all of her many manifestations, includes a significant participation in the Mexican social system. Within the contemporary patron-client and brokerage systems which have come into being as a result of acculturation between pre-Hispanic and Spanish social systems, the Virgin is a key individual. What Taylor (1987:19) observed about colonial life still holds true for many Mexicans:

. . . it is especially as intercessor that Mary Immaculate contains one of the master principles of religious life and political relationships. . . . The mediation of her womb between the spiritual and the physical, as the means of the Incarnation [is] only one aspect of her mediation between heaven and earth. Mary retain[s] her special hold on popular piety partly because God had not been softened in Spanish America just as the great gulfs in the social and political hierarchy had not been spanned. There was need of her intercession with her son and his father, not only to create a bridge into heaven for the believer, but to bring healing and consolation to the living. Although her place in the journey to personal salvation was very important, for rural people in the future Mexico she was perhaps less a broker in the journey after death than a protectress in this life.

As an example of the intercessory role of the Virgin in mundane affairs in the Maya peasant community of Chan Kom, Redfield and Villa Rojas (1934:151-152) describe a novena to God offered as an expression of gratitude for the growth of Don Madal’s milpa:

Don Madal asked Don Guillermo, a maestro cantor, to recite the prayers. . . . He then began a recital of a rosary, in which the others present joined him. . . . Don Guillermo then began a Hail Mary, which the congregation similarly completed. In this antiphonal fashion was completed a rosary of five groups, each of one "Our Father," then "Hail Marys," and one "Gloria." . . . When this group of prayers had been concluded, Don Guillermo recited the anthem "Salve Regina" (like the preceding prayers and anthem, in Spanish). {p. 152} Don Guillermo repeated the verses in praise of the Virgin, to each of which the congregation gave the customary reply: "Santa María, Madre de Dios, ruega, Señora, por nuestros pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amen." The leader then recited the Apostles’ Creed, and the congregation repeated it after him. After this Don Guillermo recited the Litany of the Blessed Virgin, the litany being in Latin. After each line of the fifty or more praising Mary, the chorus repeated "Ora pro nobis," and this took many minutes to complete. . . . The last chant completed, all present stood up, and with hands folded together at the breast, and heads bowed, they sang: "Sea Bendito, alabado por toda la eternidad,/ El divino sacramento sacrosanto del altar,/ Y María concebida sin pecado original./ Amen, Jesús y María, Jesús, María y José./ Así sea, por los siglos de los siglos. Amen.

Requests for intercession can also be focused on personal concerns or family issues. For instance, Friedlander (1975:22-23) reports that among the Indian women of Hueyapan, Morelos,

Every evening one of the young girls in the house waves some copal incense before the family’s image of the Virgin of Guadalupe and lights a large candle which is left burning all night long. Tonight Doña Zeferina teaches Maruca and Lilia how to pray to the Virgin while performing this nightly ritual. Prayers such as these are informal, she explains: they come from the heart: "My Mother of Guadalupe, Queen of the Heavens, take care of me. Mother of mine, thou who art so powerful, cover us with thine robe and do not forsake us, merciful Mother."

Mexican Family Life and the Model of the Holy Family

Numerous ethnographers have commented on the tensions inherent in the "traditional" Mexican family. The relationship between the extremes of machismo and marianismo -- the "he-man" and the "long-suffering" mother -- are well documented and much debated for rural and urban Mexico. In particular, a double standard for sexual behavior seems to be critical to the dilemma of Mexican family life. Although women have come to be seen as spiritually "superior" to men, their place on the pedestal was secured at a price. The familiar refrain "el hombre en la plaza, la mujer en la casa" stakes out the territory for proper men and women.

As Ingham (1986:76) has observed,

The nearly ubiquitous presence of an image of the Virgen de Guadalupe on family altars, the characteristics of the proper wife and mother, and the similarity between the home and church or chapel all speak to the salience of the Holy Family as a social model. The woman does not conform perfectly to Mary’s example, however. . . . differing facets of the woman are represented in Eve as well as in Mary; the one is a likeness of the woman as sexual partner and the other, as mother. These contrasting supernatural images, I would add, encode the cycle of reproduction within the domestic group. When a woman is nursing and sexually continent, she resembles the Virgin. When she submits to sex, she is more like Eve.

As more Mexican women have entered the work force, the traditional situation has been changing. For instance, in her study of women in the city of Cuernavaca, LeVine (1993:204-205) discovered that

Today’s young woman comes to adulthood with a different sense of her self than her mother did. At least publicly, her mother accorded her father -- regardless of competence or the degree to which he accepted responsibility -- the dominant role in the family while she pursued her primary objective, the welfare of her children, by hard work, self-denial, and manipulation of spouse. Her identification with her children was total. By caring for them, she cared for herself. If they throve, she throve. If they failed, she failed also. Today, her family’s welfare is still a young mother’s main -- but not only -- concern. Women of an older generation devoted their energies to the care of others. Undeniably, they suffered, though with confidence that they would reap the reward they sought: the loyalty of children and grandchildren. But their daughters have eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and though they, too, are committed to the care of others, they have begun to demand the right to care for themselves as well.

Bushnell (1958:263-264) suggests that the people of San Juan Atzingo, an Ocuilteca village in south-central Mexico, carry out their social intercourse according to a "code of formal behavior which serves to disguise an ever-present under-current of hostility, insecurity, and frustration" and then goes on to suggest that

the atomism which characterizes social relationships in the community of San Juan represents a condition of affect starvation. The expectation that love and affection will be part of one’s life is created in infancy, but seldom if ever realized in subsequent years. . . . In the worship and adoration of a saint there is opportunity for a full flood of socially-sanctioned emotional release."

In this context, Bushnell (1958:264) argues that the Virgin serves as a "surrogate mother:"

In the kindly and beneficent Virgin of Guadalupe, San Juaneros may fulfill a deeply-felt need to regain a relationship which was cut off at the end of infancy. They have found a mother who will never reject them.

Community Life and Marian Devotion

Every community has its own distinctive liturgical year as a variant of the possibilities within the broader Catholic calendar. As Ingham (1986:92) observes for the peasant community of Tlayacapan, Morelos:

Fiestas occur in conjunction with various events. Some memorialize saints’ days (birthdays) or religious rites of passage in the family; others are more communal celebrations of saints, including images of Mary and Jesus. Some fiestas honor the patron saints of neighborhoods; others are more inclusive and honor saints that are supported by all or large segments of the village: San Juan Bautista, San Nicolás, the Señor de la Trest Caídas, the Virgen de Guadalupe, the Virgen del Tránsito, the Virgen de la Asunción, the Niño Dios, the Santo Entierro, the Santo del Resurrección, and the Señor de Chalma. . . . The most expensive ritual office is that of mayordomo of the Niño Dios. The mayordomo contributes seven thousand pesos or more to the fiesta of Candelaria, which celebrates both the Virgen de la Candelaria and the Niño Dios.

The ceremonial year for many communities has been recorded by ethnographers (cf. Foster 1948:204-223; Greenberg 1981:111-131;Lewis 1951:272-273, 458-462; Peña 1980: 271-282; Vogt 1969:477-567). Turning again to Ingham’s study of Tlayacapan (1986:122-123), we learn that

... the year begins with Advent, the period before Christmas, when the villagers celebrate the Virgin who will bear the Christ Child. The fiesta of the Virgen de la Concepción, which commemorates the Virgin’s own Immaculate conception, occurs on December 8, and on December 12 the major fiesta for the Virgen de Guadalupe is held. Traditionally, there were two images of the Virgen de la Concepción, one in the chapel by that name and another, also known as the Virgen de la Apocalypsis, in Altica. The latter is a statue of a woman holding a small child and standing on a seven-headed serpent and a globe. In the past, the villagers hung paper lanterns on the fronts of their houses throughout the month of December, and the Virgen de la Apocalypses was carried in procession through Altica on the morning of her fiesta. For the mass of the Virgen de Guadalupe, little boys and girls are dressed in the traditional Indian attire of the community: white pajamas for the boys and dark blue wrap-around skirts with white trim near the waist and embroidered blouses for the girls. The boys are called Juan Diegos, after the Indian who is supposed to have witnessed the miraculous visitations of the Virgen de Guadalupe shortly after the Conquest, and the girls are called las Malinches. Between December 16, when Mary and Joseph begin to look for lodging, and February 2, or Candelaria, when a feast celebrates Mary’s purification, ritual activities focus on the Niño Dios. Nativity scenes, each with its own replica of the Niño Dios, are set up in homes, and posadas are held in the homes of various storekeepers and in the church for the nine nights before Christmas.

Fiestas dedicated to diverse Virgins are a mainstay of local community social and religious organization. They can serve as mechanisms of social control (cf. Brandes 1988), ways of sustaining the sacred in the face of the secular (Slade 1992), devices for validating ethnic identity in the midst of economic transformations (O’Connor 1989), and even as ways of generating vital revenues from tourists and returning migrants (Kemper 1987:84-86). In all events, fiestas serve as a major social arena for extending ritual kinship relations in Mexican communities. Once again, Ingham (1986:101) offers an insightful observation:

We can discern, moreover, a system of symbolic affinities that links fiesta participants, saints, and the members of the Holy Family, the nucleus of the spiritual family. One series of connections joins individuals (the honored subjects of birthday fiestas), saints, and the Niño Dios: individuals are identified with saints, and saints are identified with Jesus. . . . Meanwhile, in a second series of linkages, ritual identifies the sponsors of the fiestas with Joseph and Mary, the parents of Jesus. . . . In addition, the identification of individual families with the Holy Family is repeated throughout the village insofar as every household has its own Niño Dios and nativity scene. By setting up a nativity scene, each family expresses commitment to the values symbolized by the Holy Family and Virgin Birth and indicates a willingness to participate in its more costly realizations. Finally, we may note that Christmas ritual helps to inculcate the values of ritual kinship in general. Children play the parts of Mary and Joseph and the shepherds in the processions, and when they participate in the construction and enjoyment of nativity scenes and serve as godparents for the images of the Niño Dios in nearby households, they take their first step toward playing the roles of mayordomo and godparent.

One of the principal features of traditional Mesoamerican community organization is the barrio or neighborhood system. These residential forms of social cooperation and identity typically serve as sponsors for fiestas (or some component such as fireworks or musical groups) during the year. However, other ways of sponsoring and participating in these communal activities also have been invented. For instance, in San Pedro Yolox, Oaxaca, a village-wide, interbarrio association of young unmarried man is given the responsibility for one of the principal village festivals -- that of the Virgin of the Holy Assumption (August 15). As Gwaltney (1970:69) reports:

Youths of from fifteen years of age join it and remain members until they marry. Married men may volunteer or be asked to contribute toward the cost of the society’s fiesta. The unmarried are referred to as a collectivity but there are actually two associations, a vigorous institution for males and a weakly developed society for unmarried girls.


In surveying the religious traditions of Mesoamerica, Gossen (1996:303) concludes that "The cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe is but one of the thousands of ‘encounter themes’ in post-contact Mesoamerican religion that bear elements that are syncretic." Our review of contemporary Marianismo, which survived the crucible of this ethnographic encounter for nearly five centuries, demonstrates that much more than syncretism is involved in the proliferation of Marian devotion among individuals, families, social groups, communities, and the nation as a whole. Somewhere in Mexico, every day is witness to individual intercessory prayers to the Virgin. Virtually every week, a fiesta occurs in honor of some manifestation of Mary. And each year repeats the liturgical cycle for the benefit of the faithful who are thereby reminded of the power of God as expressed through the Virgin. In this sense, the phrase "Virgin’s children" -- used by the anthropologist William Madsen (1960) as a title for his study of a contemporary Aztec village -- has a profound meaning for Mexicans and whose who would understood the diversity of their cultures. But I would suggest that the diversity of the Virgins at work on behalf of so many Mexicans and their communities requires a slight modification of Madsen’s phrase, so that we can understand the plurality of the peoples of Mexico in the plurality of Mary´s representations among them. Thus, Mexico is better understood as the nation of the "Virgins’ children."

References Cited

Borah, Woodrow (1996) "The Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas: La Guadalupana of Tepeyac." Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 12(2):327-339.

Brandes, Stanley (1988) Power and Persuasion: Fiestas and Social Control in Rural Mexico. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Burkhart, Louise (1993) "The Cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico." pp. 198-227 in Gary H. Gossen (ed.) South and Meso-American Native Spirituality. New York: Crossroad.

Bushnell, John (1958) "La Virgen de Guadalupe as Surrogate Mother in San Juan Atzingo." American Anthropologist 60(2:1):261-265.

Campbell, Ena (1982) "The Virgin of Guadalupe and the Female Self-Image: A Mexican Case History." pp. 5-24 in James J. Preston (ed.) Mother Worship: Theme and Variations. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

Cheney, Charles (1979) "Religion, Magic, and Medicine in Huave Society." Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers 55/56:59-73.

Dow, James W. and Robert V. Kemper (eds.) Middle America and the Caribbean. (Vol 8 of the Encyclopedia of World Cultures). Boston, MA: G. K. Hall & Co.

Elizondo, Virgil (1997) Guadalupe: Mother of the New Creation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Foster, George M. (1948) Empire’s Children: The People of Tzintzuntzan. Mexico, D.F.: Imprenta Nuevo Mundo, S.A. (Smthsonian Institution, Institute of Social Anthropology, Publication No. 6).

Foster, George M. (1960) Culture and Conquest. New York: Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.

Friedlander, Judith (1975) Being Indian in Hueyapan: A Study of Forced Identity in Contemporary Mexico. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Gebara, Ivone and María Clara Bingemer (1996; orig. publ. 1987) Mary: Mother of God, Mother of the Poor. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Giffords, Gloria Fraser (1992) Mexican Folk Retablos. Revised edition. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.

Gossen, Gary (1996) "The Religions of Mesoamerica." pp. 290-319 in Robert M. Carmack et al. (eds.) The Legacy of Mesoamerica. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Greenberg, James B. (1981) Santiago’s Sword: Chatino Peasant Religion and Economics. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Gwaltney, John L. (1970) The Thrice Shy: Cultural Accommodation to Blindness and other Disasters in a Mexican Community. New York: Columbia University Press.

Harrington, Patricia (1988) "Mother of Death, Mother of Rebirth: The Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 56(1):25-50.

INEGI (1992) Anuario Estadístico de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos. Edición 1991. Aguascalientes: AGS: Institute o Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática.

Ingham, John M. (1986) Mary, Michael, and Lucifer: Folk Catholicism in Central Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press (Latin American Monographs, No. 69).

Johnson, Harvey L. (1980) "The Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexican Culture." pp. 190-203 in Lyle C. Brown and William F. Cooper (eds.) Religion in Latin American Life and Literature. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.

Kemper, Robert V. (1987) "Urbanización y desarrollo en la región tarasca a partir de 1940." pp. 67-96 in Guillermo de la Peña (ed.) Antropología Social de la Región Purépecha. Zamora: El Colegio de Michoacán y el Gobierno del Estado de Michoacán.

Lafaye, Jacques (1976) Quetzalcoatl and Guadalupe: The formation of Mexican National Consciousness, 1531-1813. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

León, Imelda de (1988) Calendario de Fiestas Populares. Mexico, D.F.: Dirección General de Culturas Populares, Subsecretaría de Cultura, Secretaría de Educación Pública.

LeVine, Sarah (1993) Dolor y Alegría: Women and Social Change in Urban Mexico. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Lewis, Oscar (1951) Life a Mexican Village: Tepoztlán Restudied. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Madsen, William (1960) The Virgin’s Children. Austin: University of Texas Press.

O’Connor, Mary (1989) "The Virgin of Guadalupe and the Economics of Symbolic Behavior." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 28(2):105-119.

Parker, Christián (1996) Popular Religion and Modernization in Latin America: A Different Logic. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Peña, Guillermo de la (1980) Herederos de Promesas: Agricultura, Política y Ritual en Los Altos de Morelos. México, DF: Ediciones de la casa chata, no. 11.

Poole, Stafford (1995) Our Lady of Guadalupe: The Origins and Sources of a Mexican National Symbol, 1531-1797. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Puente, María Alicia (1992) "The Church in Mexico." pp. 217-229 in Enrique Dussel (ed.) The Church in Latin America, 1492-1992. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Redfield, Robert and Alfonso Villa Rojas (1934) Chan Kom: A Maya Village. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Slade, Doren L. (1992) Making the World Safe for Existence: Celebration of the Saints among the Sierra Nahuat of Chignautla, Mexico. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Taylor, Robert B. (1989) Indians of Middle America. Manhattan, KS: Lifeway Books.

Taylor, William B. (1987) "The Virgin of Guadalupe in New Spain: An Inquiry into the Social History of Marian Devotion." American Ethnologist 14(1):9-33.

Turner, Victor and Edith L. B. Turner (1978) Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Vogt, Evon Z. (1969) Zinacantan: A Maya Community in the Highlands of Chiapas. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Zires, Margarita (114) "Los mitos de la Virgen de Guadalupe. Su proceso de construcción y reinterpretación en el México pasado y contemporáneo." Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 10(2):281-313.