Off the Beaten Track

George W. Bush’s first trip to another country as president will be in two weeks, to Mexico. He wants to show respect and support for Mexico’s new president, the intrepid Vicente Fox. As a former Texas governor, Mr. Bush has long had a foreign policy toward Mexico, and the trip will demonstrate Mexico’s continued precedence to his new administration. And it will not have escaped the Bush White House that the visit is an opportunity to impress and draw the interest of American Hispanics.

Republicans, as we all know, are concerned about the Hispanic vote, and not only because it is growing in key states. Hispanics vote more for Democrats than Republicans, which is especially frustrating for the latter, because they’ve long thought they share with Hispanics the kind of assumptions and beliefs that amount to a worldview.

Taxes and crime, which always anger Republicans, have oppressed America’s immigrants. The Republicans have been the party most encouraging of a place for religion in public life, and Hispanics have traditionally put their belief at the center of their lives.

But first-generation immigrants often have entry level jobs, and it is the Democrats who will raise the minimum wage, and who present themselves as more sympathetic to immigration and more generous to immigrants. (It is impressive that no matter how many million-dollar fundraisers the Democrats hold with the nation’s elites, no matter how many billionaires they cosset and pardon, the Democrats still seem to so many Americans—especially perhaps recent ones—to be the party of the little guy. This is a triumph of public relations that is the biggest thing the party has going for it, still.)

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When Mr. Bush goes to Mexico, he will hold meetings with President Fox, and their ministers will hold meetings, and there will be a great party or two, and events in Mexico City. This is appropriate and predictable. But Mr. Bush might also consider straying from the beaten path in order to capture the imagination of the Mexicans of Mexico, and of America.

He might add another significant city to his itinerary. It is the site of an astounding occurrence that some see as a quaint and pious legend, and others will always understand to be an immensely moving if improbable fact of history. Either way, no one disputes the occurrence’s impact, which was huge.

Everywhere you go in Mexico, from where I have recently returned, you see portraits and pictures of the great occurrence. They sell prints of it in food stores, and you can’t go by a jewelry store or trinket shop without seeing medals commemorating it. I brought half a dozen back for friends, and ended up giving all of them to the men who make me coffee at the deli next to my home.

The great occurrence happened 470 years ago, in a Mexico only recently conquered by Cortez. The Aztec Indians still dominated, and one who was steeped in that culture was a 57-year-old Indian named Juan Diego, an intelligent and humble man.

The Aztec—their common name as a people was Mexica—were a formidable people, gifted, brave, strong, cultured, bloody and fierce. A religious sense touched nearly every part of their lives, from art (their sculpture was largely religious) to sports (games named after the gods) to medicine (illnesses and wounds had to be healed through appropriate prayers). They built vast temples.

But their religious feeling included, or was in time hardened into, something else, a culture of brutality. Human sacrifices were made to the gods, the most common being self-sacrifice, with men, women and children giving blood. The most brutal involved an enormous number of victims sacrificed in cold blood—hearts ripped out of live victims, beheadings, incineration. For many years there were, historians estimate, 250,000 victims a year, of whom perhaps 20,000 men were burned alive during a four-day religious ritual.

Why were such a cultured people so bloody-minded? Because they thought their gods demanded it. “The common religious foundation of all the Meso-American peoples,” Octavio Paz has written, “is a basic myth: the gods sacrificed themselves to create the world. The mission of man is to preserve the universal life, including his own, by feeding the gods with the divine substance: blood. . . . The dual nature of sacrifice appears very clearly in Meso-American myth: the gods shed their blood to create the world; men, to keep the world, must shed their blood, which is the food of their gods.”

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In 1531, the year of the great occurrence, the Aztec culture was still strong among the people but was being challenged by the culture and beliefs of the new settlers—the Christians of Spain, who’d had their own bloody moments and their own cruelties, especially toward the Indian peasants whose country they now ruled.

So, the story:

Early on a crisp Saturday morning, on Dec. 9, 1531, the Aztec Juan Diego was walking to the town of Tlatelolco, where he had begun to receive Christian catechism lessons. As he reached a nearby hill, he heard a sweet and full sound, like the rich and beautiful singing of birds. Juan Diego listened, stopped, and told himself, “I must be dreaming.” In a kind of ecstasy he followed the sound, looking up to the top of the hill where it seemed to lead. Suddenly the music ended, and he heard a voice calling from the top of the hill—”Juanito, Juan Dieguitto.”

He climbed to where the voice was coming from. (Later he would say he felt not fear but great peace.) When he got to the top, he saw a young woman, who motioned for him to come closer. When he stood before her, he was amazed: Her dress shone and shimmered like the sun; the cliff on which she stood seemed like a bracelet of precious stones. And she was beautiful, with dark hair, dark brows, big eyes, like a Mexica (or, they later said, like a young girl from the Middle East).

Her voice was warm and gentle as she asked him where he was going. He said: To Tlatelolco, to learn of God.

She said, “Know this as true, my smallest child: I am the perfect ever-Virgin Mary, mother of the most true God through whom everything lives, the creator of persons, the master of closeness and proximity, the master of heaven and earth.” She said it was her desire that a temple be built to glorify her Son. She asked him to go and tell this of the bishop of Mexico. “You have heard it, my little son, my strength, my word: Go and do your part.”

At this, Juan Diego fell to his knees and said, “My lady, my little girl, I will carry out your desire.”

And he went straight to the heart of the nearby city, to the palace of the first bishop of Mexico. He begged to see the bishop. He had to wait a long time, but was finally called in. The bishop, a Spaniard, Fray Juan de Zumarraga, heard Juan Diego out, but he did not seem to believe him. Juan Diego was just an Indian, an old man with a fanciful tale.

Juan Diego left, and on the way home he passed the hill and found the beautiful lady waiting for him. He told her he wanted to do what she wished and that he had seen the bishop but he was not believed. He pleaded with her to relieve him of the task, and to give it instead to a nobleman, a somebody. “I am a peasant, a porter, a tail, a wing, a poor leaf,” he told her.

But she told him to rest assured—”I do not lack for servants or messengers”—but it was important that it be he who carried the bishop the message again, tomorrow.

Juan Diego agreed, and the next morning he walked back to the bishop’s palace. After a great deal of effort he was allowed in. The bishop asked detailed questions, insisting on specifics. Juan told him everything he could remember. The bishop said he would need some proof. Could Juan ask the lady to send it to him? Juan agreed, and left.

He did not know that the wily bishop had sent some servants to follow him home and spy on him. But the servants soon lost him in the hills. This was humiliating for Aztec trackers, and when they returned to the bishop they angrily denounced Juan Diego, calling him a liar and a troublemaker. They vowed among themselves that when they next saw him they would beat him.

Juan went to the lady and related the bishop’s request for proof. She promised to send him a sign, and asked Juan Diego to return the next day and receive it from her. But he did not return the next day. His uncle, who had been like a father to him, became violently ill that night, and in the morning he asked Juan Diego to go for a priest to give him last rites. Juan Diego went to town but by a different route, so the lady would not see him. First things first, he thought. But as he walked the other way around the hill, she appeared to him anyway and asked him where he was going. When he told her, she told him not to be anxious, that at that moment his uncle was being cured.

Juan believed her, and thanked her. She asked him to go to the top of the hill and gather the Castillian roses he would find there. He climbed, knowing he would not find roses in the December frost. But when he got to the top, he saw flowers spread over the hilltop—hundreds of roses that gave off a sweet fragrance. He cut as many as he could and put them in his tilma, the rough woven blanket Indians wore tied behind their necks. When he showed the roses to the Virgin, she rearranged them in his tunic.

Juan Diego returned to the bishop’s palace. But the doorkeeper and the servants, warned that he was trouble, pretended not to understand him and ignored him. Juan Diego remained outside at the gate, standing there for hours, motionless, head bowed. At daybreak the next day, the servants saw he was still there. And for the first time they noticed he was hiding something in his tilma. Now they surrounded him and told him they’d beat him if he didn’t show what he was hiding. As they drew close, they smelled the perfume of the flowers. They tried to snatch them, but each time they took a rose, it would seem to disappear, or seem somehow to be painted on the cloth of the tilma.

They ran to the bishop. He listened to them, realized this might be the proof he had asked for, and went to Juan Diego, who was now surrounded by the entire household. As Juan Diego opened his tilma to show the bishop the roses, an amazing thing happened. At the moment the rough material unfurled the image of the woman on the hill suddenly appeared on it. The bishop and all present fell to their knees. The bishop cried out and asked the lady to forgive him for not having carried out her will. Then he stood, untied the tilma from Juan Diego’s neck, and carried it to his chapel.

The whole city was shaken by the event. It took Indians and Spaniards working together only 14 days to build a small adobe shrine on the hill where Juan Diego saw the lady. The tilma itself was put in the main church, and then carried to one larger still.

In his home, Juan Diego’s uncle told everyone that a beautiful young woman with dark hair and dark eyes had come to him and cured him. She had called herself “the perfect Virgin Mary of Guadalupe.” Soon he was brought to see the tilma. That is her, he said.

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Now, much of this is taken from a translation of excerpts of the Nican Mopohua, a great Aztec narrative written about Juan Diego in the first half of the 16th century, when many of those who had witnessed and lived through the events recounted were still alive. The excerpts are quoted in a beautiful little book called “Guadalupe—What Her Eyes Say,” which was published in the Philippines in 1988, and which is indispensable to those who want to follow the more recent developments surrounding the great occurrence.

Here are the older ones. The story spread through all of Mexico and soon miracles were attributed to the tilma and to the Virgin of Guadalupe. The story triggered an event of epic proportions, the religious conversion of an entire people. The small holy house the Virgin asked for became a huge basilica that is visited each year by millions of pilgrims. The tilma still hangs in it.

The story of the Virgin and Juan Diego helped improve the way the Spaniards treated the Indians. (It was an Indian, after all, to whom the Mother of God revealed herself and trusted to give a Spanish prince of the church his marching orders.) It helped change the way the Indians viewed the Spanish—as brothers now in faith. The story became a strong bond between the Spanish and the Indians, and for hundreds of years was arguably the strongest factor of unity among the people of Mexico.

Juan Diego was ultimately declared a saint of the Catholic Church, which came to recognize the apparition of Mary as miraculous.

The tilma hanging in the great basilica of Guadalupe is 450 years old now but shows no sign of decay, which seems a miracle in itself as it is made of woven maguey fiber that disintegrates after 20 years. The image has not faded. An analysis of the image carried out by Richard Kuhn, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, and another by two NASA researchers, concluded that the colorings in the image were of unknown origin, and do not belong to any vegetable, animal or mineral. They are not synthetic. The researchers didn’t know what they are.

A satellite imaging expert named Aste Tonsman a few years ago studied the image using image digitization; he was amazed when in studying the corneas of the eyes of the image he saw in them a series of people and objects—an Indian unfurling a tilma before a priest, another young man, a halfinaked Indian with his lips open and his hands together, pieces of furniture, a ceiling arch, and so on.

From “Guadalupe—What Her Eyes Say”: “In some way, the eyes captured the same scene related by the legend at the moment Our Lady appeared and left her image” on the tilma.

One hopes more studies will be done.

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Mexico has been many things since it became Catholic—a revolutionary country, an anticlerical country, and now a country growing richer, more sophisticated and so more detached from the old beliefs. (Ireland is like this too: The accomplished and successful, the telecom millionaires and CEO’s, the young and upwardly mobile, are not so often or usually in mass. But the old are, the “peasants” of the new economy are—the immigrants, the workers in blue-collar and the lower clerical jobs.) Mexico now is a fiercely sophisticated country, and a proud one. But perhaps, like Ireland, its belief is imbedded like a harpoon in the heart, unseen, unfelt, unremovable.

It would be a wonderful thing if the new president would go to the great basilica at Guadalupe and see the piece of history displayed there. It would not be a political pilgrimage or a specifically religious one—I don’t know of any Methodists who are keen on this story. But it could be a powerful statement of shared culture and shared belief in the transcendent.

Which is, essentially, what Mr. Bush’s inaugural address was about. How gallant if he went to visit the image of the woman who is for so many, in Mexico and here at home, “an angel in the whirlwind.”