May 15th, 2009
I recently enjoyed the Our Lady of Guadalupe episode of The High Chaparral and it got me thinking (again). For those of you who might’ve forgotten what happens, in a nutshell, we see the late, great Ricardo Montalbán playing Father Sanchez, a poor but kind hearted priest whose parish is in Casa Cueva, Mexico. In an attempt to raise money to distribute among his parishioners, Father Sanchez calls for donations to help with his search for a missing religious icon. The icon is a statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus. It is called ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe’.
Father Sanchez tells everyone that the huge sum of 8,000 pesos will recover the statue, assuming no one will ever be able to raise this amount. Since his parishioners are less willing to give more than necessary to their local ‘charitable’ needs, yet nothing was too much to ask for the recovery of the icon, this was how the kind priest collected money for the poor. Father Sanchez thought he was onto a good thing. The donations provided a steady supply of cash to help those in need. So long as the imaginary statue was never found, he could continue helping others. It was a clever idea, if somewhat dishonest. Then he hit a snag.
When the devout Victoria asks John for the 8,000 pesos Father Sanchez claims will recover the statue, and John agrees to pay it, the priest is left in a rather awkward position. He must now find someone to make a statue. He prays for help and God, being the sort of God who wants his children to learn from their mistakes, leaves the priest to sort out the mess he made, himself. There is an interesting scene here as Father Sanchez looks up at the full moon while he prays. We get God’s ‘answer’ in the form of a dark cloud moving to obscure the silvery light of the moon. Without a single word, we know that he’s on his own – or so we think.
The icon is supposedly made of gold and covered in precious jewels, something that would be hard to replicate, so it was doubly inconvenient to have the money provided. The purchase of a fake statue leads to a whole chain of events that show God’s hand in some of what happened. The good father was not alone after all. I tip my hat to the writers of this episode. It’s beautifully done. Full details can be found in the episode guide on The High Chaparral Website so I will move on to the things I wondered about.
To begin with, Father Sanchez’s parish is in Casa Cueva. I wondered. Is it a real place? If so, what does the name Casa Cueva mean in English? You must remember that my training resulted in my having to look up many old Latin words in order to better understand what my science books were trying to drum into my head. A by product of this routine is that I’ve now become rather hooked on wanting to know what any interesting, non-English word might mean. So we’ll start there. Yes, it is a real place and Casa Cueva translates to house cave. How intriguing! I wondered if this meant that people lived in such homes and sure enough they do. Much like the cozy hobbit holes of Lord of the Rings, I searched the internet and found some gorgeous images of homes built into the sides of hills and the like. No danger of a roof blowing off in a big wind for those home owners.
My next question related to the icon itself. Victoria is an intelligent and what I’d call, ‘deep’ woman. There is certainly nothing frivolous about her. The importance she placed on the statue interested me. I wanted to know why that particular icon mattered so much to her. I am aware that Catholics revere many icons of Mary, each with a name and story behind them so my first query was, is there really a Lady of Guadalupe or was she invented for the episode? If so, what’s the history of this icon?
It turns out there is a ‘Lady’ and a most interesting tale is behind the icon. Clearly, Victoria already knew what I was about to discover. It dates back to 1531. Throughout history, there have been many stories of apparitions of Mary, the mother of Jesus. In this one she appeared before a humble Mexican peasant named Juan Diego (1474-1548). She appeared as an Aztec Princess and spoke Juan’s native language to him. On 9 December 1531, Juan Diego was walking home when he encountered a beautiful, young girl surrounded by an unnatural light. She asked that Juan tell the local bishop, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, that she wished for a church to be built in her honor. Juan recognized her as the mother of Jesus and went to the bishop. Understandably, the bishop wanted some kind of proof of the existence of this mysterious heavenly visitor. Knowing that no flowers could be found at that time of year, he told Juan to go to the top of Tepeyac Hill and bring him some. If he could do this, it would be a miracle and he would believe.
Juan found roses growing on the hill and collected them. He put the flowers in his tilma (or tilmàtli) a cloak-like garment and returned to the bishop. To the bishop’s astonishment, not only did Juan return with flowers, but with Castilian roses. Castilian roses were not native to the area but were native to the bishop’s homeland. He took this as a sign that the young lady knew exactly who she was dealing with and that she expected her request to be granted. Even more astounding, when Juan poured the roses out before the bishop, a miraculous image of the lady appeared on his tilma.
The Mexicans call her la Morenita, which roughly translates to, ‘the little dark one’ or ‘the young dark complexioned one.’ This describes how she looked when she appeared. Juan Diego’s story would have meant a lot to Victoria as it would to other Mexicans. You must remember that HC took place at a time in history when many white settlers looked down on Mexicans (and Indians). Juan’s experience was proof to Victoria that God loved her people so much that he sent ‘The Queen of Heaven’ to visit them. In other words, they had just as much worth to him as other races. It’s no wonder this particular image was so important to her.
The feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the most important dates on the Mexican calendar. It falls on 12 December since the apparitions were recorded as taking place between 9-12 December. Festivals occur all around the country and no doubt Victoria would’ve partaken in them as well. A magnificent Basílica de Guadalupe is built in honor of this event. The miraculous image of la Virgen Morena is kept at the basilica. This is the image that appeared on Juan’s tilma. Juan Diego was canonized in 2002, making him America’s first indigenous saint.
I now understand why Father Sanchez’s call for funding led Victoria to ask John for the money. I also understand why his Mexican parishioners were so willing to donate to this cause. However even the aristocratic Victoria, who was used to fine things, was astonished at the 8,000 peso price. Naturally I wondered how much this was. At the time of writing this article, 8,000 pesos translated to about US $605. My research indicated that during HC’s time, a loaf of bread cost two cents. That would buy 30,250 loaves. No wonder Victoria was aghast. If you’ll excuse the pun, that’s a lot of bread!