I pulled activities and assignments from every possible place. Somehow, I came across a little story written in simple Spanish which I thought my upper level students would be able to translate. I considered the story nothing more than an interesting Catholic legend.
Thankfully, I did not propagate my misunderstanding, but rather simply assigned the story to my students and left religion instruction to the religion department.
In January of 2005, while nearing the end of my conversion to the Catholic faith, I received one of many “care packages” from Randy and Mary Hill, a married couple in the Archdiocese of St. Louis that had taken me under their wings when they discovered that I was converting. The box they sent to me contained a book on Marian apparitions entitled A Woman Clothed with the Sun by John J. Delaney. While reading a chapter on Our Lady of Guadalupe, I came across something that would take that little story out of the realm of legend and into the realm of absolute reality for me.
In 1990, while completing a college-level course on Latin America, I learned a couple of Nahuatl words (Aztec language), one of which was “cuatl” (pronounced kwah-tell, emphasis on first syllable). Translated, it means snake or serpent. The Aztec people even had a god named Quetzalcuatl, which literally translates to plumed serpent.
The book I was reading explained that the Aztec pronunciation of the word “Guadalupe” would have been something like kwah-tell lah-shoop-ay. So, when the Lady said her name to Juan Diego’s uncle, he would have interpreted the first part as snake because cuatl and guadal are both pronounced kwah-tell. What I didn’t know—which the book explained for me—is that the Aztec translation of the second half of that phrase literally means to trod on something. When I put it all together, I was stunned. In Nahuatl, the name Guadalupe means One who trods on snake! So when the Lady repeated her name for a poor, uneducated Aztec man, saying call me Santa Maria de Guadalupe, she was actually saying, call me Holy Mary of One who has trod on the snake. In Genesis 3:15, this is the name God reserves for Mary, the second Eve; so when the woman says her name, she gives the name the Lord planned for her from the beginning of time.
I have no idea how I overlooked the miracles behind the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe all those years ago. I’m sure it’s because I didn’t put together that cuatl and guadal have virtually identical pronunciations in Nahuatl, and I had never learned the translation for the rest of the compound epithet. Still, it amazes me that I could teach Spanish in a Catholic high school, assign the reading to upper level classes, and not know the whole story. It cuts me to the heart when I realize that I taught my students about the conquistadors, but not the miracle of eight million baptisms that occurred in the seven years following the vision. Some sources estimate that the actual number of conversions might have been closer to nine million (with the total Aztec population only ten million at that time).
I’ve promised myself that one day I will visit Mexico and see the five-hundred-year-old tilma that bears the image of Our Lady. I just wish I could gather all my former students together in one place and have another chance to teach them the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe. With uncensored delight, I would ask them if they have heard the story—the true story—of the Woman who converted a nation with the help of a few Spanish roses, a cloak called a tilma, and one very humble Aztec man named Juan Diego.
I urge you to read more about Our Lady of Guadalupe, and let the story speak for itself.
Santa Maria, mi Madre Nueva, gracias—por todos los milagros y las lecciones del corazon. Holy Mary, my new Mother, thank you – for all the miracles and lessons of the heart.