He holds sway over a nation, yet people can’t even agree with what he looked like

May 13, 2009

Juan Diego’s images stir debate
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Wednesday, July 31, 2002

The “official” image of Juan Diego, selected because it is the oldest-known portrait, makes him look European.

MEXICO CITY — The debate broke out in a busy gift shop crammed with religious trinkets. Which was the correct version of Juan Diego, one that makes him look Caucasian or others that depict him more like an indigenous person?

The pope will make a saint of Juan Diego today, and some wish that Mexico’s revered holy man had an official likeness more like the indigenous people he called his own.

“The image should be native,” Aldela Domingas, 62, of Mexico City, said standing in the crowded gift shop.

“But senora, there are no original images of him,” said Guadalupe Rodriguez, 41, of Chihuahua.

Rodriguez’s mother, Josefina Saenz, 72, joined in by pointing at a large portrait of a Caucasian-looking Juan Diego and saying, “Look, it says, ‘true portrait.’ ”

It may say that, and it may be plastered all over Mexico City, but not everyone is convinced. One of the most important aspects of Juan Diego’s story is that the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to him, an Indian, and spoke to him in his native tongue. This should be reflected in any rendering of him, some say.

“I think it should be like this,” gift shop clerk Teri Platero said, pointing to a book cover with an indigenous-looking Juan Diego on the cover. “The believers ask for it more like this.”

Eduardo Moreno, 16, sells souvenirs a few blocks from the Basilica de Guadalupe where the famous image of the Virgin on Juan Diego’s cloak is enshrined, and he said he sells more key chains with the indigenous-looking Juan Diego than the more full-bearded, European-looking one.

But business is fine for Aurora Ramirez, 25, who is next door selling T-shirts emblazoned with the official picture, the kneeling Juan Diego clasping hands with Pope John Paul II.

“This is the official one, the people don’t want the other one,” she said. Ramirez said she sells 200 to 300 T-shirts a day, and business is picking up as Juan Diego’s canonization nears.

In many places, Juan Diego’s images are mixed, and many Mexicans say his appearance doesn’t matter as much as the humility before God that made him a great man.

“It’s very meaningful for us because he’s from our race,” said Juanita Ramirez, 56, but that didn’t stop her from buying a bag full of religious items with both images of Juan Diego.

Guillermo Ortiz, auxiliary bishop of Mexico City, said the official image of Juan Diego, a 17th-century painting by an anonymous artist, was chosen because it is the oldest-known picture of Juan Diego.

“The important thing is it says, ‘Servant of God,’ ” Ortiz said, pointing to the wording at the top of the painting.

He said this image of Juan Diego, painted several decades after his death in 1548, was used in 1990 when the pope beatified him.

Ricardo Cervantes, who made a 30-hour bus ride from Quintana Roo to be in Mexico City for the pope’s visit, is among those moved by the canonization and unmoved by the controversy.

“What’s important is what we have in our heart,” he said.