Coercing the Conquered: How Forced Conversion Muddied Mexico’s Religious Identity

For half an hour I had enjoyed hearing a jewelry maker describe how she creates unique pieces to sell. I prayed with her and for her, and she responded by giving me several hugs as we walked out of her store. I hoped to share the gospel with her.

And then she left me speechless by explaining that her store is a temple to Tezcatlipoca, the ancient god of darkness. She bowed and told me that, on closing every day, she gives thanks to all her gods for their grace to her. My shock at casual polytheism showed in my face, and she tried to explain that of course she believes in the old gods. These are her religious roots.

My visit to this Mexican city had already stunned me a few days earlier. During lunch, one of my coworkers observed a group of people in the town square, dressed in indigenous costumes and dancing enthusiastically to the beat of insistent drumming. I asked the waiter what was happening, and he replied that they were dancing to honor the snake god of the moon. For the waiter, this form of dance was a lively celebration of his heritage and a form of respect to his ancestors—a way to remember and connect with his true Mexican self.

Finding Identity with a Foreign Religion

Mexico lives in the tension between its pre- and post-Hispanic identities. Its pre-Hispanic cultures lived in large, warring city-states, with complex religions and sophisticated worldviews. The Spanish arrived, conquered, intermarried, and left their mark in a caste system based on the percentage of European blood. Even today, light skin, light eyes, and European features are generally favored over an indigenous appearance.

In their haste to convert the indigenous peoples, they overlaid native religions with Roman Catholicism. They built churches on top of sacred sites, incorporated Mexican customs into Catholic rituals, and developed Mexican expressions of Catholicism, attempting to force conversion while lessening its sting.

With a predominantly Catholic influence, many living in Mexico City are involved in syncretistic worship. Throughout the town of Tepito, believers in “La Santa Muerte” or “the holy death” frequent the chapels of this skeletal figure, which is often depicted holding the world in one hand and a scythe in the other. Candles illuminate the shrine to the holy death in honor of the idol.

In some ways they succeeded. The Virgin of Guadalupe—the “Queen of Heaven” and “Empress of Mexico”—unquestionably represents the greatest attempt to bridge pre-Hispanic and Catholic identities. The Templo Expiatorio in Leon, Mexico, features a picture of Juan Diego, the indigenous man who saw visions of Guadalupe. Beneath his image is the inscription, “Beloved Juan Diego . . . Teach us the way that leads to the Brown Virgin, so that she may receive us into the intimate part of her heart.”

Pope John Paul II, author of that quote, recognized that the “Brown Virgin” met the need for a compassionate, heavenly figure who didn’t look like the conquerors, but the conquered. This tender, feminine, Catholic, and above all Mexican presence has attracted millions of devoted followers—guadalupanos—who love her like a mother and look to her for intercession, care, and protection.

Saints and other apparitions of Mary attract followers as well. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims journey to see the Virgin of San Juan de Los Lagos in her basilica every January. Other times of the year, her followers come on mandas, or required acts of humility for saving them or helping them in some way. Many men enter the basilica on their knees, traversing the entire building to kneel at her altar—unusual in a country where religion is often the women’s domain.

“This tender, feminine, Catholic, and above all Mexican presence has attracted millions of devoted followers who love her like a mother and look to her for intercession, care, and protection.”

The virgin’s image receives such veneration that people leave bicycles, guitars, testimonies, and even their own hair as offerings of gratitude. It’s so popular because indigenous people made it from a paste of sugarcane stalks, mixed with orchids. No European imported it from Spain; it is a thoroughly Mexican creation.[1]

Back to their Roots

Beneath the veneer of Catholicism, though, the original religions are alive and well. In every important celebration, groups arrive with ancient, indigenous dances and costumes to honor their virgin or saint. The late Tlamatini Andres Segura Granados, an honored leader and teacher of Aztec philosophy and dance, argued that the Mexican people subverted Catholic images to preserve their heritage and beliefs. He believes that the Virgin of Guadalupe actually represents Tonantzin, the earth and water mother, wearing her colors and symbols. Indigenous people who make that connection dance to Tonantzin, not Mary.[2]

It should be no surprise that young people, artists, and others dissatisfied with Catholic traditions search for an unconquered Mexicanness by reaching back to gods like Tezcatlipoca. Like my acquaintance in the jewelry shop, they’re digging for their roots.

How Can the Church Help Navigate This Broken Identity?

  • Educate your mission teams. Be amateur anthropologists and research the culture before you come. Use what you learn to pray with discernment.
  • Get to know your local Hispanic community, and be on the lookout for images of Guadalupe or other Virgins, candles with saints on them, etc. Ask questions to understand these things.
  • Listen attentively and find out what people really believe, not just what they say to keep you from sharing the gospel.
  • Be willing to invest your time. I take people through the entire book of Genesis because it gives us the roots of all humanity. It preaches the gospel clearly and deals with God’s mercy and communication with individuals, along with man’s polytheism, syncretism, and attempts to manipulate God through religious acts. These topics all speak to the Mexican heart, and people identify heavily with the dysfunctional families of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
  • Stick to the Bible and be patient with people, encouraging them as they make their own observations. Help them gain confidence in their ability to understand the Bible. The Bible itself is sufficient to dismantle bad doctrines they’ve learned.
  • Learn to point to Jesus from anywhere in the Bible. Many of my Catholic friends want to be able to trust in the Bible, but don’t know it’s trustworthy. The prophecies about Jesus from beginning to end help them have confidence in God’s Word.

[1] “Nuestra Señora de San Juan de los Lagos,” Pregunta Santoral, Feb. 1, 2013.

[2] Tlamatini Andres Segura Granados, “The Path of Quetzalcoatl” YouTube, Dec. 6, 2012.