Founding a nation sometimes requires more than just a thirst for freedom. Colonial Mexicans knew they needed a good origin story.
Every single country has foundation myths taken as real historical facts. Some of them might sound more realistic than others but end up being as fictional as any other legend or fantasy. But let’s focus on Mexico for today. Turns out that many of the main historical episodes in the nation’s country are quite fantastical myths that are still taught at schools all over the big country, and that are the foundations of a national identity that still prevails nowadays.
Perhaps the story that drives the Mexican identity the most is the myth of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the divine virgin that appeared herself to the humble indigenous San Diego founding the strongest faith in the country. However, if we go back to history, around the time the legend of the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared in the territory, there was an even wackier theory created by the creole people (the children of Spanish colonizers born in New Spain) to install among the indigenous and “Mexican” folk a sense of national identity and pride. This theory claims that Quetzalcóatl, the feathered serpent, and one of the Aztec’s main deities, was no other than Thomas the Apostle. How and why?
Creoles and the social reality in New Spain
After the Spanish conquest, New Spain endured half a century of colonization based on a racist cast system that only benefited the Spanish population and, with some limitations, the creole. By the late 18th century, Illustrated ideas reached New Spain installing new political ideas and views among the creole. By this time, four-fifths of the population was formed by indigenous, mulatto, and mestizo folk; the only thing they had in common was the yolk they were enduring during colonization. Creole, on the other hand, were more than privileged, other to the fact that they weren’t allowed to take part in the political and important decisions of the country.
The Illustration made them realize that they were more than capable of ruling themselves, but they felt attached neither to the territory’s rich past nor their Spanish roots. They knew they needed a foundation story that would link them to the vast majority of the population to get rid of the Spanish yolk, and as Catholics, as they were, they knew that the only way to achieve it was finding a link between the indigenous past and religion. See where this is going?
Quetzalcóatl and Our Lady of Guadalupe
This new Creole patriotism looked everywhere to find that missing link. Since most of the historians and academics of the time belonged to the clergy, their first attempt was to exalt the works of the European missionaries and their evangelization work in the Americas while praising the majestic civilization of the pre-Hispanic civilizations. However, this raised a big contradiction. For scholars like Juan de Torquemada, the Aztec, Maya, and other great civilizations were indeed comparable to those of the Ancient Greeks and Romans; however, their religion was still considered savage and even the intervention of the Devil.
Back in the day (and even today this myth persists), it was believed that pre-Hispanic civilizations had talked about a blonde and bearded deity often related to Quetzalcóatl. Many even believed, that this god had promised to return and when the native peoples saw Hernán Cortés and his men, they were sure it was the long-awaited return of Quetzalcóatl. This has proven to be a myth, but in Colonial times, this legend led the Creole academics and historians to create the fantastic tale we’re talking about today. The story stated that Thomas the Apostle had wandered America even before the Aztecs had settled in Tenochtitlan; he brought Jesus’ message, taught them agriculture, and gave them his word he would come back. This theory wasn’t only thought in what is now Mexico; in Peru, for instance, historian Antonio de la Calancha posed in the 17th century, that the Inca empire and the beauty of its land were no other than the Bible’s Paradise.
Also around this time appeared the first retelling of the Virgin of Guadalupe, in 1648, and since this one didn’t ask for historical evidence, and more importantly, merged both the indigenous past and identity to Catholicism, it spread fast. But this didn’t discourage the Thomas/Quetzalcóatl believers; it only gave them an extra push to prove their theory and make it as believable as one of the Virgin appearing before an indigenous man.
What was the evidence that proved this odd connection?
Ignacio Borunda, a lawyer obsessed with the native civilizations of the Americas, posted in the 18th century that there was plenty of evidence to prove that Thomas the Apostle was no other than Quetzalcóatl. This had been revealed during the discovery of the Aztec Calendar in 1790. Historians soon concluded that this colossal piece had been a calendar where ancient Aztecs recorded the cycles of the moon and the planets, showing that they were a highly advanced civilization. However, Creole patriotists thought differently, and they claimed that the piece was a description of the foundation of Tenochtitlan; moreover, they claimed that there were depictions of Quetzalcóatl wearing the characteristic cloak of Thomas the Apostle.
In a quite controversial speech to commemorate the appearance of our Virgin of Guadalupe to Juan Diego, theologist Fray Servando Teresa de Mier stated that the story of the Virgin was not real but that it didn’t mean that she didn’t appear to the indigenous Juan Diego. He claimed that her image didn’t appear itself on his clothes as the legend stated, but that she showed him where the image was. In the original ‘huipil’ you could see the image of Saint Thomas on the Virgin’s cloak. He said that Thomas realized that despite his efforts to evangelize the natives, they still believed in pagan deities and that this was Satan’s work. He gave up and decided to hide the image of the Virgin. Centuries later, and after a great work of evangelization by the Spaniard missionaries, Our Lady of Guadalupe came back to restore the faith.
With this, he claimed to prove that the pre-Hispanic civilizations were already Christians who had adored the Virgin of Guadalupe for over 1750 years at the Tepeyac mount (where the Virgin allegedly appeared) and that it had been Thomas the Apostle the one who had founded her temple. It’s well known that Aztec Goddess Tonantzin had been praised for centuries on that spot.
Fray Servando took his story even further, which wasn’t well received by the clergy back then and even cost him an exile and some time in prison. He said that the sacrifices that had horrified the Spanish during the conquest had been a misunderstanding of God’s words. According to his story, St. Thomas had instilled the Christian precepts in the native population and educated them on the Eucharist practice. These doctrines had been “disrupted by time and the equivocal nature of the hieroglyphs.”
De Mier also claimed that Mexicans should keep the ‘X’ in the name of ‘Mexico’ instead of the Spanish version of ‘Mejico’ because the first one meant “where Christ is adored,” thus “Mexicans” literally meant “Christians.” He added that the root “Mexi” was a synonym for “Messiah.” To conclude his preposterous speech, Fray Servando stated that the arrival of Thomas the Apostle coincided with the foundation of Tenochtitlan, which isn’t true.
Although the story didn’t stick, De Mier’s annotations made some noise in future historians who even came to say that the Aztec God of War, Huitzilopochtli, was no other than Jesus. But perhaps the real importance of this theory is that this need to find an origin story to create a national identity sparked a social movement that managed to end the yolk of colonization and joined (at least for a while) the diverse population of Mexico. Moreover, it exalted the indigenous past of the vast territory impulsing the study and appreciation of these incredibly advanced civilizations that for centuries were believed to be mere savages.