This IG Live took place on December 9, 2021 to discuss how a religious symbol that’s become a Latinx cultural symbol can help us understand the ways in which Aztec medical, religious, and cultural ideas persist in modern-day Latinx maternal health. If you would like to watch the recording, click here.
Dr. Cesar Padilla is a Mexican American board certified anesthesiologist, earning his medical degree from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in 2012. Dr. Padilla went on to complete his residency in anesthesiology at Cedars Sinai Medical Center and complete a fellowship at Brigham and Women's Hospital at Harvard Medical School. He is currently a Clinical Assistant Professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, where he has a clinical focus on obstetric anesthesia. Dr. Padilla currently serves as the Co-Chair for the National Hispanic Medical Association’s Council of Anesthesiology, and was recently awarded the Hispanic Center of Excellence Faculty Fellowship by the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Katya Vera is a pre-med Mexican American, hoping to apply to medical school in the 2022-2023 application cycle. She is also a member of the LXMED Team. In 2020, she graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Anthropology. She also earned minors in Global Health & Health Policy and Latin American Studies, taking special interest in Indigenous American art and medical anthropology. Her research involved the ways in which Mestizo Nationalism in Mexico negatively affected Indigenous and Afro-Mexican health outcomes, as well as cultural comparisons between American and Mexican medical schools.
La Virgen de Guadalupe as a Latinx Cultural Symbol
- Our Lady of Guadalupe is pervasive in Latinx culture, especially Mexican culture.
- Dr. Padilla and Katya spoke about her presence in their lives growing up, from seeing her image in their homes and the homes of family members, to celebrating her feast day and having relatives named after her.
A Historical Perspective to Origin Story of La Virgen de Guadalupe (Katya)
- The Aztec Empire existed in present-day central and southern Mexico between 1345 and 1521 until it was colonized by Spain.
- The Virgin of Guadalupe is a Marian Apparition (Catholics believe in Marian Apparitions in which the Virgin Mary, Jesus’s mom, appears to people).
- In 1531, Catholics believe that Mary appeared four times to Juan Diego, an Aztec man who had converted to Catholicism.
- On December 9th, Juan Diego was walking in Tepeyac Hill when the Virgin appeared to him. She spoke to him in Nahuatl, the Aztec language, explaining she was the mother of God and asked him to build a church in her honor on that hill.
- Juan Diego sought the Archbishop of Mexico City to tell him what had happened and build the church. The Archbishop did not believe Juan Diego so Juan Diego went back to the hill where the Virgin asked him to continue insisting.
- On December 10, Juan Diego went to the Archbishop again. The archbishop asked Juan Diego for a sign. Juan Diego returned to the hill and the Virgin agreed to perform a miracle the following day, December 11th.
- On December 11th, Juan Diego could not go to the Hill because he was caring for his uncle, who was very ill.
- On December 12th, Juan Diego was on his way to get a Catholic priest to hear his uncle’s last confession on his deathbed. He went around the hill to avoid the Virgin, but she intercepted him. This was the fourth and last apparition (her Feast Day).
- She assured him that his uncle had fully recovered and told him to gather roses from the summit of Tepeyac Hill, which was normally barren, especially in the cold of December.
- Juan Diego went anyway and found roses blooming there. The Virgin arranged the flowers in Juan Diego's tilma, or cloak, and when Juan Diego opened his cloak later that day before the archbishop, the flowers fell to the floor, revealing her image.
- The bishop then believed Juan Diego and two weeks later, a small chapel was built on Tepeyac hill where the image was on display. Different miracles started happening and today, the shrine is the most visited site in Christianity, with 10 million people visiting it every year.
The Importance of Maternal Health in Aztec Culture (Dr. Padilla)
- Tonantzin (Xochiquetzal) was the goddess of fertility and midwives.
- Birth was considered a battle in Aztec culture because there was a very high mortality rate.
- A battle cry was given by the midwife when a woman gave birth because it was considered a victory that she survived.
- If a woman died, she was given the same honor as a warrior who died in battle.
- Aztec state placed the same level of honor on a pregnant woman dying during childbirth as a warrior that died during battle.
- Women deities (Xochiquetzal) were highly valued and thus, the state did everything in its power to honor a woman if she died.
- When the Spanish arrived, they did not like the idea of midwives and thought of them as witches.
- However, in Latin American culture today, midwives (parteras) continue to be very important and highly utilized in maternal health.
- When we examine Aztec versus Spanish culture in this way, we see a huge clash between female dominance and male dominance.
- Overall, we can see that women were considered much more equal in Aztec culture than in Spanish culture.
Important Symbols on the Tilma (Katya)
- Understanding the role of midwives in Aztec culture and the heavy emphasis on female deities allows us to understand why the Virgin of Guadalupe was so well received by the Aztecs.
- There were symbols on her tilma that both the Spanish and the Aztecs understood.
- She appeared as a mestiza (mixed between Spanish and Indigenous ancestry), symbolizing that she was for the Aztecs too.
- Her speaking in Nahuatl and appearing on the hill where Tonantzin had been previously worshipped were signs to the Aztec of her legitimacy.
- Her image was essentially a pictograph that was read and understood by the Aztecs in a way that we wouldn’t necessarily understand in our culture today.
- Her name was most likely Coatlaxopeuh (since there are no g’s or d’s in Nahuatl) meaning “she who has dominion over serpents.” The Spanish then translated this to Guadalupe as it was the name of a previous Marian apparition in Spain two centuries prior.
- The serpent in Aztec culture symbolized fertility with the Aztec earth goddess, Coatlicue, meaning the serpent skirt. Her face is two fanged serpents and her skirt is made of interwoven snakes, directly connecting Our Lady’s name to a familiar goddess for the Aztecs.
- Our Lady stands on top of a crescent moon, which symbolized for the Aztecs their god Quetzalcoatl, who was also a feathered serpent god.
- She stands in front of the sun, symbolizing for the Aztecs their greatest god, Huitzilopochtli.
- She conveyed her importance to the Aztecs through these signs (appearing on the hill where they worshipped Tonantzin, having dominion over the serpent goddess, standing on top of the moon, and standing in front of the sun).
- The sash above her womb indicates that she is pregnant. We see the same sash on other female deities and spirits of women who died in childbirth in Aztec art.
- Her mantle indicates her royalty as Aztecs highly revered turquoise and jade. Only gods and emperors could wear blue-turquoise.
- Her dress is colored rose or pale red and is covered with Aztec flowers, symbolic of an Aztec princess. The 4-petaled flowers with leaves on the dress symbolized for the Aztec the fifth-age had begun (the Age of Peace).
- The way her leg is positioned symbolizes that she is dancing. The Aztecs practiced their religion by dancing as it was understood as a sacrificial gift to the gods.
- Between 1531 and 1538, eight million natives of Mexico converted to Catholicism because of her apparition and these symbols.
The Legacy of Aztec Maternal Health in Medicine Today (Dr. Padilla)
- Pre-Hispanic culture still remains in Latin American culture today.
- The producers of ‘Coco’ traveled to Oaxaca and Guanajuato (previously areas of the Aztec Empire) and decided to highlight the importance of family structure after what they saw. It’s not a coincidence that the movie is centered around the great-grandmother, a woman.
- From Canada to South America, Native American groups placed heavy emphasis on women and children. The same can be said for female deities. Today, abuelitas are central in Latin American culture, which is a remnant of the pre-Hispanic world.
- In Mexico today, 1.5 million people still speak Nahuatl, proving that ancient culture and language persist.
- Pregnant Mexican women do not have the same support or experience giving birth in the U.S. as they do in Mexico. According to studies done on this topic, they do not feel visible or heard.
- Understanding the previous and current role of women in Mexican culture, would there be such a disconnect for pregnant women if there were Spanish-speaking midwives? Cultural significance in addressing health disparities is crucial.
- Hispanic pregnant women receive life-saving anesthetics at a lower rate than white women. They are more likely to have general anesthesia, which is more dangerous; and they are less likely to receive pain medication.
- Tonantzin can be seen as an advocate for pregnant patients because she was the goddess of midwives.
- As we look to train our communities and better treat patients, we must look to the role of Tonantzin because we must be advocates for our patients.
- The Indigenous world valued pregnancy, midwives, and female deities. Our Lady of Guadalupe and her continued reverence could not have existed without these pre-Hispanic cultural values. She is a window into a world where the role of women is much more important than the Spanish/modern world.
- The Aztecs and the Mayans had advanced understandings of heat that the Europeans did not have.
- The Aztecs would go into a steam room for a high-risk pregnancy to increase the labor and reduce pain.
- In 2021, David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for discoveries in heat and touch, indicating just how advanced Aztecs were in their concepts of heat.
- Our Lady of Guadalupe can be a sign of a previous world and how we must advocate for our patients like Tonantzin, especially knowing the serious health disparities that exist for the Latinx community.
- We have to meet people where they are. The Spanish missionaries had not converted many Aztecs until Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared because she symbolized their values and cultural beliefs. There is still a disconnect or gap between healthcare providers and patients that needs to be bridged the same way it was 500 years ago.
- Medical education must be reflective of our communities. In California, a large percentage of patients are Hispanic (40%) and that needs to be reflected in educating future healthcare providers.
- Reading our history and learning from our ancestors, we can learn so much and be empowered as Latinx in medicine to serve our community.
Resources to Learn More:
- The Serpent Within: Birth Rituals and Midwifery Practices in Pre-Hispanic and Colonial Mesoamerican Cultures by Gabrielle Vail
- Aztec Pregnancy: Archaeological and Cultural Foundations for Motherhood and Childbearing in Ancient Mesoamerica by David A. Schwartz
- Before Guadalupe: The Virgin Mary in Early Colonial Nahuatl Literature by Louise M. Burkhart
- Mexican Phoenix: Our Lady of Guadalupe: Image and Tradition across Five Centuries by D. A. Brading
- The Rules of Construction of an Aztec Deity: Chalchiuhtlicue, the Goddess of Water by Danièle Dehouve
- Mexican-Born Women's Experiences of Perinatal Care in the United States by Lauren Trainor, Ellen Frickberg-Middleton, Monica McLemore, and Linda Franck