Before Cortés defeated Moctezuma and the Spanish colonized what is now Mexico, Tepeyac — meaning “hilltop” — was sanctuary to Tonantzin, the Aztec goddess of the earth, corn, and fertility. Once Spain defeated the Aztecs, the Catholic Church began to hold sway over the souls of the indigenous people. Bishop Juan Zamárraga used native slaves to raze Aztec temples and build churches throughout Mexico. The transformation of Tonantzin’s hilltop from an Aztec to a Catholic holy site became complete in 1531, when Juan Diego, née Cuauhtlatoatzin (“eagle that talks”), reportedly encountered Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 9. Atop Tepeyac — which overlooked Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City — the brown-skinned Virgin spoke to Juan Diego in Náhuatl, his native language. Dubbed “La Morena,” (“the Dark One”), her fame spread and the Guadalupe event is credited with converting the majority of the Indian population, uniting the many tribes and reinforcing a national identity.
Tepeyac — also known as El Milagro del Tepeyac (The Miracle of Tepeyac) — is the oldest surviving feature-length silent film from Mexico and marks the first instance of a Mexican film about the Guadalupe legend. Films Colonial, which produced only one other film (Confesión Trágica, 1919), made the 40-minute narrative in 1917, at the beginning of Mexican cinema’s first Golden Age. When production in Europe virtually ground to a halt and U.S. exports to South America declined because of World War I, Mexicans took the opportunity to develop a nationalist narrative cinema: fictional films set in Mexico, telling Mexican stories about its people and customs.
Before 1917, most films produced in Mexico were documentaries, a tradition that can be traced back to 1896 when Frenchmen Bertrand von Bernard and Gabriel Veyre recreated a duel that had taken place in a Mexico City park. The resulting film, Duelo a pistola en el bosque de Chapultepec, infuriated Mexican critics, one of whom called it, “the most serious of deceits, because audiences … will not be able to tell whether it is a simulacrum of a duel or a real honorific dispute.”
Taking the lead from Lumière representatives, who presented their actualités on the Cinématographe in Mexico City on August 14, 1896, Mexican cinema pioneers produced their own actualités, exhibiting them in towns all over Mexico. Salvatore Toscano, Enrique Rosas, the Alva brothers, and others purchased French and U.S.-made camera equipment and set out to towns such as Guadalajara, San Juan Bautista, Puebla, and San Luis Potosí, filming locals leaving church services, workers at the Moctezuma beer factory, and other mundane happenings, then premiering the films the same night to houses packed with curious locals, anxious to see themselves on the screen. Early films, featuring newsworthy events such as the floods in Guanajuato, resembled reportage and reached beyond the mere fascination with moving images offered by the “cinema of attractions.” Reigning dictator Porfirio Díaz provided filmmakers with one of their most popular subjects for Mexican actualités. His first encounter with moving pictures was a series of films shot of him by French filmmakers in his Chapultepec castle. Later, filmmakers, including the Alva brothers who filmed 1909’s La Entrevista Díaz-Taft, regularly documented Díaz’s official trips and gatherings.
In 1911, revolutionary forces led by Francisco Madero ousted Porfirio Díaz, who had ruled Mexico since 1876. The ensuing clash between troops loyal to Díaz and various rebel groups, most famously Francisco (“Pancho”) Villa in the north and Emiliano Zapata in the south, provided these same filmmakers with fresh, exciting, and continual subjects for their films. Throughout the Revolution, Mexican filmmakers remained dedicated to filming actual events and reporting them to the Mexican people, largely eschewing narrative forms. Adherence to this documentary truth persisted as an element in fictional genres, a style that culminated in 1919’s El automovil gris.
The Gray Automobile, as the film is called in English, is a mixture of documentary footage and reenactments of a spate of crimes committed by thieves who gained access to posh homes in Mexico City. The 12-episode film is the last one made by Enrique Rosas and also the last one produced by Compañia Azteca, the production company started by Rosas, actress and director Mimí Derba, and General Pablo González, rumored to have ties to the real-life bandits. El automovil gris, the most famous of all Mexican silent films, which also survives today, marks the end of Mexico’s first Golden Age.
Tepeyac, too, emerged out of the desire for a specifically nationalist cinema and the documentary tradition of presenting an objective truth. The story of Tepeyac is distinctly Mexican and represents what many believe to be historical fact. The film opens with a contemporary woman, anxiously awaiting word of her fiancé called away to Europe during wartime, who finds succor in the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
After the first appearance of the Virgin, Diego visits the Bishop to relay her instructions to build a church on Tepeyac. Bishop Zumárraga does not believe the Indian convert, so the Virgin appears again, pointing Diego to a rose bush blooming in the middle of winter in an area normally hospitable only to cactus. Diego gathers the unlikely roses in his “tilma,” a simple cloak made of cactus fibers, and brings them to the Bishop as proof of the apparition. When he lays the roses before the Bishop, the image of the Virgin, with her indigenous complexion and features, remains on Diego’s cloak. This painted cloak still hangs in the Basilica on Tepeyac.
For centuries, the Catholic Church discouraged devotion to an Indian saint and did not investigate the alleged miracle until 1666, later declaring its authenticity in 1745. Across the centuries devotion to La Morena grew and, by 1945, Pope Pius XII had declared the Virgin of Guadalupe as “Empress of the Americas.” The Church beatified Juan Diego in 1990, and, despite the doubts of many scholars who questioned the convert’s very existence, Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego as Mexico’s first Indian saint on August 1, 2002. The Church, finally institutionalizing what many Mexican Catholics already believed, still resisted the notion of an indigenous saint, depicting Juan Diego with Spanish rather than Indian physical characteristics.
Yet despite these controversies and the efforts of various Mexican governments to quash the influence of the Catholic Church, devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe and her sainted agent on earth has not wavered. Even during the Revolution when anticlericalism ran high, Emiliano Zapata charged into battle with banners emblazoned with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Today, pilgrims still flock to Tepeyac—some crawling the last mile on their knees.
Mexican national cinema, however, did not enjoy such unfaltering popularity. With the end of WWI, both Europe and U.S. stepped up production and soon took over Mexican, indeed Latin American, movie screens. Mexico did not reclaim its cinematic voice until well into the era of talkies, when prodigal stars like Dolores Del Río returned home from Hollywood, and, with the onset of World War II, Mexican filmmaker Emilio Fernández and cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa ushered in Mexico’s second Golden Age.
Shown With Aniversario de la muerto de la suegra de Enhart (Anniversary of the Death of Enhart’s Mother-in Law), 1912
Presented at SFSFF 2003 with live music by Cascada de Flores