By PAUL A. BARRA
MOUNT PLEASANT — Maybe his mother made him do it at the beginning, but Jose “Pepe” Hernandez is now so completely committed to Our Lady of Guadalupe that he has evolved into a walking encyclopedia on the patroness of the Americas.
He feels called, he said, to search out arcane nuggets of information about her and to pass them on to interested people.
“It’s become my life’s work,” Hernandez said. “I’m sitting on a lot of knowledge. I’m not here to prove to anyone that this is wonderful; I’m just here to tell what I know.”
That is proof enough for most people. When Hernandez talks about the 1531 apparition in what is now Mexico City, his gently accented voice is calm and rational. His evangelization efforts come through his obvious belief, the thoroughness of his research and his sincerity. After hearing him expound on the miracle of Guadalupe, it’s hard not to absorb at least some of his ardor. The details of the apparition are fascinating
. Most Catholics realize, for instance, that Our Lady appeared in Mexico to an Indian peasant. We know that her image was miraculously imprinted on a cactus-fiber coat, or tilma; we know that the image is still clear and the colors vibrant 466 years later; we know that the great Aztec conversions to Christianity occurred in the immediate aftermath of her four-day appearance.
But what do we know about the peasant to whom the Lady appeared, or the bishop who recognized the hand of God? And what do we know about all the many details of the image?
“The conquest (by the Spaniards) had been over for 10 years when she appeared to Juan Diego. He was a convert out of the heart. He was a commoner but not a beggar. He was well-respected in the community, a full-fledge gentleman. Juan de Zumarraga was the first bishop in the Americas, ever,” Hernandez said.
“And why did God choose the tilma? It was made from a fiber that was unique to the New World. ‘Mexico’ means the center part of the cactus; it also is a federal district of the country and means the umbilical cord of the moon in Indian lore. The image is standing on the moon and the first day of the apparition was the longest night of 1531.”
That was the winter solstice before the Gregorian calendar was adjusted, he explained. It was a particularly auspicious moment for the South American Indians because it was the dawn of the first day of one of the 52-year centuries then observed in Mexico. If the sun rose that day, Hernandez said, then the tribes believed they were in for another century of life.
Our Lady’s image is that of a young woman, not a pure Indian
A tassel beneath her praying hands is an Indian symbol that she is pregnant and the flowers on her dress indicate an ecclesiastical person; the most important flower is situated directly at her womb, signifying the coming birth of Jesus to Christians and new life to the ancient natives of Mexico. The Indian expression for speaking the truth is “It took root,” and roots are seen attaching her cloak to her dress.
“This lady spoke to them of the new faith. Zumarraga recognized that after the third visit. I hope I would have that kind of wit. And she instructed Juan Diego to climb on top of a rocky mountain in winter to pick flowers. Like Abraham, he did not question,” the Mount Pleasant businessman said.
A fortnight later, the miracle tilma Hernandez calls God’s Polaroid tilma in all its splendor is in public view behind glass; flash photography of it is permitted.
Pepe Hernandez has collected reams of documents, some in native Nahuatl language, and is a font of knowledge about Our Lady of Guadalupe. He has the codices and writings of the great Guadalupe theologian Antonio Valeriano. He has paintings and photographs.
His commitment to the evocation in Mexico City began when he was president of a printing company there in 1981. His mother had a house guest, Father Mario Rojas, who had done extensive research on the Guadalupe miracle. Maria Elena Hernandez, now deceased, told her son to meet with the priest. Hernandez did and soon saw that he must publish the man’s book. The only problem was that Father Rojas had not one word written down.
Hernandez assigned one of his editors, Alicia Salazar, to get the story from the priest. Father Rojas lived with the Salazar family for years as the editor continued to compile information. The project eventually ended without a book, but Hernandez was heir to a huge collection that he has since added to.
“My life has been enriched by this knowledge and I feel the obligation to share it,” Hernandez said. “I’m doing it in thanksgiving for all the blessings I have.”
He will accept no fee for making a presentation and said that he will travel throughout the diocese to talk about Our Lady of Guadalupe. An old friend of his said that generosity comes naturally to Pepe Hernandez.
“Pepe was my sponsor when I entered the Catholic Church in 1986,” Robert Maguire said. “He knows the Bible inside and out and really helped me through my Catholic education. He’s just a wonderful human being who’s generous with his time.”
His mother would be proud of him.