Church image of first Indian saint doesn't look like an Indian

Friday, July 26, 2002

MEXICO CITY -- Juan Diego, expected to become the Roman Catholic church's first Indian saint next week, doesn't look much like an Indian these days.

For Pope John Paul II's visit to canonize the Chichimeca Indian, the church has replaced traditional renderings of the 16th century figure in which he is depicted as a sparsely whiskered, dark-skinned Indian. New versions show him with a full-beard and light skin. The image is causing an uproar in Mexico, where many people feel their Indian heritage is being insulted.

The image, selected by the church as the official depiction of the Indian to whom the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared in 1531, bears the words: "True portrait of God's servant Juan Diego."

"This is not Juan Diego," said Jose Lopez, a sculptor visiting the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe from Puebla state. "This is Juan Diego in Spaniard's clothing."

Tradition holds that Juan Diego was born in 1474, 18 years before Christopher Colombus set foot in the new world. John Paul II has called the apparition of the Virgin instrumental in converting millions of Indians throughout the Americas to the Catholic faith.

Millions of Mexicans are expected to fill the streets as the pope canonizes Juan Diego on Wednesday. Pilgrims from across the country, many crawling on bleeding knees, already are arriving in the capital to show devotion to one of Mexico's most sacred symbols.

But many are angered by the depiction of Juan Diego they find when they arrive.

"This is our faith, and they are distorting history. The virgin presented herself to an Indian," said Marcos Aldrete, a 33-year old Mexican who returned from his home in Stockton, Calif., for the papal visit.

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