John Grassby

John Grassby

John Grassby is a practicing lawyer based in Steamboat.  He has always been intrigued by how fear is manipulated and power is exercised, by whom, and for what purposes, and much of his writing reflects his thinking on those topics.  He was born in Calcutta, India, where his father was the managing agent for Lloyd’s of London.  At age eight, his family moved to Mexico City where he grew up.  He has represented a wide variety of U.S. business clients in Mexico, Latin America, Europe, and Asia, has taught “U.S.-Mexico Relations” at the University of Colorado, his alma mater, and has written for The Denver Post, and others, on that subject, on our broken health care and legal systems, and on Hispanic issues specific to Colorado.  His first novel, CALCUTTA SUNRISE, was published June, 2012, by Nebbadoon Press.  Film rights talks are currently under way with two different “Bollywood” studios in Mumbai, India.  The sequel, MEXICO SUNRISE, is due out late 2016.  The third in the trilogy, COLORADO SUNRISE, is a work in progress.  He rides motorcycles—too fast—and swims competitively—too slowly.

Mexico Sunrise, a novel


La Vírgen Morena, Guadalupe-Tonatzín

The Valley of Mexico, December, 1531

 It had been two hundred and six years since Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, had been founded, ten years since it had fallen to the Spanish Conqueror, Hernán Cortés.  On an icy morning, five kilometers north of the center of what would become Mexico City, on the crest of a small barren hill known as Tepeyac, a beautiful, dark-skinned woman claiming to be the Virgin Mary appeared to a fifty-seven year old Indian man.  He did not belong to any of the Aztec priest, warrior, or merchant classes but, rather, was a member of the lowest and largest non-slave class within the former empire.  Six years earlier, the Spaniards had converted him to Catholicism.  Concurrently—heaping indignity upon indignity—they had changed his name from Quauhtlatoatzín, meaning “One Who Speaks as an Eagle,” to the meaningless, alien and impossible to pronounce “Juan Diego.”

Accompanied by blinding light and unearthly music, the mysterious lady quelled Juan’s fears and instilled him with joy.  Then, speaking perfect Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs, she asked him to go tell his Excellency, the then presiding Bishop of New Spain, Apostolic Inquisitor, Protector of the Indians, the Most Reverend Juan de Zumárraga, that she wished a shrine built in her name on that very spot.

Predictably, it proved difficult for the poor Indian to meet in person with the head churchman.  Once an audience was finally granted several days later, Zumárraga was incredulous and curt.  He demanded proof, then summarily dismissed Juan.

Confused and fearful, Juan avoided Tepeyac hill for the next few days.  Then, on December 12, he was rushing to find a priest to attend to his dying uncle with whom he had lived since his wife had died two years earlier.  He took a short-cut across the hill.  As was customary when cold, he wore a rough mantle, or tilma, made from coarse fibers of the maguey (agave) cactus plant.  Only the Aztec upper classes wore cotton; wool was unknown; animal skins scarce.

Once again, the lady appeared.  Juan told her of the Bishop’s demand.  She told him to take flowers to show the Bishop as proof.  Juan protested that no flowers grew in such a desolate, windswept place that high in the mountains and that, in any event, it was mid-winter.  She smiled kindly and suggested he look at what lay at his feet.  Astonished, he gathered up the inexplicably appearing blossoms in his tilma and went off to fulfill his mission.

Upon finally gaining admittance to again see the now greatly irritated emissary of the all-loving Christ, Juan knelt and mutely opened his garment to let roses spill out on the tiled floor before him.  To the miracle of the roses, a genus then unknown in the Valley of Mexico, was added the even greater miracle of an image of what came to be called La Vírgen Morena (the Dark Virgin) imprinted on the front of Juan’s tilma.

At the same time as the lady was appearing to Juan for the second time, she also appeared and spoke to his uncle, Juan Bernardino, who was spontaneously cured of his mortal illness.

Shortly thereafter, Bernardino’s testimony of his experience was translated, recorded, and sworn to by Zumárraga’s secretary.  Among other things, Bernardino said that the lady wished to be called “Holy Mary of Guadalupe.”  Or so it was written.  It is highly unlikely, however, that the aged, unlettered uncle, speaking no Spanish, would have used the word “Guadalupe,” especially so since the D and G sounds do not exist in Náhuatl.  In fact, Guadalupe was, and still is, the name of a tiny village in Spain, about 100 miles southwest of Madrid.  It was the site of an even then ancient statue of the Virgin Mary.  The word now believed used instead was coatlaxopeuh (quat-la-SU-peh), a Náhuatl word sounding similar to “gua-dah-LU-peh.” Coa means “serpent.”  Tla is tranlatable as “the.”  Xopeuh means “to crush or stamp out.”  It is therefore arguable that the name the lady wished used was “She Who Defeats the Serpent,” a thesis much bolstered by the fact that the image on Juan’s tilma shows her doing precisely that.

Quetzalcoatl was the feathered serpent god to whom every year the Aztecs sacrificed twenty to fifty thousand men, women and children taken captive from surrounding tribes.  These rites were typically followed by cannibalism.  Such barbarity most likely explained why the surrounding tribes thus impacted so readily supported Cortés in his ultimately successful six-hundred-man campaign against Aztec forces numbering in the tens of thousands.  It may also explain why, within months of the Dark Virgin’s appearance, nearly all Aztecs and their former subjects had—with a powerful combination of fear and relief that their foremost and most terrifying god had been vanquished—converted to Catholicism following a decade of resolute resistance.

By hasty order of the Bishop, a small church was constructed on the designated site.  A basilica was eventually completed in 1709.  A modern one seating ten thousand was completed in 1976.  Juan’s tilma, which normally would have disintegrated centuries earlier, remains intact in its revered place above the Basilica’s altar.  No explanation has ever been offered for how such a detailed painting could have been done on such a rough surface.   Notwithstanding repeated studies, the pigments comprising the image have never been identified.  No fading has ever occurred.  At a time when, in the entire world, only a handful of intrepid sea captains had more than the most elementary grasp of astronomy, twenty years before the earliest known description of how to make or use an astrolabe, seventy seven years before invention of the telescope, and over a century  before the Holy Inquisition convicted Galileo of heresy for his writings on “celestial bodies,” the planets and stars depicted on the lady’s mantle are exactly how the planets and stars appeared before dawn on the morning of December 12, 1531.  Bombs set off in the Basilica by anti-church revolutionaries over the years have never so much as cracked the glass case enclosing Juan’s tilma.

Soon after the appearance, popular devotion exploded.  Priests were shocked as processions of thousands of Indians walked great distances—in many cases covering the last kilometer or two on bloodied knees—to pay homage to “their” Dark Virgin.  Within half a millennium, close to a million would claim spontaneous cures of serious ailments and the granting of difficult if not impossible requests.

A movement had sprung from the Indians themselves that the Church could not control.  There was panic in the pews, at least the front pews—the ones traditionally reserved for the “better” people, that is, fair-skinned Spaniards.  These new Catholics were directing their prayers and devotion to the Virgin.  But, if they were Catholics, why were they not also praying to Jesus?  Indeed, the hopelessly mixed Virgin-Mary-Mother-of -God message of sexless motherhood was excised from conscious concern by simply dispensing with Jesus altogether, not to mention with God’s dominant male image.  Many saw this as terrifying manifestations of Indian independence from orthodox religion.  It may have been the first successful act of mass, non-violent civil disobedience ever.

The new faithful paid little heed to the priests offering up Mass or the sacraments.

They wanted no meddlesome middlemen disrupting their personal bond with this most Mexican, most Indian, most accessible Virgin Mary.  Every year an estimated ten million make their way to the Basilica to pay homage, pray, or just sit for a while.  Next to the Vatican, it is the most visited Catholic Church in the world.

Mexican Nobel Laureate, Octavio Paz, wrote that, for Mexicans, especially Indian Mexicans, the Dark Virgin is not necessarily a source of strength or guidance in this world or the next.  Instead, he insists, she is a solace for the poor, the weak, the oppressed, the conquered.  He deems her a caring but powerless intermediary between disinherited man—how vast numbers of poor Mexicans see themselves—and the unknown, inscrutable Great Power.  Nonetheless, for four and a half centuries, the Dark Virgin has remained the focal point of Mexican Catholicism, with Catholicism the focal point of Mexican culture.  No attempts to comprehend the endless contradictions of Mexico—historical and present day alike—can hope to achieve resolution without factoring in the physically and metaphysically mind-bending phenomena of La Vírgen Morena.

Skeptics and cynics have always been quick to point out the unlikely coincidence of the Christian Virgin’s appearance on Tepeyac hill.  It had been the site of an important Aztec temple dedicated to Tonatzín—Earth Goddess, Fertility Goddess, Mother of the Gods, Protectress of Humanity.  Shortly before the appearance, Bishop Zumárraga had ordered the temple razed.  In an early example of censorship accomplishing the exact opposite of its intent, almost five centuries later, to the intense dismay of the Church, most Indian pilgrims still refer to the Virgin as Guadalupe-Tonatzín.