Not a great deal is known about Juan Diego prior to his conversion...
THE FIRST APPARITION
The lone pilgrim was making his way south from Tulpetlac, across the dusty desert trail, past the western side of Tepeyac hill. Baptized under the Christian name of Juan Diego by one of the early Franciscan missionaries, he was a recent convert to the Catholic faith.
Juan Diego was born around the year 1474 and given the name Cuauhtlatoatzin, which means 'eagle that speaks.' His indigenous people were the Chichimecas, a people that had assumed Toltec culture, part of the Texcoco kingdom in a triple alliance with the Aztec empire.
Now a confirmed Catholic, Juan Diego's faith was made possible by Spain's conquest of the area just 10 years earlier, when Hernan Cortes and his men conquered the great Aztec empire. During the campaign, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and its main temple were laid waste, proud symbols of a culture campaigning for empire with religious practices that included human sacrifices to sustain their gods in an effort to maintain balance in the cosmos.
It was Saturday, December 9, 1531. Juan Diego had just arrived in the Tepeyac area when the easy silence of his rhythmic walk and prayerful meditations were suddenly interupted by an extraordinary singing. A little bit like marvelous bird song, but so much more, the sound had Juan Diego so completely struck he was confused as to whether he was dreaming or had found 'the land of the flowers, the land of corn, of our flesh, of our sustenance, perhaps in the land of heaven?' Mostly, he felt unworthy.
The singing suddenly stopped and he heard a woman gently call out to him, "Juanito, Juan Diego." At the top of a hill, he saw the most beautiful woman that 'shone like the sun,' and the 'earth seemed to shine with the brilliance of a rainbow' all around her.
"Where are you going, Juanito?"
Juan replied, "I am going to your little house in Mexico, to follow the things of God."
The woman then introduced herself to Juan Diego, addressing him in the native language of Nahuatl: "My dear little son, I love you. I desire you to know who I am. I am the Ever-Virgin Mary, Mother of the true God who gives life and maintains existence. He created all things. He is in all places. He is Lord of Heaven and Earth."
Our Mother continued, "I want you to go to the head of the Church in Mexico City, and tell Friar Juan de Zumarraga that I want very much to have them build my sacred little house here. I will exalt God upon making Him manifest, by giving Him to all people in all my personal love, Him that is my compassionate gaze. Him that is my help. Him that is my salvation. I am truly your compassionate Mother, for you and all people that live together in this land, and also all the other many lineages of men. Those who love me. Those who cry to me. Those who look for me, and those who trust me."
Our Mother then explained how Juan Diego, who was a very simple local native, how he was to set about on this important mission for God and the Church.
THE SECOND APPARITION
It took a great deal of pleading and patience for Juan Diego to finally get an audience with Friar Zumarraga. Though attentive, the bishop was clearly skeptical of Juan Diego's accounting of the apparition and Our Mother's request to erect a church on the hill –– the same spot where an ancient temple to the pagan goddess Coatlicue had been demolished. The bishop listened patiently, but eventually dismissed Juan Diego with the promise that he would listen in more detail at a later date.
A dejected Juan Diego then returned to the same hill to plead with Our Mother to assign this mission to someone more important than himself.
"I am really nothing, you can plainly see... I myself need to be led, carried on someone's back... My Lady, please excuse me. I will fail in this mission, fall into you anger, into your displeasure..."
Our Mother listened patiently before answering him, "My little son, you must understand that I have no lack of servants and messengers who I can give this and other tasks to. But I assure you that it is necessary that you go personally, and plead on my behalf, so that by your intercession my wish will be carried out. My humble child, go see the bishop in my name, and get him to understand my wish, so that he may build my sacred house. Be patient and persevere. Tell him again that I, personally, the Ever-Virgin Holy Mary, the Mother of God have sent you as my messenger."
THE THIRD APPARITION
Juan returned to the bishop the next day to deliver Our Mother's message. Friar Zumarraga questioned him at greater length about the apparitions this time, and also requested some evidence from Our Mother that would confirm the truth of Juan's claims.
Confident that Our Mother would supply the necessary proof, Juan Diego set off at once for the hill. Still wary of the extraordinary claims, the bishop dispatched two men to trail Juan Diego to ensure that there would be no trickery, but this extra measure proved to be fruitless. Having shadowed Juan for many miles, the two men eventually lost him altogether when he crossed the ravine near the bridge to Tepeyac. They were infuriated at not being able to find him again, so they returned to the bishop and tried to discredit Juan as a sorcerer and a fraud who deserved to be severely punished.
Meanwhile, Juan arrived at Tepeyac hill and was delighted to see that Our Mother was waiting for him. He immediately kneeled down and gave her a simple report of his latest conversation with the bishop. Our Mother thanked Juan for his faithful service and reassured him that he would be successful in this mission.
"Return here tomorrow and I will give you a sign to take to Friar Zumarraga."
THE FOURTH APPARITION
Juan returned home and was saddened to discover that his uncle had become gravely ill. Rather than return to the hill the next day, Juan wrapped himself in his tilma and set off at once in search of a doctor to help his dying uncle. Along his way, Juan caught a glimpse of Tepeyac hill and suddenly remembered his promise to Our Mother. Distraught, he veered away from the path that led to the meeting place with the Virgin, fearing that any delay in finding a doctor might result in his uncle's death.
As he rounded the hill, Juan suddenly saw Our Mother descending from the hill to meet him. "My dearest son, where are you going?"
Fearful and embarrassed, Juan told Our Mother that he was looking for a doctor for his dying uncle and he promised her that he would return as soon as he was able. "Forgive me, be patient with me a little longer, because I am not telling a lie... tomorrow I will return as fast as I can and without fail."
When Juan had finished explaining the situation, Our Mother said, "My dear little son, let nothing frighten you, afflict you or disturb you. Do not fear this sickness nor any other sickness, nor any other hurtful thing. Am I not your Mother? Are you not in my shadow and under my protection? Do I not bring you joy? Are you not in the safety and comfort of my motherly love? Do you need anything more?"
"Don't worry about your uncle's illness, because he will not die of it for now and you can rest assured that he is already healed." (Later, Juan Diego would learn that Our Mother had also appeared to his uncle at that very moment and healed him.)
The Virgin gave Juan instructions to walk up Tepeyac hill and cut a variety of flowers that he would find there. Upon reaching the top, Juan was amazed to find a spectacular variety of flowers growing in the arid desert soil in the middle of the frosty winter season. When he returned with the flowers, Our Mother carefully arranged them in Juan's tilma with her own hands and said, "My youngest son, these many flowers are the proof, the sign that you will take to the bishop. You will tell him for me that in them he is to see my wish and that therefore he is to carry out my wish. You are my dear little messenger and I trust you."