She appeared on a hill on December 9, 1531. She spoke to Juan Diego in his native tongue of Nahuatl; the language of the Aztecas. She asked for a church to be built at that very site in honor of her, the Virgin Mary. Juan Diego took the request to the local priest, but his story was not believed. On December 12, following further instructions from La Virgen, Juan Diego was able to find and pick roses not native to Mexico. He rolled them up in his tilma and returned to the priest. When he unrolled his tilma to present the roses, there on the tilma was the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe; she was as dark as the natives themselves.
Natives across Mexico and throughout the Americas endured the brutal realities of conquest, and experienced the relegation to second class citizens during the colonial period in Mexico. In particular, native women experienced oppression two-fold. This is evident in the fact that native men had privileges and opportunities within the public sphere of society which were denied to women, such as holding particular types of public service positions.
So how is it that millions of natives across the continent converted to Catholicism, the religion used by their oppressors to justify the horrors and atrocities inflicted upon them? The appearance of La Virgen to Juan Diego. She is seen as the blending of the Indigenous and European cultures. A Huffington Post article, Everything You Need to Know About La Virgen de Guadalupe, explains, “Her image has been used throughout Mexican history, not only as a religious icon but also as a sign of patriotism.” Indeed, she has appeared as a symbol even in the most pivotal of moments, such as the fight for Mexican independence and the Mexican Revolution. The authors of the study The Evolving Genre of ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe’: A Feminist Analysis, also note that she has become “. . .the ideal model for womanhood and motherhood.”
However, the view of this extraordinarily important female figure within the patriarchal Catholic faith changed and evolved over the centuries, particularly among Chicana female Catholic feminists. La Virgen de Guadalupe has been reclaimed by Chicana Catholic feminists. Much like the Aztecs in 1531, Chicana feminists have their own version of the Virgin Mary. Utilizing the power of art, Chicana and Chicano feminists are portraying La Virgen de Guadalupe in ways in which contemporary women can relate to, thus, creating a personal experience for women within their Catholic faith while challenging the patriarchal traditions within it.
“Our Lady” by Alma Lopez (1999)
Historically within Christianity, sexuality has been viewed in a negative light. According to Pamela Dickey Young, the origins of Christianity led to a “. . . Christian tradition that associated maleness with mind and soul as superior and femaleness with body as inferior” (Women and Religious Traditions 2015: 188-189). This view on sexuality, and particularly female sexuality, has led to a tradition in which women must conceal their bodies and sexuality as things to be ashamed of. Furthermore, the Virgin Mary became “. . . the model of Christian life” due to being “ever virgin” and free of lust (2015: 189). So too La Virgen de Guadalupe. Artist Alma Lopez’ “Our Lady”, pictured above, challenges this very tradition. Using a photograph of a friend, she depicts La Virgen de Guadalupe in a bikini being held up by a topless female angel. La Virgen’s body language transmits a powerful confidence in herself and her body. She presents herself, as she is, for all to see. Her “sexuality is openly expressed — no longer to be ignored or hidden” (27).
“Our Lady of Guadalupe” by Yolanda Lopez (1978)
Artist Yolanda Lopez’ depiction of La Virgen appears to be in stark contrast to the depiction of her in “Our Lady”, and visually, it is. “Our Lady of Guadalupe”, pictured above, shows La Virgen as a middle-aged working woman sewing her own shawl. Depicting La Virgen doing what could be considered housework, as many women do, gives authority to the lived-experiences of women, much like in mujerista theology. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, in Mujerista Theology, explains: “So our starting place is the lived experiences of Hispanic women, which, because our culture is one in which religion plays a very important role in our daily lives, in some ways is a religious experience.” (240) In this image of La Virgen, then, Lopez encompasses both the divinity of La Virgen as well as the divinity found within the daily lived experiences of women and the struggles which accompany them.
“Superwonder Lupana” by Israel Rico (2009)
Chicano artist Israel Rico’s Superwonder Lupana takes yet another approach to reinterpreting La Virgen de Guadalupe. Combining the image of the DC Comics superhero Wonder Woman with the image of La Virgen, Rico portrays a strong female entity against the backdrops of the heavens. Female power is evident within this piece, and the fusion allows contemporary Chicanas to identify with that power. Wonder Woman does not look like Chicanas, and the traditional representation of La Virgen can also seem foreign to many Chicanas, especially considering the patriarchal traditions and interpretations surrounding it. The image of Superwonder Lupana is one to which Chicanas might better relate.
The reinterpretations of La Virgen pictured here are only three among many; three of the many which have been the subject of backlash from both the Catholic establishment and practitioners alike. Enrique Limon reports, in his article for the Santa Fe Reporter, the details of the protests Alma Lopez has had to endure, as well as the hate mail and death threats she received, due to her depiction of La Virgen. Within the same article is included the statement released by the Santa Fe Archbishop Michael Sheehan, in which he states, “The picture does not show respect for the Virgin Mary as the artist claims. Instead of showing her as the innocent Mother of Jesus, she is shown as a tart or a street woman, not the Mother of God!”
The fact that many Chicana and Chicano artists strive to reinterpret her in ways which can be more aligned with their feminist ideologies speaks volumes to just how significant of a figure she is within Mexican and Chicano Catholicism. Much like the natives of the Americas did with the Virgin Mary, instead of rejecting her because the establishment used her to perpetuate the patriarchal status quo, Chicanas and Chicanos are actively and subversively reinterpreting her in order to reconcile the seemingly opposing views between their religious tradition and their feminist ideologies.
Jose Duran is currently a student at California State University, Northridge where he is majoring in Cinema and Television Arts. He is particularly interested in the media’s portrayal of underrepresented groups, specifically Hispanics and African Americans, as well as its approach to feminism. He is a fan of Joss Whedon, not only for the amazing stories he tells through his works, but for the strong lead female characters in those stories as well. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is his all-time favorite show. W.W.B.D.