Loving La Virgen, A Jaundiced View

I love La Virgen de Guadalupe.

This may come as a surprise to some who know me, given that I'm not Catholic or even particularly "God fearing."

As a testament of my devotion, I have a small statuette of La Virgen perched atop my computer. A calendar with her image also hangs nearby. In my home, La Virgen, adorned in seashells, sits on top of the refrigerator. And in my formal living room, a painting of her is prominently showcased in a hand-made wooden trough.

Because most of my family is Catholic, I was taught that La Virgen has always been the defender of the poor and powerless in our culture. Some think it hasn't helped much. Mexico and most other Latin American nations have a long history of abusing and repressing their weakest citizens.

At the risk of sounding too Freudian, I believe that I subconsciously associate La Virgen with a centuries-long quest for justice in Latin America -- and, by extension, in our nation's Latino barrios.

Before I explain -- and further explore -- my agnostic but sincere affection for La Virgen, I should provide some background for the uninitiated.

La Virgen is also known as Our Lady of Guadalupe or the Virgin Mary -- Holy Mother of Christ. On December 12 each year, celebrations in her honor are held throughout Latin America and U.S. barrios.

As the story goes, she appeared in 1531 as a dark-skinned Indian woman in a vision to a humble Aztec named Juan Diego. The young man witnessed the apparition as he walked past a hill called Tepeyac near what is now modern-day Mexico City.

La Virgen instructed Juan Diego to deliver a message to the head of Mexico's Catholic church expressing her wish that a basilica be built in her honor at Tepeyac.

Not only was her wish obeyed, but she eventually came to be known as Latin America's divine protector. In 1895, Pope Leo XII even went so far as to proclaim her the Queen of the Mexican people.

Nearly five centuries later, La Virgen's image and influence permeate Latin American culture. In El Salvador, opponents of the oligarchy marched against the government in the 1980s carrying banners bearing her likeness. In Mexican American communities across the United States, depictions of La Virgen de Guadalupe can be found today on everything from banners to murals to tattoos. Virtually every village in Mexico and every barrio in the United States has at least one church dedicated to La Virgen.

Frankly, I've always interpreted the story of Juan Diego and La Virgen -- non-believer that I am -- as one of the many means used by the Spanish conquistadors and their cohorts in the church to subjugate and convert Mexico's native tribes.

Although a product of that native-colonialist culture, I regard that era of Mexican history as disdainful. Historian David Stannard, who estimates that the native populations in the Americas declined by as much as 100 million people as a result of the colonialist invasions, called it the "American Holocaust."

My late father, who was given the middle name Guadalupe in honor of La Virgen, was a consummate fatalist when it came to questions of social justice in Mexico. A proud and intelligent man, he nevertheless viewed himself as largely powerless when it came to his role in Mexican society.

"Why should I vote," he once said to me. "The election always turns out the way the government wants it to. That's the way it is. That's the way it will always be."

Yet every year Humberto Guadalupe Garcia would stay up past midnight on December 11 to watch the live, televised broadcast of a special ceremony and mass held at the grand Basilica de Guadalupe in honor of La Virgen. She is said to have appeared a final time to Juan Diego on December 12. Church officials had demanded proof that Juan had seen La Virgen, so she emblazoned her image on his muslin cape -- which now hangs framed in the Basilica's main hall.

Last week, I watched the broadcasted ceremony from the living room of my sister's modest home in Laredo, which straddles the South Texas border with Mexico. The program has aired live since 1931.

Seeing it for the first time as an adult, an agnostic, and a veteran journalist, I thought the program had a surreal and almost kitsch quality about it. The hours-long ceremony fuses holiness and Hollywood pomp, as the cameras focus on a slew of singers, soap opera actors and other celebrities invited by the church to pay homage by singing to the Holy Mother.

Tens of thousands of run-of-the-mill Catholics also lined up and passed through the Basilica to catch a glimpse of the Virgen's gold-framed image -- though the television cameras tend to present them more as movie extras than Christ's devoted flock.

I never had a chance to ask my father what he thought of this odd spectacle, though I suspect that he, too, soaked it in with a jaundiced eye. Like me, he understood that churches, like governments, are never pure and never completely honest with their subjects. That's how they stay in power.

Still, we go on. Hoping and praying, even if agnostically, for the promise of a better world, a world lovingly, justly watched over by a mother of humble miracles.

That's why I love La Virgen.

James E. Garcia is editor and publisher of AmericanLatino.net. E-mail the writer at jgarcia@americanlatino.net.

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