The phone message arrived while I was on deadline, working feverishly to finish a homework assignment. A few weeks after I started journalism school in New York City, my 20-year-old sister-in-law had been stabbed to death by an unknown assailant, leaving behind my brother and their young daughter.
Within minutes of my arrival in Arizona to attend Guadalupe’s funeral, I learned that my father had died unexpectedly from a pulmonary embolism, halfway across the country in my Midwestern childhood home. He was 67. My mother had died when I was 17. Thirty years old and the oldest of five siblings, I was suddenly the head of the family.
Thirty years old and the oldest of five siblings, I was suddenly the head of the family.
The mind-numbing shock of it all was compounded by the fact that I had never met my sister-in-law. I had come to know Lupe, in an era before digital devices, through images of her megawatt smile on glossy print photographs. But, regretfully, I was not there when she and my brother promised themselves in marriage “till death do us part.” No one, of course, thought that time would come so soon.
Turning to Scripture, I found scant comfort. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding,” I read with vacant eyes (Pr 3:5). What I understood, while half-listening to the practiced pitch of funeral directors, was that my family had suffered a crushing blow and that we might never fully recover.
Still, I decided to return to New York and finish school. Seemingly merciless professors insisted that I keep pace with daily class work and complete the many assignments I had missed while away. They cut me zero slack. There was no time for self-pity. I kept my head down and finished school.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding,” I read with vacant eyes (Pr 3:5).
After completing a summer newspaper job, I flew to Barcelona to visit a beloved friend who had reached out to me after hearing the news about my family. In Spain, the heartbreak of Lupe’s murder and the sudden death of my father hit me full force. No longer compelled to shine at school or at my job, I curled up in bed and released torrents of tears. I ate little, slept a lot and barely spoke.
One day, my friend, Candace, persuaded me to join her on a trip to the outskirts of Barcelona. As we walked toward a stone building, I could not help but notice that people were staring at me. Speaking softly, they would stop, train their eyes on me and then quickly look away.
My hair was not then styled in the distinctive dreadlocks that later prompted strangers to mistake me for Whoopi Goldberg. For the life of me, I could not interpret the facial expressions on the throng of people that grew larger as we reached the Basilica at Montserrat.
Baffled, I turned to Candace for an explanation. She shrugged. In hindsight, I am sure I detected a faint, Mona Lisa-esque smile.
As we slowly made our way through the sanctuary, the intensity of the gazes upon me increased. When we finally reached the altar, I understood why.
Dumbstruck before the Black Madonna, I experienced anew the aching loss of my father and Lupe.
For there, at the top of a stairway, poised upon an ornate gold throne, sat La Moreneta, the Black Madonna and Child. Venerated for centuries, the dark-hued, wooden icon draws scores of pilgrims from around the world who believe that the figure holds divine, healing properties.
Dumbstruck before the Black Madonna, I experienced anew the aching loss of my father and Lupe. At the same time, I was struck by the serenity that exuded from the statue and felt a peaceful calm wash over me.
Having come of age during the 1960s “Black is Beautiful” political era, I had grown up seeing myself reflected in images of celebrated African-American women like the activist Angela Davis, the poet Gwendolyn Brooks and the singer Nina Simone. I had been a firsthand witness to black pride and black achievement, usually against daunting odds.
But standing before La Moreneta—seeing myself in the Blessed Mother—my sense of worth soared to new heights. I felt affirmed by the creed of faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hb 11:1).
Grinning, I rubbed the burnished ebony orb that the Black Madonna holds in her right hand. The act is believed to bring blessings. “It’s going to be all right,” I thought to myself, rejoicing in the profound gift that Candace had given me. The self-imposed pressure of needing to be mother and father to my siblings was lifted. And in varying degrees, we’ve all landed on our feet.
Three decades after my unexpected visit to Montserrat, a picture postcard of La Moreneta hangs in my study. The treasured keepsake invokes memories that, in dark times, sustain and strengthen me still.