Guadalupe’s Legacy: How a 486-year-old vision of Mary in Mexico continues to influence the church

A statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe is unloaded from a truck after a Nov. 19, 2016, in Tijuana, Mexico. (CNS photo/David Maung)

As I was growing up in a Mexican-American family, Guadalupe was everywhere, but most notably in the face of my grandmother, María Guadalupe García Flores. A humble woman without much formal education, her faith guided her as she raised 12 children amid immense poverty in rural Nebraska. My grandmother embodied a distinctly Guadalupan presence: prayerful, patient, joyful and strong. Whether nurturing a child, a friendship or a garden, she knew how to help things grow. In her habits of magnifying the Lord and lifting up the lowly, she emulated Guadalupe by illuminating God’s pervasive beauty and good news to the poor. It was my grandmother’s witness to beauty and justice that led to my own fascination with Guadalupe. Beginning with the presentation I made in seventh grade about my family’s history and continuing in my academic research in theology and ethics, I have longed to know more about my grandmother’s namesake and what her symbol means for the church and the world.

Indeed, the world has taken notice of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Her image can be found everywhere: at gas stations and train stations, at bars and on border fences, on cars and in cathedrals. For Mexican-Americans, especially, life has long been imbued with her presence, and Mexican people inspired by her ethos. Whether one encounters her image at a bus stop, a chapel or a public monument, Guadalupe is inevitably accompanied by disagreements about the meaning of her symbol. Her image has been emblazoned on protest banners for the United Farm Workers and leveraged as a logo for Banamex, the second largest bank in Mexico. Catholic pro-life groups invoke her as a symbol of their cause, her image prominent on rosary beads and protest signs on the National Mall during the annual March for Life.

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The range of values and visions mapped onto her image reveal her contested meaning for Catholicism, culture and the common good.

Latin American and feminist theologians, artists, and writers have reimagined the sedate and obedient Virgin as an ordinary woman experiencing the joys and challenges of sexuality, work and motherhood as exemplified by Yolanda López’s “Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe.” López portrays Guadalupe as a young woman running, a middle-aged woman working at a sewing machine and an elderly woman in a seated position. Each portrait emphasizes the beauty and particularity of ordinary women while using elements of the Guadalupe image to accentuate a particular dimension of Our Lady. The range of values and visions mapped onto her image reveal her contested meaning for Catholicism, culture and the common good.

And what she means matters, as Guadalupe’s symbolism has urgent significance for the future of the church. Latina and Latino Catholics comprise an increasingly large share of Catholics in the United States, representing a majority of millennial generation Catholics (54 percent, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops). At the same time, the percentage of Latino and Latina Catholics far exceeds the percentage of Latino deacons, priests and bishops. Culturally competent clergy are needed to serve the U.S. church. These demographic realities raise concerns about the church’s capacity to meet the pastoral needs of the Latino faithful. Understanding the power of Guadalupe can help the larger church understand the Latino Catholic population. And an understanding of Guadalupe must be rooted in an understanding of her history.

A Historic Hill

Devotees believe that Guadalupe first appeared to Juan Diego, an indigenous man, in 1531 on a hill called Tepeyác, which is located on the outskirts of Mexico City. Our Lady admonished Juan Diego to petition the local bishop to build a basilica in her honor in that place. Juan Diego initially demurred, feeling unworthy due to his marginal status in society. Guadalupe persisted, convincing Juan Diego to appear before the bishop.

After several unsuccessful attempts to persuade the bishop to build the basilica, Juan Diego appeared a final time with his tilma (cloak) full of roses from Guadalupe, grown in the frozen December earth. When Juan Diego unfolded his tilma to offer the flowers to the bishop, an exquisite image of Guadalupe, brilliantly colored, appeared embedded in the garment. Her image was remarkable in that it depicted both Spanish and Aztec aesthetic elements, mapping these conflicting identities onto the same canvas.

Overwhelmed by the image, the obstinate bishop finally acquiesced to Guadalupe’s request to build the basilica. Today, St. Juan Diego’s tilma is kept at Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, where it receives millions of visitors each year. In 1999, St. John Paul II declared Guadalupe patroness of the Americas, affirming the theological significance that was first recognized by her Mexican devotees and giving official acknowledgment to her cultural significance that extends beyond Mexico to the entire Western Hemisphere and to the world.

Guadalupe is often interpreted as an image of empowerment for the least powerful members of society.

Although some scholars are skeptical about his existence, Juan Diego remains a popular figure in the Catholic Church. Guadalupe empowered Juan Diego to act within the colonial church by recognizing and honoring his personhood and dignity. Thus, Guadalupe is often interpreted as an image of empowerment for the least powerful members of society. Indeed, La Virgen de Guadalupe plays a vital role in the personal and ecclesial agency of many Latina Catholics in the United States.

On a personal level, Catholics often regard Guadalupe as a source of spiritual comfort. Latinas also interpret her as a source of strength. Her strength is associated with both her ability to endure suffering, as exemplified by witnessing the death of her son, and her ability to act in the face of suffering, as evident in her ability to lift up the lowly Juan Diego by empowering him to serve as her messenger to the bishop. Guadalupe comforts those on the margins of society even as she equips them for action.

On the ecclesial level, Latina Catholic leaders serve the church in myriad and crucial ways, often inspired by Guadalupe’s model of comfort and empowerment. New waves of questions continue to arise about women’s leadership roles in the Catholic Church. The outcome of these discussions will have a profound influence on Latinas and thus on the future of the entire U.S. church. In 2015 Pope Francis called for the development of a “theology of women,” and last year he sparked renewed debates about women’s ordination by inaugurating a study commission on the women’s diaconate.

This commission will affect all Catholic women, but it is of particular significance to women who already serve their parishes, dioceses and the wider church in a diaconal spirit. Taken together, these questions clarify the necessity of sustained reflection on the status of Latinas in the Catholic Church. An understanding of the spirit of Guadalupe within the larger church might help inspire new paths for Latina leadership in the 21st-century church.

Women on the Margins of the Church

For all the grace and empowerment Guadalupe represents, her image is not without complications. In her book, Suffering and Salvation in Ciudad Juárez (Fortress, 2011), Nancy Pineda-Madrid describes the practice of feminicide—the systematic murdering of women because of their gender—on the U.S.-Mexico border. In this city and the surrounding areas, women are raped, tortured, killed and mutilated to mark turf in battles among drug cartels. In this way, women’s bodies are turned into objects in service of an idolatrous and violent power struggle.

The women of Ciudad Juárez have joined forces to resist the systematic killing of women and girls in their city. As Mexican women, one might expect them to look to Guadalupe as a symbol of resistance against violence and assertion of their personhood and human dignity. But their struggle for justice faces challenges from those who blame the problem on the women themselves, claiming that they are at fault for their own rape and murder because of provocative attire, sexual activity or working outside of the home. These assertions undermine the women’s claims of systematic violence perpetuated against them. To make matters worse, the reasoning used to form these arguments too often is rooted in manipulating Guadalupe to become one part of a harmful dyad: the Guadalupe-Malinche binary. La Malinche is said to be the indigenous Aztec woman who was Hernan Cortés’s translator and mistress, assisting him in his conquest of Tenochtítlan. La Malinche is a traitorous figure, one who sells out her own people and assists in their destruction. Moreover, she is said to be a whore, a woman whose sexuality is tainted by immorality and the betrayal of her people.

Guadalupe-Malinche binary bears much in common with the Madonna-whore binary, where honor is associated with sexual purity and shame with sexual immorality.

Whereas Guadalupe is portrayed as a symbol of virginity, purity and obedience, La Malinche is portrayed as a symbol of deceit. Society too often forces women to be labeled as one or the other: A woman is considered to be either pure or impure, with no room for nuance. In this way, the Guadalupe-Malinche binary bears much in common with the Madonna-whore binary, where honor is associated with sexual purity and shame with sexual immorality. This binary particularly presents a difficult tension for the women of Ciudad Juárez, catalyzing the need for symbols that affirm a vision of women’s dignity predicated not on her service of the interests of men but on her reflection of the image of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

For this reason, Catholic women organizing for justice in Ciudad Juárez turn to spiritual and theological resources beyond Guadalupe to symbolize their struggle against these atrocities. Rather than carrying banners depicting Guadalupe, the women process with pink crosses engraved with the names of the murdered women on the cross bar to represent Jesus Christ’s identification with them in their suffering. They post these pink crosses as public memorials to the women and girls who have been murdered, reorienting the narrative surrounding their deaths from questions of their personal purity to their belonging in Christ. The crosses thus symbolize their dignity, their suffering and their hope for salvation. In this way, we see the real challenges associated with viewing Guadalupe as a symbol of empowerment. Her image can easily be contorted beyond recognition and has often been deployed against women rather than as an affirmation of the inherent dignity of women. Reclaiming the meaning of her symbol is key to understanding its liberating potential in the lives of Latinas.

The struggle of women against feminicide in Ciudad Juárez reveals important and ongoing tensions associated with contests over Guadalupe’s meaning, including her significance for Latinas. And yet, Latina Catholics continue to turn to Guadalupe as a source of comfort, strength, inspiration and empowerment. How do we account for this devotion to Guadalupe?

Identification and Empowerment

In her landmark study Our Lady of Guadalupe: Faith and Empowerment Among Mexican-American Women, published in 1994, Jeanette Rodriguez conducts interviews with young, Catholic, Mexican-American mothers to discover why Guadalupe continues to be such an inspirational figure in their lives. Rodriguez’s study finds that Guadalupe has strong personal significance for these women. The women identify with Guadalupe on both a cultural and a social level. For Latinas, finding images that affirm our dignity, personhood and beauty can be difficult in the church and in broader U.S. Culture. In Guadalupe, these women find a reflection of their own humanity and an affirmation of their inherent worth. According to Catalina, a woman interviewed in Rodriguez’s study: “La virgen morena” the brown virgin, is sent to help Mexican women, “feel comfortable and come to remind us of a love and a spirit that does exist.”

Rather than serving as a symbol of either simply oppression or empowerment, Guadalupe captures the complexities of Latina personal and social identity.

The women also identify with Guadalupe as a mother, one who has a direct experience of the joys and agonies of bearing and raising her son. Ruth, another woman interviewed in the study, says, “I would like to do some things like her...to be a strong person, to believe in God and raise your kids the best you can.” For Ruth, it is important “just to know that she’s a mother.” Reflecting their identity as Mexican-American mothers, these women understand Guadalupe as a figure of stability, support, acceptance, nurture and relationship.

Ms. Rodriguez finds that the women simultaneously view Guadalupe as independent and dependent, meek and strong-willed, assertive and shy. While she notes that these qualities appear to be contradictory, she avers that they represent the ways that Guadalupe serves as a guide for women in understanding our own multifaceted identities. Rather than serving as a symbol of either simply oppression or empowerment, Guadalupe captures the complexities of Latina personal and social identity.

Guadalupe is not an either/or but an already and not yet. For the women in Ms. Rodriguez’s study, Guadalupe reflects an ongoing process of coming into one’s own, of realizing one’s own power and potential even in moments when one feels more reserved or needs to withdraw for reasons of self-care. These facets of Guadalupe’s symbol create space to foster a kind of leadership that is not averse to vulnerability or even reliance on others. In this way, Guadalupe offers a full-spectrum image of women’s identity while creating space for women to bring their selves in holistic entirety into the work of leadership.

Guadalupe and Latina Leadership

These dynamics are also evident among Mexican and Mexican-American women taking leadership roles in their local parishes. In her book Guadalupe in New York (New York University Press, 2010), Alyshia Gálvez offers an ethnographic study of Mexican and Mexican-American leaders of the Comités Guadalupanas, or the Guadalupe committees, located in parishes throughout the Archdiocese of New York. While the comités consist of both male and female parishioners, Gálvez’s study illustrates how women exercise unique authority within these organizations.

Attending Guadalupe meetings at two different parishes that operate under different leadership models, Gálvez observes a central role for women in caring for the Guadalupe statue and organizing events both within the parish and in broader public settings. For example, the comités play a key leadership role in organizing the annual Antorcha Guadalupana, the Guadalupe torch run, which takes every year in the weeks leading up to Guadalupe’s feast day on Dec. 12.

We can see women’s leadership expanding from the parish context, spilling out into the streets and into public space.

As in the Olympic torch relay, a group of pilgrims carries a torch from Guadalupe’s Basilica outside of Mexico City, across the U.S.-Mexico border, eventually arriving at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue in New York City. The women of the comités play an instrumental role in organizing the torch run and the festivities that mark its conclusion, which serve both as a display of spiritual devotion and as a protest against unjust immigration laws.

In this activity, we can see women’s leadership expanding from the parish context, spilling out into the streets and into public space. The torch run is a public witness to the deep social connections between the United States and Mexico. It is also an illustration of the ways in which Guadalupe inspires women to act in both ecclesiastical and political settings, reconfiguring gender ideologies that fail to honor women as full created in God’s image and for God’s service.

Many U.S. parishes have welcomed images of Guadalupe into their sanctuaries. Others have welcomed her to sit in their pews. But is the church in the United States ready to let Guadalupe lead? If so, the church stands to benefit from the presence of her comfort, strength, nurture, empowerment, beauty and love of justice. As Guadalupe’s presence continues to proliferate across the United States, she calls upon the church to respond to the presence of Latinas in a unique way. She comes offering not only spiritual comfort but also ecclesial empowerment. She comes not only for prayerful devotion but also for public action. She comes not to orient women to men but to orient women to Jesus Christ. On her feast day, La Virgen de Guadalupe gestures toward the future of the American church, one where women are not passive objects in the pews but empowered leaders whose full range of gifts is cherished by the church.

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