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May 18, 2009

During the three years my husband and I worked in Oaxaca, Mexico, our children, who proved more adaptable than we in our new setting, introduced us to many cross-cultural insights. Our son's best friend (a bright and personable little girl) mentioned early in their friendship that her older brother had died in New York. Her mother explained that the young man died, at age 21, in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

A high school graduate who wanted to make something of his life, Fernando Jimenez Molinar had hoped to earn money in order to start his own business. He crossed the border and headed north, becoming an undocumented worker in Manhattan. Within two years, he had paid off his passage and had begun to accumulate savings, while maintaining contact with his family by telephone. When on the night of Sept. 11, 2001, Fernando did not come home to the apartment he shared with other migrants, his mother suspected the worst. She learned that he had set out that morning to make a delivery&ampmdashand never returned.

This brave mother managed to travel to New York, where she retraced the last days of Fernando. The owner of the deli that employed her son told her Fernando had been a good worker, and then he turned away to hide his tears. With no corpse to identify and no legal witnesses, the whole incident seemed unreal and unnatural. His co-workers promised to testify in court, but when the deli owner refused to do so because he was afraid of being penalized for hiring undocumented immigrants, Fernando's co-workers also declined.

Fernando's mother camped out in an acquaintance's living room, spending sleepless nights and rustrating days attempting to unravel the dilemma in which she and other families found themselves entangled. A new burden was added to her grief: the duty of not allowing her son's memory to be erased. Although his death entitled her to a generous monetary compensation, Fernando's mother looked for something with more meaning. What haunted her, she confided, was that there had been no death certificate, no civil record, no formal recognition of his passing. It was as if Fernando had never existed not only was there no record of his passing, there was no sign that he had ever lived.

It might seem obvious that a young man's mother would be intent on preserving the memory of her son's life cultural anthropologists, however, have long demonstrated that while birth is a physical event, parenthood is a socially constructed phenomenon. The image of a mother waiting up at home for her children, praying for their well-being, comes readily to mind but the image of a mother seeking a lost child in public records breaks sentimental stereotypes.

Especially in May, a month during which Catholics honor Mary (and during which many countries celebrate Mother's Day), I marvel at the maternity of the Mother of God.

Images of Mary

In the Gospels, the Virgin Mary's motherhood is portrayed as anything but conventional. Matthew's Gospel opens with a recounting of Jesus’ genealogy that places Mary in the dubious company of women who were faithful to the covenant in unexpected ways. Luke's Gospel has Mary break the conventions of the annunciation genre by daring to voice her assent. In biblical texts, Mary questions she pursues her son she goes to parties she gives orders and-my favorite-she travels. A lot. In fact, Scriptural references about Mary are framed by journeys. From that first journey, when she "set out and went with haste” to visit Elizabeth, to the definitive pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the final mention of her in the Acts of the Apostles, Mary's story is characterized by movement, by passages from one moment of meaning to another. At Pentecost, her motherhood comes full circle, as she receives once again the Spirit that breathes life into the believing community and sends them forth on mission.

Many popular traditions about the Virgin Mary are characterized by this same sense of vigor and resilience. Unlike the usual cult of martyrs or local saints, veneration of the Virgin Mary in the early church was not limited to specific geographical locations. The Assumption, which inspired the Christian imagination as early as the second century, also meant that honor given to the Mother of God could be attached to a particular place but not monopolized, not exhausted by a single commemoration site. By crossing that ultimate border in body and soul, she became, paradoxically, free to enter deeply into Christianity's myriad cultures, attending to the generations of believers who were committed to her care, according to John's Gospel, at the foot of the cross.

Two Mexican images of the Virgin Mary, one quite well known, the other little-studied, reveal the Mother of God's continuing maternity. As Mary once collaborated in humanity's salvation, she now extends her protection and patronage in a special way to its most vulnerable members.

Juquila and Guadalupe

In Oaxaca, the diminutive Virgin of Juquila (a tiny image representing Mary's Immaculate Conception) attracts some two million devotees each year. Travelers from all over the Mexican republic, as well as migrants returning from the North, gather in the sanctuary of a small rural town after bicycling, walking or driving dangerous roads through the mountains for hours, days or even weeks. This figure of the Virgin became beloved during the conquest of Mexico for her solicitous care of the native people, whom she visited in the form of a foot-high statue carried from place to place by a Dominican missionary. Once the statue was settled in the village of Amialtepec, indigenous converts flocked to her thatched hut. Saved miraculously from a fire that razed the village, the statue's hair was singed, its face and hands darkened by smoke: now the Virgin Mary truly looked like the people who loved her.

Toward the end of the 17th century, her growing popularity, as well as competition for clerical control, led to the moving of the statue to the parish seat at Juquila (hence the name by which the image is now known.) For an extended period of time, however, in popular devotion, the Virgin kept "returning” to the humble straw hut. Even today, the Virgin of Juquila is said to wander the mountains of Oaxaca.

This itinerant pattern confirms the image of the Virgin as the unofficial patroness of the emigrants from Mexico's southern states. Pilgrims make the grueling trip to her sanctuary in order to pass underneath a dusty lace mantle stretching from her tiny shoulders-an act that symbolizes her intercession during the trials they face in their journeys.

The second representation, Our Lady of Guadalupe, is remarkable for the way her trademark iconography crosses borders. Beginning with the export of copies of the image from colonial Mexico to the Philippines, Puerto Rico, other parts of New Spain and to Italy, this Mexican version of the Mother of God (which shares a name with the Virgin of Guadalupe in the Spanish region of Extremadura) shows an amazing propensity for mobility. More recently, the devotion has grown at an extraordinary rate in the United States with the influx of guadalupanos, Guadalupan devotees, to areas previously unacquainted with this image.

The Virgin of Guadalupe commands the devout loyalty of her constituents in popular devotion, however, she functions not so much as an empress of the Americas and the Philippines, but as their mother. Her image has traveled thousands of miles, to the farms of upstate New York, the orchards of rural Georgia and the meat-packing plants of Minnesota, carried by migrants and immigrants who find in her figure an intimate witness to their daily struggles: a fitting repository for personal and collective memory.

The earliest foundation of the Guadalupan story was preserved in oral tradition by indigenous Christians around Tepeyac the narrative finds its most detailed retelling in the Nican Mopohua (ca. 1556), an account of the Virgin's original appearances. It places at its center the recently arrived Virgin Mary, in dialogue with a native evangelizer, St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin. Intercepting his steps as he walks, the Virgin Mary speaks to him in Nahuatl and entrusts him with her message: that she ardently desires a hermitage, a chapel, a church (three different words are used in progressive order) to be built on the site she has chosen. There she promises to bestow her love, protection, comfort and healing as the mother "of all who live in this land” and "all who love [her], as well.”

That Tepeyac was recorded by the 16th-century ethnographer Fray Bernardino de Sahagun as a pilgrimage site in pre-Hispanic religiosity is not surprising, since much of evangelization in the Americas took place through building churches over the ruins of native temples more important is the fact that indigenous converts to Christianity called this representation of Mary "Tonantzin,” "Our dear Mother.”

It is remarkable that while the image has specific meaning, it escapes the strictures of history. The tilma, a cloak on which the image appears, has remained intact for over four centuries, but scientists and historians alike have not yet identified its mysterious origin. What has become clear through contemporary renewed interest in the tilma is that this figure of the Virgin Mary (with its mixture of Spanish and native motifs) holds rich symbolism for adherents to the Guadalupan devotion. Through the narrative and the image, the Virgin of Guadalupe represents a Mary who seeksher children-much as Fernando's mother retraced his last footsteps in New York.

Mothers hold an unparalleled position of privilege when it comes to memory indeed, one of the many unacknowledged maternal roles is precisely that of witness to their children's and grandchildren's individual histories. The elders of both genders pass along the knowledge of previous generations, inducting the young into a collective identity but mothers, particularly, preserve their children's stories. In families where a child is lost to tragedy or sickness, mothers attend to the loss so that it will not be forgotten by the family or community.

Christians remember Mary because she remembers us. When we forget that we are sons and daughters of God, Mary reminds us of our true identity: we are children of God's own mother.

The Virgin Mary still extends her famous mantle over believers. The remembrance of Mary, a rural woman who traveled beyond village boundaries to give birth to God-among-us and to serve as witness to his salvific death, is rich with imagery that she longs to share with us as inspiration for our own journeys. In ceaseless prayer on the other side of that final border, Mary is our advocate in a maternity that both embodies our particular cultures and transcends our limits of time and geography. She gives us her blessing, to carry us safely over the thresholds of our lives.

As undocumented workers and their families of diverse faith backgrounds wait for a breakthrough in immigration policies under a new administration, these Mexican images of the Mother of God, with their roots in past centuries, are resonant today with passionate intensity in the devotional lives of "all who love her.”

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Virginia Wallerstedt
13 years 1 month ago
I like this article. I don't agree,though, that a mother searching public records for something related to her son "breaks sentimental stereotypes." It affirms and shows a human being's natural desire for something to "touch and see," related to a loved one or even a remote family member. I wouldn't call a mother waiting up for a child or praying for his or her wellbeing "sentimental..." And the word "stereotype" is negative. Loving concern by a mother or father for a child is not negative, or anything to feel self-conscious about. Second, the reference to cultural anthropologists referring to parenthood as a "socially constructed phenomenon" seems oddly out of place -- "disembodied" -- in this piece. It sounds rather "detached" in an article that addresses something as foundational and personal as motherhood. Finally, as an enthusiastic amateur genealogist who is not a parent, I have eagerly and at times anxiously searched public records for proof of the lives, activities, and deaths of ancestors I never knew. Again, I wouldn't call this action sentimental: I would describe it as a "natural" human longing to touch and see -- and have others in our community touch and see -- something tangible of someone intimately connected to us.
John Morris
13 years 1 month ago
Send it to Barack Obama!!
kay lent
13 years 1 month ago
A couple of years ago, a friend, Maryknoll Sister Marilyn Norris died in Africa where she was in mission for many years. I received photos of the funeral Mass via eamil. The photo appeared on my screen slowly from the top down. I was awestruck to see the very large representation of Our Lady of Guadalupe right behind the Altar. I live in El Paso TX where our Lady of Guadalupe is a very familiar presence but I never expected to see Her as such a large presence at Marilyn's funeral in Africa!

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