Wednesday, December 13, 2006

"¡Viva la Virgen!"

The cry went up from the crowd of Latinos at the pre-dawn mass in Holy Cross Church this morning on the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. "¡Viva la Virgen!" The hall was filled with families who braved a heavy downpour of rain, many small children dressed in Mexican costumes and young women with ribbons in their braids. The mass was preceded by Las Mañanitas, songs to the Virgen led by a mariachi trio, followed by the Rosary, all in Spanish. A large copy of the original painting of Guadalupe on the inside of Juan Diego's tilma or cloak was hanging to the right of the altar, surrounded by dozens and dozens of roses in every color. Many people knelt down before the icon during the service. Afterwards, a reception was held in the church hall and hot chocolate was served, along with Mexican sweet breads.

Octavio Paz, Mexico's Nobel laureat for literature, has written that "the Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery." When I traveled in Mexico two years ago, I encountered two icons everywhere I went, that of Guadalupe and that of painter Frida Kahlo. Discovering that I had a five-hour layover at the airport in Mexico City, I thought long and hard about where I would go, either to Kahlo's Blue House in Coyoacan to the south, or to the Basilica de Guadelupe in the north of the city where the original image hangs on the wall behind the altar. I chose the latter. The streets were filled with pilgrims, and in the wide plaza many of them were on their knees. The Basilica that Sunday morning was packed to overflowing, and I walked around the side to a door where pilgrims and tourists interested in viewing the picture could enter. We were carried quickly by the icon on two moving walk-ways, but many remained standing at either side, staring up at the Virgin with tears in their eyes. I was overwhelmed by the power and respect the Virgin of Guadalupe has in the popular religious imagination.

Last week I went to see "Guadalupe," a new film by Santiago Parra, an Ecuadorian who lives in Barcelona. The story includes a Jewish businessman who is also a Guadalupaño, a devotee of the Virgen, and a Muslim researcher who reveals information about the history of Guadalupe as he writes a TV script. Contemporary events are interspersed with scenes of Juan Diego's vision of the Virgin in 1531 on the hill of Tepeyac outside of Mexico City and Miguel Sanchez who first wrote down the story in 1648. Juan Diego, who was canonized a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2002, speaks in the film the native language Nahuatl. Parra said he got this idea from Mel Gibson whose actors spoke Aramaic in "The Passion of the Christ." Asked for proof of his vision by the Spanish bishop, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, Juan Diego follows Mary's directions to a field of roses where he picks an armful, wrapping the blooms in his cloak ,and delivers them to the bishop. Inside of his cloak, as the roses (this was in December when there were no such flowers in Mexico City) tumbled out was the image which now hangs in the Basilica.

Now I am challenged by the idea of miracles, and although I am impressed by the impassioned popularity of the Virgin of Guadalupe throughout the Spanish-speaking world, I find it difficult to believe that God sent the mother of Christ to the indigenous people of New Spain at precisely the time when Spanish priests were attempting with Bible and sword to convert the Aztec people to Christianity. The many injustices of this mass conversion of the "pagans" are well known to anyone who has read the writings of Bartolome De Las Casas. But the interesting thing about Guadalupe is that she empowered the conquered people to claim Jesus, or at least his mother, as their own. She is seen as the "first mestiza" and the "first Mexican," the progenitor of a new race of people blended together from European and Indian in a way that never occured in the more racist America to the north. Guadalupe's image was held aloft by Mexican revolutionaries, from Hidalgo and Morelos to Bolivar and Zapata, to unite the country. Writer Judy King has said, "The Virgin of Guadalupe is the rubber band that binds this disparate nation into a whole." A Jesuit has written, "We say that we are more Guadalupaños than Mexicans. We say that because our Lady Guadalupe is our symbol, our identity."

But is this symbol real? Did Juan Diego (if he ever existed at all) really have a vision of the Virgin Mary and did her picture appear miraculously in his clock? The writer and filmaker of "Guadalupe" marshal all the evidence of the side of belief. They admit that her name is probably from the Arabic and that there is a Virgin of Guadalupe in Spain. But they cite a Nobel prize winner in chemistry who said in the 1930s that the fabric of the cloak was not from a known mineral, vegetable, or animal source. Claims have been made about the eyes of the Virgin in the image which are said to contain images of witnesses present when the cloak was shown to the Bishop. How could such a fragile material survive for over 500 years without any apparent deterioration?

No counter arguments are given in the film, but there are many. The hill of Tepeyac was the site of the home of an indigenous goddess named Tonantzin. Most mysterious is the 117-year gap between Juan Diego's vision and the first written report (an earlier document has been declared a blatant forgery). An art restoration expert in 2002 found there was nothing unusual about the cloth or paint used for the picture, and another researcher claimed he could identify at least three distinct layers in the painting, one of which was signed and dated. The original showed striking similarities to the Spanish version, and the fabric was composed of hemp and linen, not agave fibers as has been believed. But most telling, to me, is that Bishop Zumárraga's memoirs contain no mention of Juan Diego, although he did write: "The Redeemer of the world doesn't want any more miracles, because they are no longer necessary."

So, what if Juan Diego's vision of the Virgin of Guadalupe is a fabrication? What if it was intended to coopt the power of the indigenous goddess Tonantzin in order to win converts for Christianity, and
what if it was used for political purposes on the part of homegrown revolutionaries to unite citizens of the newly created nation of Mexico. And today, the Virgin of Guadalupe provides a center and a home for strangers in a strange land, undocumented immigrants in the United States who are trying to maintain their identity under the threat of persecution and deportation? There is historical truth, which tells us what "really" happened, and there is religious truth, which gives our lives meaning. If you were suffering and were looking for salvation, which would you choose?

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