The Evolution of La Virgen de Guadalupe in Chicano Art

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A beautiful dark-skinned brunette stands before you. Her long, flowing hair beautifully frames her sweet face and demure smile. Yards of richly colored clothing adorn her tall, slender frame. Rays of sunlight appear from behind, emphasizing pure beauty. Her hands are joined together and she holds them at her chest in worship or, perhaps, in gratitude. Who is she, or rather, who do you see? Practicing Catholics all over Central and South America see a venerated patron saint. In Mexico, she is immediately recognizable as symbolic mother of a nation, ‘nuestra madre.’ New generations of mestizos see a symbol of all that is woman, as real and complex as their mothers, sisters, daughters, and lovers.

Who you see depends on who you are, but all identify her as the Virgin of Guadalupe, perhaps the most recognizable icon to emerge out of post-conquest Americas. La Virgen of Guadalupe has evolved throughout history as a cross-cultural and multi-generational icon of virginity, femininity, purity, and maternal love. Her presence can be seen everywhere, on clothing, jewelry, car windows, and even on coffins. This essay charts the evolution of La Virgen de Guadalupe in Chicano art, from religious icon to feminist mascot; I examine the forms in which contemporary Mexican-American artists have adopted this image, in the tradition of the Chicano art movement, to galvanize communities toward a common social or political cause, and, as Chicana artists will co-opt her image as a vehicle to assert gender issues within the larger agenda, I will argue that the opposition to such efforts reveals a double-standard of allegiance in stark contrast to the goals of the Chicano movement.

To understand how La Virgen has evolved outside of her intended religious context, her genesis must first be examined. Origin stories vary but, according to tradition, on Dec 9, 1531, Juan Diego first saw La Virgen on top of Tepeyac, a hill northwest of Mexico City. She instructed him to have the Bishop build a church on the site. Little Juan Diego immediately found the Bishop and relayed the message, but was dismissed as a storyteller. Three days later, on Juan Diego’s walk to church, la Virgen again reappeared. This time, she told Juan Diego to go the hilltop and pick roses, pack them in his tilma, and take them to the bishop to prove he saw her and to convince the bishop to build a church there. When he presented them to the bishop as instructed, he dropped his cloak with the roses. What appeared in their place was the brightly painted image of the Lady. Once news spread of Juan Diego’s sightings of the Mother of God speaking to him in his native tongue, thousands traveled to Mexico City to see the legendary cape of the ‘brown‘ Virgin Mary.

Some say the Virgin of Guadalupe represents early efforts at syncretism by the Catholic church in an era when indigenous religious practices were discouraged. Jeanette Rodriguez explores this theory in Our Lady of Guadalupe, beginning with an in depth analysis of the Aztec empire and its eventual conquest by the Spanish. Rodriguez argues that, through conquest and colonialism, Christian deities overpowered indigenous gods in terms of propagandistic exposure and eventually a dichotomy of virtues emerges. The monotheistic male god came to represent power, assertiveness, rationality and independence, attributes once associated with Aztec gods. Opposing characteristics like purity, virginity, fertility and maternal love were then attributed to female deity figures, like the Euro-Catholic Virgin Mary and Aztec goddess, Tonantzín. Concurrently, contends Rodriguez, the folkloric story of Juan Diego and La Virgen on Tepayac Hill emerges and the legend of Guadalupe is born. Eventually, this image evolves into the dominant national icon, symbolizing the new mestiza, who was born from both Spanish and indigenous blood. Jody Brant Smith agrees, in The Image of Guadalupe, that she appeared “miraculously on the cactus cloth tilma, or...
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