The Virgin of Guadalupe, and “the New World” as oxymoron

Left: Anonymous, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de México, Patrona de la Nueva España. 18th Century. Museo de la Basílica de Guadalupe, Mexico City (Image found here); right: Josefus de Rivera y Argomanis, Verdadero Retrato de Santa Maria Virgen de Guadalupe, Patrona Principal de la Nueva España Jurada en Mexico. 1778. Museo Nacional de Historia, Mexico City (Image found here).

The Virgin of Guadalupe is not an overt subject of my project, but she could easily serve as the supreme exemplum of what I argue in that project is the essential state of being of the New World: a fusion of cultures and customs so complete that it is no longer possible to separate them one from the other(s)–and, moreover, that the recognition of that fact often comes as something of a shock to those who complacently assume otherwise.

I have written elsewhere of my profoundly-moving experience one December 12th (the Virgin’s feast day) when I visited the Basilica in Mexico City. My purpose in this post, though, you may be pleased to learn, is not to proselytize (full disclosure: I’m neither Catholic nor Hispanic, but I am a Christian and, speaking for myself out of that context as well as someone who finds much to wonder over in Mexican culture and history, I find it difficult to remain completely objective when discussing this subject). Rather, it’s to give the reader a quick sense, via some context and a discussion of some images of the Virgin, of what I mean when here and in my project I will make what I think is an important distinction between the terms “the Americas” and “the New World.”

No matter one’s opinion on the role of the Church during the conquest and colonization of Mexico and points south, it is inarguable that the syncretizing of Catholic and indigenous symbology and ritual was a practice engaged in so as to make the Christian faith more palatable to the Indians. This occurred at more than the level of the abstract. As my wife pointed out to me one day during our trip–something I’m a bit embarrassed to mention that, as many times as I’d visited these places before, I’d never really noted before–the older churches we saw very often appropriated the exact same pebbles-in-mortar construction methods in the building of their walls that we had seen at the pyramids at both Teotihuacan and Tlatelolco. This picture, courtesy of the Mrs., was taken at Teotihuacan and shows that method quite clearly. Both literally and figuratively, then, the outward form the Church took in Mexico during the colonial era was recognizably Christian; look more closely, though, and more than a few traces–and perhaps more than traces–of indigenous practices remained that played a significant role in the shaping and sustaining and perpetuating of that outward form. The Virgin of Guadalupe, and the cult that has emerged surrounding her veneration, is only the most prominent example of this phenomenon. For further reading on the fascinating and complicated topic of syncretism, I urge anyone interested to have a look at Serge Gruzinski’s book The Mestizo Mind: The Intellectual Dynamics of Colonization and Globalization.

For obvious reasons, syncretic practices, by the way, were controversial among Church hierarchy during this time, and the cult surrounding the veneration of the Virgin of Guadalupe was not immune to critique. The Wikipedia entry on the Virgin makes clear that from the very beginning there were questions even as to whether Juan Diego was a real person, never mind the genuineness of the apparitions. But apart from those fundamental questions, there were other concerns just as fundamental in their own ways, chiefly involving the particulars of the early pilgrims’ veneration of her: for example, Indians were allowed to perform in her honor the same dances that, before the Conquest, they had performed in honor of the indigenous goddess Tonantzin, closely associated with the hill named Tepeyac where the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego.

I think it is difficult for non-Hispanics to appreciate fully the Virgin’s significance for–indeed, her centrality to–Mexican and, by extension, Latin American culture. (Never mind, by the way, the difficulties she and her cult pose to non-Hispanic Catholics, Protestants, and non-believers of whatever sort) Though, as with any manifestation of the Holy Mother, she is ostensibly a symbol of Christian faith, she also has significances that only tangentially touch on religion but which resonate profoundly throughout the Hispanic-American world. For Mexicans, she also signifies as a symbol of revolution, an assertion of Mexican nationalism: it was under a banner of her image that marched the army Miguel Hidalgo led in revolt against Spain on the night of September 16, 1810, the day which Mexico celebrates as its independence day. That power as revolutionary symbol, I would argue, still resides in her, dormant but present; the priest whose homily I heard that long-ago December 12th made the case that the Virgin was more powerful than any earthly force, that people had only to acknowledge that. One could understand those words in their spiritual sense, of course. But this was Mexico City, the capital of a now officially-atheist nation which, Mexicans in attendance there could not help but recall, had been inspired to revolt against Spain under this very image. Moreover, back in the mid-’80s the influence of liberation theology had spread from Central America into the southern Mexican state of Chiapas; if ever there were a region of Mexico ripe for rebellion, it was (and remains–see Comandante Marcos) Chiapas. The greater, deeper resonance that the Virgin has throughout Latin America, though, is her very appearance: not only that she appeared to a recently-convertered Indian, Juan Diego, in mid-December of 1531 (ten years after Cortés’ conquering of Tenochtitlan), but also the fact that she appeared to him–and us–via the image she left on Juan Diego’s ayate (something like a man’s rebozo) as proof for the bishop in Mexico City that he had seen her, as a mestiza. If La Malinche is, for Mexicans, the embodiment of Woman-as-Whore, surely the Virgin of Guadalupe is, quite literally, Woman-as-Madonna. But each of these women signifies something much more complicated than the stereotypical roles that women have historically been cast since, it seems, time immemorial. For Mexicans and, by extension, Hispanics, these women are also cultural, racial, religious, political–that is, literal as well as symbolic–Mothers of La Raza.

In the cultural history of the United States, it considerably understates things to say that we have no equivalent figures.

It’s difficult to find a place in Mexico where an image of the Virgin is not close by. Most of those images, though, seek to be more or less faithful to the original on Juan Diego’s ayate, on public display at the basilica dedicated to her in Mexico City. Aside from her mestizo features, that image tells us little about the geographical or cultural space within which she appeared. Given that the Virgin is eternal, transcending time and space, the image’s lack of such references isn’t unusual. What’s striking about the two paintings at the top of this post, which my wife and I saw at the Museo de la Basílica de Guadalupe on our trip to Mexico City last week, as well as one below the fold, is that they supply that spatial and cultural geography. They explicitly place the Virgin within a New World context–not, I’d argue, an American one–as if to insist that the Virgin’s meaning is fully comprehensible only within that context. It is not enough to know that the Virgin is the Mother of God. One must also know where, how, and to whom she chose to appear.
Continue reading

Advertisements

Culture and historical “forgetting”

Should a culture have a memory faithful to history? What role can/should legend and myth play in such a culture?

These are questions that the post-Encounter culture(s) of the Western Hemisphere must of necessity be concerned with. Over at my other blog I’ve put up a brief post that wonders aloud about these issues. I hope you’ll have a look over there and leave your comments either here or there.