New World iconography: a rereading

juandiegoandvirginI want to return to this image for a moment, which I posted on earlier, in light of a nudge I received from some reading I did last week.

From Sandra Messinger Cypess’ La Malinche in Mexican Literature: From History to Myth, as part of a discussion of Rosario Castellanos’ essay, “Once Again Sor Juana”:

Veneration of the Virgin [of Guadalupe] transcends pure religiosity and has become equated with a sense of unselfish motherhood and postitive national identity. La Malinche, at the opposite pole, embodies both negative national identity and sexuality in its most irrational form, a sexuality without regard to moral laws or cultural values. (6-7)

Reading this reminded me–and made me rethink–my initial assumption about the frieze’s purpose in placing a beaver, an animal associated among some in the medieval Church with chastity1, in this scene depicting the Virgin’s appearance to Juan Diego. Here is a bit of what I wrote in that earlier post:

Most of us are familiar with Renaissance-era depictions of animals or objects along with saints (think of Peter often shown with a set of keys, in reference to Matthew 16:19). What’s intriguing here is the application of this principle to a depiction of Juan Diego. It speaks to the apparent need to assert or remind the visitor of his virtue and, thus, of his worthiness to receive a visitation from the Virgin. It causes me to wonder if certain visitors were considered to need this reminder more than others did (even in the decades immediately following the apparitions, elements within the Church questioned the veracity of the story). And as for what indigenous people made of the beaver . . . As of this writing, I have not been able to find what if any significance beavers held for the Aztecs, but somehow I doubt that chastity figures into their thinking.

It occurs to me now, in light of my more recent reading (not to mention a recollection of Gruzinski’s The Mestizo Mind), that this frieze’s message may be directed less at a Spanish or even an Indian audience than to a third one: a mestizo audience coming to terms with its origins as a new people.

The passage from the Messinger Cypess book presents what has been the standard reading of La Malinche’s meaning in Mexican culture since the post-Independence days of the 19th century. But, while Messinger Cypess will go on to say that the early Spanish accounts of La Malinche paint her in a favorable light, she is silent on the question of how she was regarded among the early mestizo population of those early decades. Quite possibly among the Indians and mestizos of these early post-Conquest decades, there was emerging a mestizo narrative of la Malinche-as-betrayer/whore and her son by Cortés–the synedochic 1st mestizo–as damned, the embodiment of a culture’s Original Sin. It may be that no direct record of this alternate narrative exists, but we do know that the early priests were indeed cognizant of and, in some cases, sensitive to such matters as, significantly, mestizos–not Indians–would perceive such things.

If, then, there was already present at the very least an oral narrative that read the union of Cortés and La Malinche as emblematic of unpoliced sexuality and the betrayal of a nation in the very act of its creation, it is indeed possible to read this frieze as presenting something like an alternate First Parents narrative whose dynamic is, not coincidentally, also the exact opposite of that other narrative. The encounter between Juan Diego and the Virgin is devoid of all sexuality, as signified not only by the Virgin herself but also the presence of the beaver–and the claim that Juan Diego and his wife had taken vows of chastity after hearing a sermon preached on that virtue (by the way: Cortés was married at the time La Malinche became his mistress; moreover, when Cortés’ wife came to Mexico to be with her husband, she soon died under mysterious circumstances). Even so, the Virgin appears to Juan Diego simultaneously as the Mother of God and as a mestiza–that is, as the immaculately-conceived offspring of her appearance to Juan Diego.

The essence of the above–that the Virgin of Guadalupe occupies a position in the Mexican cultural psyche directly opposite that of La Malinche–is no new claim. What seems to be distinctive about what I’m saying here is that this frieze (clearly a deliberate feature of this building’s 1531-1709 construction) may serve as an indication that that dynamic may have appeared, or was anticipated, much earlier than is usually recognized. Moreover, this frieze seems to be doing more than conveying the essence of one narrative; it also may be offering up an implicit commentary on another narrative, one whose embrace may have been understood, even at that very early time, to be debilitating, if not actually destructive.
1Over at my other blog, my long-time Internet-acquaintance Raminagrobis, who knows a lot more about bestiaries than I do, offers some competing meanings of beavers here.


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