The last Virgen de Guadalupe post. Maybe

What follows is not a coherent argument but an attempt to present some ends that so far refuse to be tied via someone’s addressing them directly. Those ends: I have yet to find even a trace of a colonial-era discussion of the religious significance of the Virgin’s appearing as a mestiza. You’d think someone, somewhere during that time, would have contemplated that particular mystery. Speaking for myself, the more I have contemplated it, the stranger she becomes–especially, by the way, if the image is fraudulent.

My sources for this (lack of a) discussion are Sanford Poole’s Our Lady of Guadalupe, which I summarized in my previous post, Nora Jaffary’s False Mystics: Deviant Orthodoxy in Colonial Mexico, and a recent discussion my wife and I had on the tensions between the Virgin and La Malinche.

As I noted via the timeline that Poole lays out regarding the documentable events regarding the Virgin, by the mid-1550s a chapel at Tepeyac had been established and contained in it an object that was the subject both of veneration and of concern on the part of some clergy, the Dominican order in particular. Poole also notes in his very valuable first chapter (which establishes the religious context in both Spain and, from 1521 (the fall of Tenochtitlan)-1531 (the year of the Virgin’s appearances to Juan Diego) that while there was a church hierarchy, in outlying parishes mendicants had a fair amount of autonomy and even authority granted them by their parishioners. Jaffary indirectly develops this further within her brief discussion of the cult of Guadalupe by noting “[t]he Counter-Reformation Catholic church’s vigorous promotion of the Cult of the Virgin Mary” as a means of policing female chastity, not only for purposes of morality but also, and especially later in the colonial period, for purposes of maintaining the divisions in New Spain’s racial hierarchy, and also noting that “[l]ocal cults devoted to dozens of other Marian figures flourished among both indigenous and Spanish communities throughout New Spain” (61). Poole hypothesizes that someone, most likely an Indian painter, made the image now venerated as miraculous; it is not difficult, therefore, to further hypothesize that an especially-charismatic priest encouraged its veneration, eventually gaining the ever-growing, initially-wary attention of the Church hierarchy.

As I say, none of this is difficult to imagine in and of itself. But from Jaffary’s book comes this firm reminder (apologies for the length:

Legal codes, church doctrine, and elite culture all worked to structure colonial Mexican society upon a rigid set of racial, economic, and gendered hierarchies. Initially only male peninsulares [people of Spanish descent born in Spain] could occupy the most elevated positions in the colonial bureaucracy, ecclesiastical institutions, and commercial networks. However, between the late sixteenth and late eighteenth centuries, increasing numbers of criollos, people of Spanish descent born in the New World, gained access to these positions. Criollos’ rising political and economic aspirations threatened both peninsulares and the Spanish crown. Beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, Spanish elites also grew wary of the demographic and economic expansion of the viceroyalty of New Spain’s racially mixed population. In response, the crown–with peninsulares’ support–adopted several measures to restrict access to power by criollos and castas, people of mixed racial ancestry. The 1776 Real Pragmática, a decree the energetic Bourbon king Charles III issued, represented the culmination of the state’s policy. The Pragmática attempted to legislate an end to marriages between people of differing economic and racial backgrounds by prohibiting individuals’ ability to select spouses without parental approval.

* * *

In medieval and early modern Iberia, Christians proscribed Spanish women from having sexual contact with the Peninsula’s Moorish and Jewish populations. . . . Spaniards transferred this ancient insistence on female sexual purity to the Indies, where they created a new set of prohibitions against the comingling of Spanish Christians with Indians, Africans, and castas. In Spain limipieza de sangre (cleanliness of the blood) had denoted purity from the taint of Jewish lineage. In the New World the phrase described those who claimed they were unpolluted by Indian or African ancestry. (6, 7; all italics are the author’s)

Never mind that by 1776, mestizaje as a fact of the colony’s life was already well established–and that, moreover, Guadalupe was deployed by at least some artists as an implicit endorsement of that fact, as the Luis de Mena painting at the beginning of this post indicates. The Virgin of Guadalupe would have been enlisted in this policing role, especially given that she was determined by the Church to be a manifestation of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. But the question I have is, how (if at all) was this interpretation of Guadalupe reconciled with her appearance as a mestiza–the earthly manifestation of which would have been legally and coded as extra-legal, and which, as I just mentioned, the Church was expected to help enforce? It may be that the Church’s long tradition of Black Madonnas helped elide these difficulties; but, again, it would seem that to explicitly identify Guadalupe as a mestiza–as a member of a less-than-favored casta category–would create some sort of tension among legal, theological and cultural codes in New Spain. Whether the silence of the sources I’ve so far looked at is an approving or an awkward one, I know not. Or perhaps, as Poole concludes regarding the hundred-year gap between the given date for the Virgin’s appearances to Juan Diego and the first direct written mention of the story of those appearances, the silence indicates that there was simply no problem to address.

What follows is an attempt to articulate my sense of the above, subject to change as I learn more (and learn how to say better what I’m trying to say): As was historically the case of the offspring of miscegenous relationships not legally or culturally sanctioned, the Virgin of Guadalupe can be read as representing an excess; her signification is beyond the full control of either Church or state. It is not that, as a sign, she is indeterminate or arbitrary; it is that she signifies both one of those institutions’ determined meanings and, simultaneously, something that would appear to run counter to those meanings. She is at once an affirmation of order (though not necessarily one sanctioned by the entity deploying her as an enforcement of that order) and the critique of established order. She is, in other words, apocalyptic, in both that word’s meanings: she reveals a new order that necessarily requires the destruction of the old–which is, of course, what this book project is intent on arguing with regard to consensual interracial relationships.

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One Response

  1. […] Not to worry, though: in a few days I hope to have something of a summary post that picks up where this one and this one before it leave […]

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