La Virgen As Seen From Both Sides

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The second in a series of Mexican snapshots for The Noise, published in Flagstaff. To read the entire issue, which is excellent, download the pdf (16.9mb).

La Virgen As Seen From Both Sides
a Cross-Border Look at the Virgin of Guadalupe

The fireworks have been exploding for twenty-four hours without stop. There are mustaches drawn on all the male children under the age of three. Mariachis are playing in nearly every neighborhood. There can only be one explanation for all this colorful chaos, which even here in Mexico is beyond average: this must be the 475th anniversary of the appearance of La Virgen de Guadalupe. This must be December 12th, Día de la Virgen.

On this day shrines pop up on nearly every street corner, each bedecked with noche buena flowers. Thousands of pilgrims stream into Mexico City’s Basilica, carrying portraits of la Virgen on their backs and crawling the final steps on their knees, leaving dark stains of their faith on the stones behind them.

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“This is a very important day for us,” says Antonio Perez, an out-of-work mariachi who is hanging around Cuernavaca’s main square on the night of the 12th. “I have a lot of faith and devotion to her.” He’s an impeccably dressed old man with watery eyes, soft-spoken and sincere. The words he’s saying are written everywhere on the streets around us as he says them.

We’re sitting near el Calvario, one of Cuernavaca’s soaring churches where  reverence for La Virgen is focused. It’s here that the local parents bring their young children dressed as peasants to have their pictures taken in mock rural landscapes. They jam through the wide doors of the church, children on their shoulders, pushing to hear one of the masses being said every two hours. Inside, the church is a sea of dark hair, a sea whose waves sigh in rosaries and undulate onto their knees in prayer.

Along with Día de los Muertos in early November, December 12th is a day that is exclusively Mexican. La Virgen is the patron saint of Mexico and is also called “the Queen of the Americas.” As Octavio Paz wrote in 1974: “the Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery.”

But to those of us from the southwest U.S., this all sounds familiar. Even if it’s only seeing her likeness emblazoned on the spare-tire cover of a certain pink VW bus that haunts Aspen between San Francisco and Agassiz Streets in downtown Flagstaff, we’re aware of her presence. It’s evidence that while political boundaries between Mexico and the U.S. were redrawn in 1848, cultural boundaries remain much more fluid.

In Bisbee, Arizona, just a stone’s throw from the international line, one sees old cars pushing through the narrow streets with bumper stickers that read, “IN GUAD WE TRUST.” On a December morning not long after the 12th, Elaine Blake and artist Judy Perry are gardening in front of the Bisbee Episcopal Church. “A lot of us have had experiences with the Virgin,” says Perry. Blake agrees, “she just made herself really known and vivid to me. She talks to me and I talk to her... she is the divine presence that is anchored in this place, in this earth.” Both women recall being attracted to Guadalupe thanks to her being a female religious figure. “I think it’s important to bring the female and male energies together in spiritual life,” says Perry.

Perez, speaking of La Virgen’s appeal to Mexicans, says “we feel proud that she came here to Mexico to appear... the story is that she appeared to somebody who was of the most lowly people, his name was Juan Diego.”

In Bisbee, anthropology and faith seem to occupy the same space at the same time without getting into a fistfight. At the Bisbee event on the 12th, “there was a woman [Maggie McQuaid] who talked about the cultural antecedents, Tonantzin, the Aztec goddess,” according to Blake.

Such talk, though, has no place in the mind of the average Mexican on the night of the 12th. Perez, for one, shirks the suggestion of La Virgen being related to the pre-Hispanic gods. He shakes his head, “no, no, no, no, no, I don’t understand that, I’d say no.”

 Blake seemed to be a bit surprised by the reverence held for Guadalupe in the southwest. “I’ve talked to a couple of people who have said ‘I’m a Guadalupian, not a Christian,’” she said.

Meanwhile, in central Mexico, Perez leans against a park bench, smiling. “Everybody’s walking around content today. Just so happy for this day.” Two peoples, two countries, unified at least once every year by their faith in figure that they see from different perspectives. Sounds like just another story from the border.