Censoring Our Ladies

Does turning Guadalupe into a woman cross the line between sacred and profane?

By Richard L. Vasquez

"For her to approach me, for me to finally open the door and accept her, she had to be a woman like me."
"She is not neuter like Barbie. She gave birth. She has a womb. Blessed art thou and blessed is the fruit of thy womb... Blessed art thou Lupe, and, therefore, blessed am I.

-- Sandra Cisneros --

In the book, "Goddess of the Americas", Sandra Cisneros writes one piece called "Guadalupe the Sex Goddess" in which she recalls the attitudes she was raised with about her womanhood, body and sexuality. Even in the locker room, the Latina girls would hide their bodies while the others walked around confidently.

This essay reflects a constant struggle with the image of men and women in Latino cultures. Everyone knows of machismo, where men have to be virile men and nothing less will do. Less talked about is marianismo, the ideal image many have for women. Sandra Cisneros points out that there is no talk of men emulating Christ, but women are called upon to emulate the image of Mary, an everlasting virgin and constant intercessor who sacrifices everything for the good of others. With Mary, or Guadalupe, as the model for womanhood the natural question arises - "Is she really a woman?" She was a daughter. She was a wife. She gave birth. But do we allow Guadalupe to be a woman? Do we allow the women in our society to believe that Mary ever grew from girl to woman, or that she had tender moments with Joseph where they talked quietly and laughed with each other while embracing? Was she ever allowed to be strong and take a defiant stance when she wanted something done?

Sandra asked herself if Guadalupe was a woman like herself. Or was she a two dimensional neutered character that young Latinas were expected to become? She wanted to lift Guadalupe's robes to see that she was real like herself.

Alma Lopez, inspired by this essay picks up where Sandra left off. In her recent digital art on display at the Museum of International Folk Art in New Mexico called "Our Lady", Alma lifts the robes of Guadalupe. She opens them up for us and shows us - Roses. Like the roses that surround the events of her apparition in Mexico. She, of course, could have shown Guadalupe nude in her interpretation, but instead she covers her in roses so that only her belly and legs show. Below, is a female angel supporting Guadalupe on eagle's wings. The angel, like many angels we see in art, is nude. Art or Profanity?

As two artists talk frankly about the woman they are supposed to emulate, the woman who loved and gave birth just as they are able to, they receive a response from critics. Instead of seeing what I saw, a confident and strong woman that I believe Guadalupe had to be to give her son to the world, Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan sees a "tart" and sacrilege. By questioning if their Holy Role Model was anything like them, critics have said Guadalupe is defiled by the act.

On April 4th, the museum board was supposed to meet to determine if the exhibit, "Cyber Arte: Tradition Meets Technology", should be removed from the museum. The exhibit shows the art of Latina artists who blend folk art with modern art. The meeting was canceled and rescheduled for April 16th, partially due to an unexpected crowd and partially to threats of violence against the artist that asked herself "Is Guadalupe a woman like me?" In the meantime, legislators have threatened the funding on the museum based on this work.

Guadalupe is a permanent fixture for many Latinos, especially Mexican-Americans. She is hung on walls, she is painted on walls in the cities, she is on computer desktops and mouse pads, she is on calling cards, and she is tattooed on arms and backs. Her image is on air fresheners and stickers. Vicente Fox hung a banner during one of his first rallies with her image on it.

The Mother Mary is a sacred and personal image, yet it permeates every day life. It's her sacred nature that the protestors use to back up their argument to censor. But because Mary is sacred, she is a personal experience to all who revere her. She has shown herself in many ways under many names throughout the ages. In Czestochowa, Poland the oldest known image of Mary is known as the Black Madonna because of her dark skin. In Mexico, she appeared as Guadalupe, with indigenous features. She has been seen in Portugal, Yugoslavia and a host of other nations in various forms and carrying various labels. Her image appears as Asian, African, European and everything in between.

In medieval art, made during an era when sacrilege invited death, Mary is often portrayed as breastfeeding baby Jesus. One Peruvian piece from the 18th century shows Mary's exposed nipple. Today, women are often chastised for feeding their children in public, even when they are driven to placing a towel over the entire child as it nurses. States have to pass laws protecting the women from being evicted from public places. In the 19th century, Edvard Munch depicted Mary fully exposed. The artist today is threatened for showing Guadalupe as a woman whose body is still covered.

Unfortunately, a part of marianismo dictates that a woman must be a virgin or a "tart" (to put it lightly). There's no room for compromise. The mere presence of exposed skin is viewed as "defiling" the image of Guadalupe. The presence of breasts on an Angel - sacrilege? Or is it just Chicana breasts?

I can't help but wonder how much of the protests against this piece of work stem from the belief that women should either be entirely chaste or entirely sexual. I see The Goddess of the Americas standing strong and confident held up by another woman of strength. Others see nothing but a defiling image. Something unholy. Skin. An angel with breasts. Male or female, many of us carry certain remnants of machismo and marianismo in our attitudes about ourselves and the other gender. I think the attacks speak more about the negative image of women's bodies that the protesters have had instilled in them. The word that comes to mind is misogyny. Guadalupe can be African or Asian. She can be a tattoo or an air freshener. But she cannot be a woman.

Recently the Mayor of New York City protested a piece of art because it used elephant dung with the image of the Virgin Mary. Some are giving the same treatment to an artist who finds power, strength and solace in the fact that Mary was a woman. They are giving breasts the same level of attention that dung received. Any particular piece of art gives you a look into the artist's heart. We know where the artist's inspiration came from. But where does the inspiration of the viewer who sees a tart come from? The reactions give you a look into the heart of the viewer. As Guadalupe shows herself in many ways to many people, so does this piece of art. I believe the people who sexualize the image instead of seeking out the author's intent commit the sacrilege by keeping the Queen of Heaven's subjects from looking to her honeslty for guidance and recognition. Those who seek to silence Chicana art or the ability of women to ponder their own nature commit another travesty. Many women find themselves unable to address their womanhood because of their association with Guadalupe. Because, when they do think about their womanhood instead of hiding it with shame, they are called tarts. When Guadalupe's womanhood is pondered, the Archbishop believes she's defiled.

In thinking about why these women look to Mary to define their womanhood, I think of the following passage from Crossing the Threshold of Hope, by Pope John Paul II where he describes how we over sexualize women and how we should all turn to Mary to ponder the question of feminism and womanhood.

I think that a certain contemporary feminism finds its roots in the absence of true respect for woman. Revealed truth teaches us something different. Respect for woman, amazement at the mystery of womanhood, and finally the nuptial of God Himself and of Christ, as expressed in the Redemption, are all elements that have never been completely absent in the faith and life of the Church. This can be seen in a rich tradition of customs that, regrettably, is nowadays being eroded. In our civilization woman has become, before all else, an object of pleasure.

It is very significant, on the other hand, that in the midst of this very situation the authentic theology of woman is being reborn. The spiritual beauty, the particular genius, of women is being rediscovered. The bases for the consolidation of the position of women in life, not only family life but also social and cultural life, are being redefined.

And for this purpose, we must return to the figure of Mary. Mary herself and devotion to Mary, when lived out in all its fullness, become a powerful and creative inspiration.
-- Pope John Paul II --