The debate rages on

April 17, 2001

Kimberly Rodriguez, 11, was supposed to be attending Chimayó Elementary School on Monday. Instead, she came to Santa Fe with her aunt, Lynn Martinez, and stood outside Sweeney Centerholding a sign saying, "Jesus teaches us purity and modesty, not nudity and vulgarity."

Kimberly said it was more important to attend the communitywide discussion of a controversial depiction of the Virgin of Guadalupe in an exhibit at the Museum of International Folk Art. "It's better to be here knowing we're protecting Our Lady," Rodriguez said. The digital photograph by a California artist shows the Virgen as a middle-aged Chicana woman draped in rose petals and held aloft by a bare-breasted angel. "It's just not right," Kimberly declared. "It shows no respect."

Kimberly spoke for the vast majority of the people who attended the day-long public meeting. More people - by far - came to proclaim the image by California artist Alma López a sacrilege that has caused them personal pain and to demand it be removed from the exhibit. A minority were there to uphold the museum's right to display art that might offend some in the community.

Many proclaimed their faith by wearing Virgin of Guadalupe T-shirts or carrying plastic rosaries. They toted traditional imags of the Blessed Mother and handed out religious pamphlets. Some scrawled their feelings on a written comment board in the rear of the center.

The city was ready for 1,000 or more people to attend the meeting of the Board of Regents that had been postponed from April 4 to allow greater community participation. But there were never more than 500 to 600 at a time, and attendance dwindled noticeably later in the day. During the day, 228 signed up for a chance at three minutes at the microphone. Before the meeting adjourned about 6 p.m., 151 people got to address the audience.

The speeches were passionate, but civil. There were no physical scuffles. The extra police had little to do but lean against their squad cars and chat with the public. The nursery was empty. There was even free pizza available after 1 p.m.

A few people said they appreciated the views of the other side better after listening to the comments. Peter Cate, a retired bookstore owner who has lived in Santa Fe for 30 years, said, "I have a better understanding of the feelings of Hispanic Catholics."

Gerard Martinez, the city's intercultural-affairs director, said, "We were very happy. The museum was happy. I don't think anybody left with their minds changed, but they learned a respect for different points of view."

Four of the seven members of the Board of Regents of the Museum of New Mexico and Tom Wilson, the director, listened attentively to the monologue and stopped by the round-table discussions, but no decision on whether to remove the digital collage is expected for weeks.

That wasn't soon enough for most speakers, including one who attempted to interest the audience in using his assigned minutes to chant: "Take it down. Take it down." The group, however, could not sustain the chant for long.

Deacon Anthony Trujillo of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church made an opening statement. "We who come today in defense of Our Lady are not the powerful nor the rich. We are the people who have a strong devotion to Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, the Mother of God," he said. Trujillo wascheered.

Randy Forrester, development director for the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, received only a smattering of applause - and a few boos - when he pointed out the Constitution protects artistic expression, the freedom of a curator to select controversial work and the freedom to worship.

It would be unconstitutional to bow to pressure from the Catholic Church, he said. "You don't have to attend this exhibit if you don't want to," he added.

Anthony Giron from the Española Valley rejected the artist's explanation that she wanted to represent Mary as a powerful woman. "Alma López, you don't know what a real woman is - look around you," he declared. López, however, was not at the meeting.

The Rev. Terry Brennan, pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Arroyo Seco, got a standing ovation for lauding Wal-Mart for its decision not to sell a book by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. He called for a similar decision on Our Lady. "Why can't the Museum of New Mexico be sensitive and not put that picture up," he demanded.

The Rev. Mike Shea, of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, pleaded, "The job of a museum is to educate and to inspire and even to challenge at times. It's not meant to inflict pain on people. When that happens, learning stops. We respectfully ask that you would take it down."

Gilbert Martinez said his 90-year-old mother was waking up at night crying and had told him, "You need to go over there and stop it."

Many speakers urged the Mexican-born, Hispanic artist to "learn her faith" and questioned her belief in God, although López has insisted she meant no disrespect.

Grace Mayer, an artist and teacher, surveyed the crowd from the balcony. "There are so many issues this community needs to deal with," she observed. "And we're here talking about a digitally altered photograph."

Mayer, who has worked in the city's summer-recreation program, wondered, "Why aren't people offended in this community when children go hungry, and there's no low-income housing, and those of us who teach here can't afford to live here?"

©Santa Fe New Mexican 2001


Reader Opinions

Name: Judy Land-O'Brien
I'm a New Yorker who had the priviledge of living in Taos, NM for a year. I learned many things in that time. The most important was that we must honor and protect the local culture, people and religious heritage. That is what draws us outsiders to New Mexico; its palpable real-life authenticity. Remove the offensive art. It's an unwelcomed guest.