COLUMN OF THE AMERICAS by Patrisia Gonzales and Roberto Rodriguez


Her body is beautiful, brown and strong like the earth. Yet, you can't get Raquel Salinas to say much about herself without causing her to choke up with emotion. For nearly half her life, she was ashamed of her body -- burdened with guilt for having been raped.

Today, her body is the subject of a raging controversy in Northern New Mexico because Los Angeles artist Alma Lopez depicted her as "Our Lady" -- a rose-covered woman personifying pre-Columbian moon and earth entities and vestiges of the Virgen de Guadalupe. She is one body of the sacred feminine as redefined in recent Chicana art.

While the controversy continues over whether the virgin should be embodied in such a way, the woman of the body in question has become almost disembodied from the debate. Much like feminist critique of the objectivication of women in mass culture, she has remained a body with no voice. "It's my body, yet nobody's asked me anything about how I feel."

Erroneously described as bikini-clad, Salinas wears a two-piece bathing suit, covered with roses. She stands on a bare-chested woman, which opponents see as an offensive reference to the Virgin standing on an angel. Lopez was inspired to depict Salinas in such a manner, partly through the writings of Sandra Cisneros -- who in one of her stories wonders what Our Lady of Guadalupe wears underneath her mantle. "Roses," said Salinas.

The image Salinas depicts is that of "a heroine, of a strong woman. ... That's who I believe Guadalupe is ... a symbol of struggle," said Salinas. The image symbolically refers to women's "moon cycles," how women connect each month to life through menstruation.

To those opposed to the image, Salinas' body offends. It is violating and sacrilegious. On the surface, the controversy is about sacredness vs. the freedom of expression. When these ideals clash, there can be no winners. Yet look through the eyes of Salinas and you see something else raging: a desire for justice in a world that hungers for it and a desire to honor the sacred feminine in a world that daily dishonors women.

It is unsettling to Salinas that her body has become ground zero for this controversy. She adheres to an indigenous spirituality that views Our Lady of Guadalupe as Tonantzin -- her common name in Nahuatl meaning "Our Most Venerable Mother." "I see her as Tonantzin. I respect her. I would never do anything to disrespect her," said Salinas.
"I'm a very spiritual person. I live my life as a Christian -- that is, respecting others and respecting the earth.

Her life's work has sought to heal herself and her community. She was raped at age 18. Rather than offering compassion, those close to her made her feel shame and told her it was God's punishment. Guilt-ridden, she was made to believe it was she who had precipitated her own rape. This is one reason that led her to drink. And it was the same reason that caused her to cover herself up -- to hide her body, her curves ... her femininity.

In a sense, she led a double life. Fiercely proud of her heritage, she became politically active at a young age. She witnessed the raw brutality of police officers against protestors at the East L.A. Chicano Moratorium in 1970. "When I saw that brutality, I committed my life toward fighting injustice." Yet, through all the political movements she participated in, she was always silent about her rape.

Twelve years after being raped, she met a woman, Alba Moreno, who told her: "It wasn't your fault. You didn't ask to be raped." To hear those words was liberating, Salinas explains. No one had ever told her this. At Moreno's prompting, she became involved with the East L.A. Rape Hotline. During her training, she watched a depiction of a rape scene in the back of a car -- very similar to hers -- which brought back the shame.

After years of support groups, one-on-one therapy and Alcoholics Anonymous (nine years of being sober) -- she began her long process about feeling good again about her body. To rid herself of her shame of her own body, she began to do nude modeling at UCLA. Then she allowed herself to be artistically photographed in the nude.

Part of the controversial image was an effort by her to complete her healing from "the shame and the guilt." And the dialogue that has ensued "is part of the healing process," she noted. "I feel good about my body. I carry no shame anymore. It's part of what happened to me."

Salinas today is an artist in residence at the Catholic-sponsored Proyecto Pastoral in East L.A. She has employed Our Lady of Guadalupe in her own work as a performance artist. Several years ago, she wrote a piece called "Heat Your Own." In it, Our Lady of Gudalupe-Tonantzin appears in the 1500s to stop the bloodshed of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. Additionally, other strong women personages appear, including women who fight with the Zapatistas for farmworker rights and garment workers. The piece also addresses the realities that teens face, of survival, street and domestic violence, and AIDS. "It's mainly about hearing the voice of strong women."

People should be outraged when women's bodies are exploited to sell products, she said. "That's what we should be ashamed of. Yet nobody says anything about that."

At the center of the battle over freedom of speech and a sacred symbol is a woman who when asked if she has ever doubted her own beauty breaks down in tears. "I've never seen myself as beautiful."

* Raquel Salinas can be reached at 213-368-8831 or at or PO BOX 50626 L.A. CA. 90050
**The image can be seen at: Comments regarding the exhibit should be directed to Dr. Joyce Ice, Director of the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, NM at: or to Dr. Tey Marianna Nunn, Curator of Contemporary Hispano/Latino Collections at The artist, Alma Lopez, can be contacted at or Tongues/VIVA1125 N. McCadden Place Suite 148, Los Angeles, CA 90038.
Gonzales is the author of the forthcoming "The Mud People: Anonymous Heroes of Mexico" and co-author of "Gonzales/Rodriguez: Uncut & Uncensored" (ISBN: 0-918520-22-3 -- Ethnic Studies Library Publications Unit, UC Berkeley. Rodriguez is the author of Justice: A Question of Race (Cloth- ISBN 0-927534-69-X paper ISBN 0-927534-68-1 -- Bilingual Review Press). We can be reached at PO BOX 100726, San Antonio, TX 78201-8726, or by phone at 210-734-3050 or Our "Column of the Americas" is archived under "Opinion" at