Canonization affirms faith of fervent Mexicans
By Michael Riley
Denver Post Staff Writer

Sunday, July 28, 2002 - The skeptics can have their say, but Alejandro Tavarez has no doubts about the power of the Virgin of Guadalupe and the existence of Juan Diego, the diminutive Indian man to whom the virgin is said to have appeared in 1531.
When Tavarez's mother had a brain aneurysm two years ago, the doctors predicted she'd be dead before her family in Colorado could make it to her bedside. On the plane from Denver to El Paso, they prayed to the Virgin of Guadalupe.
"When we arrived at 8 p.m., she awoke briefly, something that surprised the doctors. She passed away an hour and a half later," said Tavarez, who lives in Aurora.
"Without the virgin's intercession, that never could have happened."
When Pope John Paul II canonizes Juan Diego on Wednesday, it will reverberate far outside the country where the virgin appeared, speaking the native Nahuatl, to the man who will become Mexico's 29th saint and first indigenous one.
For millions of Mexicans, the canonization officially recognizes the miracle of the apparition, which occurred a decade after Mexico's conquest by Spain and spurred millions of Indians to convert to Catholicism.
As powerful as the image is for Mexicans at home, the Virgin of Guadalupe is also cherished in the United States. For both recent immigrants and Mexican-Americans, she is an emblem of their faith or an affirmation of their roots.
Tavarez lives 1,500 miles from Mexico City's massive basilica, where the canonization will take place. Pictures of the virgin dot each of his home's three bedrooms, and there is another in the living room. His neighbors all have at least one image in their homes, he said.
The virgin, whom the Vatican declared the patron of the Americas more than a half-century ago, is also the patron saint of several Colorado churches and the diocese of Colorado Springs.
"This is an extremely important event for many of us in Colorado," said Denver's Auxiliary Bishop Jose Gomez, who was born in Mexico.
"A lot of the Hispanic immigrants here are from Mexico. This talks to our hearts and the most important things in our life," Gomez said. Catholics account for about 25 percent of the state's overall population, and 68 percent of Hispanics are Catholic.
Gomez will attend Wednesday's canonization and, in October, will lead a pilgrimage of Colorado Catholics to Mexico City. The event will commemorate the archdiocese's new Centro Juan Diego, a community and social services center for Hispanics that is named to honor Diego's elevation to sainthood.
Sister Maria Elena Mendez also feels the connection to Guadalupe. "When we leave Mexico and come to this country, the virgin keeps our connection with home," said Mendez, a Mexico-born nun whose order, the Sisters of Guadalupe, has a convent in Edwards.
The nuns work mainly with recent immigrants, most from Mexico and many still unable to speak English. On Dec. 12, the virgin's feast day, the community throws a two-day celebration, including folk dances and a mariachi band.
"Work here is very hard, and she offers a rest, a spiritual rest. We can place in her our worries, and we can find peace," Mendez said.
In Carbondale, the Dec. 12 celebration is spreading outside the town's Hispanic, mostly immigrant community, said the Rev. Tom McCormick of St. Mary's of the Crown. The celebration is increasingly bicultural, and most events are in both English and Spanish.
"The story of Juan Diego is the story of the unification of peoples. It's perfect for us," McCormick said.
Among second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans, the meaning of the Virgin of Guadalupe often changes, say sociologists, and her popularity has exploded over the past decade.
Everyone from Los Angeles gangs to Chicana lesbians has adopted the virgin as an affirmation of heritage and race. Mexican-American artists and activists are reclaiming her as a symbol of motherhood, forgiveness or feminine strength. Her image is now on T-shirts, tattoos and air freshener cans.
Last year, Mexican-born artist Alma Lopez exhibited a bikini-clad Virgin of Guadalupe in a Santa Fe museum. The digital image, which the artist said modernized the virgin, ignited furious protests and a lawsuit demanding its removal.
Denver artist Sofia Williamson, whose mother was Mexican, uses images of the virgin as well, connecting the struggle of Hispanic women from her mother's generation to hers.
"I lost my mother when I was very young, and I view (the virgin) as a personal icon because it gave her strength," Williamson said. "Being women, we know how hard it is in this world. I think our mothers prayed to those icons as well for that same reason."
In 1945, the Vatican declared the Virgin of Guadalupe the patroness for all of the Americas, but in a special millennium Mass, Pope John Paul II rechristened her the patroness of "one America."
The pope "said we can't think of "the Americas' anymore, we have to think that we are all intricately bonded with one another - politically, economically and socially," said Tim Matovina, an expert in Hispanic theology at Notre Dame.
"To me, that's a very prophetic thing."