Virgen de Guadalupe
The Nican Mopohua and the Theopoetic of Flor y Canto, El Silencio Guadalupano

Devotion to la Virgen de Guadalupe extends beyond the borders of Mexico and the American Southwest as people throughout the Western Hemisphere celebrate her feast every year on December 12, most notably in Mexico City, where the Basilica of Guadalupe is located. Here, pilgrims and visitors from all over the world gather at the site where she is believed to have appeared in 1531. Still, nowhere is the image of Guadalupe more ubiquitous than in the barrio murals, home altars, lowrider cars, body-painted tattoos, t-shirts, and shirts worn by Chicanas and Chicanos, or in the names of streets, rivers, and landmarks of Los Angeles, Phoenix, Santa Fe, San Antonio, and other southwestern cities. In the early twenty-first century, Latinas and Latinos, particularly Chicanas and Chicanos, in the barrios, in the arts, and in academia were beginning to interpret who Guadalupe is for them. Yet one cannot speak of Guadalupe without first examining the Guadalupan tradition, which is of fundamental importance for Latina and Latino academics as well as for people in the barrios. The first part of this essay examines the core of the Guadalupan tradition and the historical and theological issues it raises; the second part deals with the influence of the image of Guadalupe on the political, historical, social, and cultural life of the Mexican people and the Latina and Latino and Chicana and Chicano people in the United States, particularly as the image of Guadalupe was appropriated and interpreted by Chicana artists in the early part of the twenty-first century.

The Nican Mopohua and the Theopoetic of Flor y Canto

The story of la Virgen's appearance to a Nahua Indian named Juan Diego is written in a document called the Nican Mopohua (Here Is Told). In 1649, this document was one of several Guadalupan texts published in Luis Laso de la Vega's Huei tlamahuiçoltica (By a Great Miracle). There is an ongoing debate as to whether Laso de la Vega was the author, the compiler, or just the editor of the apparition story. As to the dating of the document, James Lockhart's textual and linguistic analyses date the text as written from the 1550s or 1560s onward, or what he calls stage two, a phase that extends to the mid-seventeenth century. Although uncertainty surrounds the date of composition and authorship, the text, produced during the early colonial period, is a “jewel of native literature” (León-Portilla). In every linguistic detail—expressions, modes of speech, symbolic forms—the Nican Mopohua presupposes the ancient Nahua theopoetic of Flor y Canto (Flower and Song) of the Tlamatinime (Nahua Wisdom Teachers).

The tlamatinime were teachers, scribes, healers, carriers of oral tradition and theologians, among other things. Their adherence to the ancient Toltec henotheistic belief in one supreme God, Quetzalcoatl, the creator and the personification of wisdom, separated them from the polytheism of the Aztecs. The tlamantini poet-king, Nezahualcoyotl, conceived of God Quetzalcoatl as Ometeotl (literally “God Two”) or as one God with two aspects: Lord and Lady, Mother and Father. Miguel León-Portilla (1963, pp. 91–93) lists the following divine titles as attributes for Ometeotl: Ipalnemohuani (Giver of Life); Tloque Nahuaque (Master of the Near and the Close); Totecuiyo in ilhuicahua in tlaticpaque (Our Lord, Master of the Heavens and the Earth); and Moyocoyani (Self-Invented Creator). Although this mystery was beyond rational comprehension, the Tlamatinime intuitively grasped a glimpse of this mystery in their Flor y Canto theopoetic imagination. For these ancient Nahuas, Flor y Canto meant two things: poetry and the only truth on earth. While everything on earth lacked permanency, foundation, and truth, Nelli Teotl, True God, was for them the only truth on earth; so, if truth ever came to earth, truth would come only through the path of Flor y Canto. The narrative structure of the Nican Mopohua inverts this theopoetic of Flor y Canto, beginning with cantos of precious birds and ending with flores.

El Silencio Guadalupano

The date of 1531, given in the Nican Mopohua for the Guadalupan apparitions is not confirmed by any sources that with any degree of certainty were composed before the late 1640s. It is not until 1648, when Miguel Sanchez published The Image of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, of Guadalupe, that references about the apparitions and Juan Diego originate; otherwise, colonial literature produced between 1531 and 1648 remains silent on this issue. This omission is known as el Silencio Guadalupano (the Guadalupan silence). This issue has produced two opposing camps: those who deny the historicity of the apparitions and Juan Diego, called “antiapparitionists,” and those who affirm it, called “apparitionists.” The Swedish theologian Magnus Lundberg presents solid historical evidence that suggests that the cult of Guadalupe at Tepeyac was founded during the episcopacy of Bishop Juan de Zumárraga's successor, Alonso de Montúfar, by 1555 or 1556. Lundberg, however, does not rule out the possibility that

a cult of the Virgin Mary at Tepeyac, while not under the name Guadalupe, may have existed prior to the arrival of Archbishop Montúfar in 1554, and that
the apparition tradition related to Tepeyac may have existed prior to 1648, but no unquestionable proofs have yet been found. These are two areas of research are still open for investigation.
Historical, Political, Social, and Cultural Influence

No one can deny the historical, social, political, and cultural influence and impact of the image of Guadalupe over Mexicans and the Latina and Latino and Chicana and Chicano people in the United States. La Virgen de Guadalupe not only played a role in the formation of Mexican national identity but also in the revolutionary movement led by Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla. Father Hidalgo's flag in the 1810 War of Independence from Spain—a standard that bore her image—became the first flag of Mexico. Moreover, the first president of Mexico, Manuel Félix Fernández, changed his name to Guadalupe Victoria to honor la Virgen for leading Mexico to victory. On February 2, 1848, after the United States–Mexican War, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in a small northern suburb of Mexico City, named after Father Hidalgo and la Virgen, and appropriately called Villa de Guadalupe Hidalgo. It is noteworthy that during the U.S. military invasion of Mexico City, the Mexican government fled the city and moved all government offices to la Villa of Guadalupe Hidalgo, where Tepeyac and the Basilica of Guadalupe are located.

It was at la Villa de Guadalupe Hidalgo, under the watchful and protective gaze of la Virgen, that the articles of the Treaty were signed, thus creating the Chicana and Chicano people as a national minority—the only minority group, besides American Indians, whose religion, language, land, and culture were protected by international treaty law. It is in this sense that one can speak of the political history of the Chicana and Chicano people in the American Southwest, from Texas to California, as a “new creation,” and, as Virgil Elizondo suggests in his book Guadalupe: Mother of the New Creation, Chicanas and Chicanos are not only a “newly created” racial and cultural mestizaje but a political mestizaje as well.

During the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the symbolic power of estampitas (little picture cards) of Guadalupe worn on sombreros by Zapatista soldiers spoke loudly about whose side la Virgen was on. This is why Emiliano Zapata, the defender of the oppressed campesinos, became a revolutionary symbol of resistance and social justice; as Alicia Gaspar de Alba notes, Chicanos identified Zapata with César Chávez and the migrant-campesino United Farm Worker (UFW) movement. The powerful imagery and symbolism of la Virgen de Guadalupe and the Black Aztec Eagle logo of the United Farm Worker's union rallied Chicanos, Latinos, Filipinos, and Anglos in their cause for social justice and propelled them to organize a massive national and international boycott against California grape growers.

Farmworker movements in South Texas led by Antonio Orendaín of the Texas Farm Workers (TFW) union; or by Baldemar Velásquez of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) in Toledo, Ohio; or by the Obreros Unidos leader, Jesus Salas of Wautoma, Wisconsin, were organized along the same lines as the UFW under the banner of la Virgen de Guadalupe. Their long-distance walks to Sacramento, California; Madison, Wisconsin; Columbus, Ohio; or Austin, Texas, were always peaceful marches accompanied by the singing of songs like “De Colores,” and rallying cries of “Justicia para los campesinos y viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!” This spark became the catalyst that set off the Chicano movement in the mid-to-late 1960s.

As the movement grew from migrant fields to urban areas, the Chicano movement itself became the focus of intense self-criticism in the mid-to-late 1970s. Chicanas exposed the hypocrisy of the movement's male-dominated leadership, and demanded an end to machista structures of oppression. By the 1980s, artists like Yolanda M. López and Ester Hernández had become the first lay feminist “canvas-theologians” to radically redefine the meaning of the image of Guadalupe. As time has shown, their provocative and controversial artwork on Guadalupe cannot be easily dismissed, for it forced the Latino and Chicano people to ask themselves: who is La Virgen de Guadalupe for us?

A Chicana Feminist Aesthetic of Rasquachismo

In 1991, the art historian Tomás Ybarra-Frausto wrote “Rasquachismo: A Chicano Sensibility,” which has become the theoretical framework for interpreting Chicano art. The term Rasquache refers to low status, working-class people who subvert the high moral superiority of the social elite and defy all established social conventions. The Rasquaches' “down, but not out” attitude and the material poverty in which they live furnish the means for reinventing taste, accentuating a bilingual, bicultural sensibility, redefining beauty, and finding creative expression in the clothing used and the vernacular codes spoken and in a way of life that transforms elitist definitions of bad taste into good taste. To be Rasquache, says Ybarra-Frausto, is to engage in unfettered elaborations, unrestrained bright colors and flamboyancy rather than in the simple, monochrome, subdued, low-intensity, and mute aesthetic of the elite. Moreover, Rasquachismo is not just the extravagant aesthetic sensibility of the Chicano working class; it is also a form of survival, affirmation, and resistance against Anglo domination and oppression.

In “Domesticana: The Sensibility of Chicana Rasqua-chismo,” the artist and theorist Amalia Mesa-Bains broadens the definition of Rasquachismo by introducing Domesticana as a paradoxical neologism critiquing patriarchal ideology and the subjugation of women in the home. Thus, Mesa-Bains's Domesticana becomes the hermeneutical key for interpreting the works of Chicana artists like Yolanda M. López, Ester Hernández, and Alma Lopéz. These artists reconceive in art form the theological significance of Guadalupe and appropriate the image for Chicanas in their everyday struggle for liberation. For them, the image of a passive Virgen de Guadalupe standing high on a pedestal, unmoved by male-dominated structures of oppression is not a liberating image. These artists subvert the patriarchal stronghold on the image by visually making radical feminist theological statements on canvas.

Yolanda López, Ester Hernández, and Alma López portray Guadalupe in their own images. Theologically, for example, in Mark's Gospel 8:29, Jesus asks his disciples, “who do you say that I am?” The image of Guadalupe poses for them the same question. Who is Guadalupe for us? Their answer: she is a powerful woman who leaves her niche and runs to our aid; she is a seamstress who toils in a sweatshop to feed her family; she is a grandmother filled with knowledge and wisdom; she is a woman (in high heels with her traditional dress cut below the knees) who walks with us in our journey; and when provoked, she is a woman who puts on her karate uniform to fight our battles. In short, Guadalupe is not distant and aloof but here with us de carne y hueso (in flesh and blood).

Unlike that of Yolanda López and Ester Hernández, Alma López's portrayal of Guadalupe called “Our Lady” is highly rasquache. Alma López's digital photo art of “Our Lady” is a photographic montage of performance artist Raquel Salinas (as Guadalupe) dressed in a bikini adorned with roses; similarly, at “Our Lady's” feet, Raquel Gutierrez's nude photo replaces the angel and appears from the waist up with stretched-out arms holding the crescent moon above her shoulders. Gutierrez's angelic wings resemble those of a monarch butterfly as her torso disappears just below the breasts. The sun, the moon, and the flowers around the image are shown in a backdrop resembling Guadalupe's traditional dress and iconography, yet the robe design covering the body of “Our Lady” bears a likeness to an ancient Mexican goddess imagery (see to view “Our Lady” by Alma Lopez).

Alma López credits Sandra Cisneros's essay, “Guadalupe the Sex Goddess,” for her interpretation of Guadalupe. Cisneros provides a stunning critique of patriarchal Mexican culture and Catholicism. She recounts being a stranger to her own body, especially to her genitals; religion and culture instilled pangs of guilt and shame over losing her virginity or exploring her sexuality, and manipulated the image of Guadalupe to control and repress Chicanas' sexual desires by following la Virgen's example as a virginally pure woman and mother.

This unhealthy, destructive, and oppressive self-image internalized by Chicanas is what the artworks of Alma López, Yolanda López, and Ester Hernández subvert. Throughout the history of Mariology there is a “docetic” tendency to spiritualize the humanity of Mary to the extent that she only seems or appears to be human. For these artists, their artwork is not only a subversive political act against patriarchy and women's oppression but also an antidocetic theological statement interpreting the divine in their own image: as a woman with power, knowledge, and wisdom—that is, as a woman like themselves.

Bibliography and More Information about Virgen de Guadalupe

Alvarez Cuauhtemoc, Juan. “The Lord Became Lady: A Chicano Theological Interpretation of Our Lady of Guadalupe.” Swedish Missiological Themes 92, no. 2 (2004): 195–226.
Cisneros, Sandra. “Guadalupe the Sex Goddess.” In Goddess of the Americas: Writings on the Virgin of Guadalupe, edited by Ana Castillo, 46–51. New York: Riverhead, 1996.
Elizondo, Virgil. Guadalupe: Mother of the New Creation. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1997.
Gaspar de Alba, Alicia. Chicano Art: Inside/Outside the Master's House, Cultural Politics and the CARA Exhibition. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.
León-Portilla, Miguel. Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind. Translated by Jack Emory Davis. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963.
León-Portilla, Miguel, ed. Fifteen Poets of the Aztec World. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.
León-Portilla, Miguel. Tonantzin Guadalupe: Pensamiento Náhuatl y Mensaje Cristiano en el “Nican Mopohua.” Mexico City: Fond de Cultura Económica, 2000.
Lockhart, James. The Nahuas after the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992.
Lundberg, Magnus. Unification and Conflict: The Church Politics of Alonso de Montúfar OP, Archbishop of Mexico, 1554–1572. Lund, Sweden: Lund University Department of Theology and Religious Studies, 2002.
Mesa-Bains, Amalia. “Domesticana: The Sensibility of Chicana Rasquachismo.” In Chicana Feminism: A Critical Reader, edited by Gabriela F. Arredondo, Aída Hurtado, Norma Klahn, Olga Nájera-Ramírez, and Patricia Zavella, 298–315. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003.
Laso de la Vega, Luis. The Story of Guadalupe: Luis Laso de la Vega's Huei tlamahuiçoltica of 1649. Edited and translated by Lisa Sousa, Stafford Poole, and James Lockhart. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998.
Ybarra-Frausto, Tomas. “Rasquachismo: A Chicano Sensibility.” In Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965–1985, edited by Richard Griswold del Castillo, Teresa McKenna, and Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano, 155–162. Los Angeles: Wight Art Gallery, 1991.
See also Altares and Marianismo.

Juan Alvarez Cuauhtemoc


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