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CURRENT ISSUE:  November 22, 2010
VOL. 48, NO. 20   •   Oakland, CA
Other front page stories
Nativity tradition, entertainment, prayer mark holiday event
Interfaith group opens new dialog
Homage or disrespect: Images of
Our Lady of Guadalupe proliferate

Our Lady of Guadalupe is honored in an annual parade down International Boulevard to the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, above. Many people are personalizing her image on T-shirts (first photo below) and in tattoos (second photo below).
José Luis Aguirre photo
José Luis Aguirre photo

Photo courtesy Jason Stein

It’s common to see images of Our Lady of Guadalupe on T-shirts, watches, bracelets, key chains, paintings, murals and even tattoos. Devotion to the patron saint of Mexico, whose feast day is Dec. 12, is strong among Latin American Catholics.

Use of those images “is an expression that brings the sacred to everyday life,” said Theologian Nancy Pineda Madrid, professor at the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry at Boston College. “Having her with us is a way to feel more secure, more confident in life, especially when we have problems or are in danger,” Pineda Madrid added.

Father Ricardo Chavez shares that view. He is an expert on the Guadalupe devotion, and retired this year from St. Peter Martyr of Verona parish in Pittsburgh. “I think any use of the image of the Virgin is based on our belief and hope that she is always with us, especially in difficult times when we feel the oppression of society or any group,” he said.

When Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego in 1531, the community was living in very difficult times. It was the vision and message of the mother of God who brought them hope, Father Chavez said.

“On one side the Virgin has been a religious icon and it shows the fervor and faith that people have in it since they started to worship in the 16th century. But she has also been a political symbol,” said Maria Luisa Ruiz, professor of modern languages at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga and a student of Mexican popular culture.

“The priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla used the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe as their standard for the battles of independence. During the Mexican revolution her image was also used by Emiliano Zapata and other revolutionaries. And today, almost 500 years later, her presence remains important as it inspires political activism,” Ruiz said.

“It became an active image used to fight for the basic rights of individuals, and marginalized groups were inspired to use it as an emblem of their struggle,” she said.

In the 1960s, the image was used to help create a more equitable workplace through Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. The founders of the United Farm Workers union used the image of the Virgin in their activism for the rights of farm workers.

“The Virgin of Guadalupe has been an icon in the peasants’ struggle,” says Juana Alicia Montoya, a former UFW member who worked with Cesar Chavez. “It symbolizes a humble woman, a farmer and is very strong,” said Montoya, an educator and one of the most recognized Chicano artists for her murals involving the Virgin of Tepeyac (the name of the hill where she appeared).

“We look to her as a woman leader and that comes through the leadership of Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the farm workers union. That spurred the Chicano to analyze our role as women . . . and we can have a role in the liberation of the people in the mass struggle, challenging our traditional role,” she said.

Many people have claimed the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe as their own, Montoya said. “It does not belong only to the Catholic Church but belongs to different groups, unions, feminists, merchants; they all want to use her, even drug dealers and gangs seeking protection.”

Jason Stein, who works at a tattoo shop in San Francisco, has made at least 40 tattoos of Our Lady of Guadalupe in recent years, mostly on Latino men. “It’s a very popular image. The person can be Catholic, Jewish or any religion, but they request it because it is a very powerful symbol,” he said.

Stein says many of his clients want the tattoo because they believe in the tradition and want to show their devotion. Others use it as a symbol of power, but he discounted that its use was linked to gangs.

Although the Church has not taken an official position against such tattoos, Pineda Madrid says it has become a popular religious trend for people to take this sacred image into their daily lives.

“Don’t think we are promoting the tattoos. We respect the sacredness and are discerning about how we use the images. A soldier in the war, for instance, might have the Virgin of Guadalupe tattooed on him because he seeks her protection, but it isn’t the same with those who would use the images to do evil,” she said.

This 2001 6' by 9' handmade ceramic tile mural of the Virgin of Liberty was made for a private garden installation by the artist Juana Alicia Montoya.
Photo courtesy Juana Alicia Montoya

Using images to help people build confidence and promote humanity is good and the Church supports that, but it’s unacceptable to use it to destroy, diminish or not respect what is sacred.

Father Chavez is against tattoos, “not because they are good or bad but because I personally do not like them,” he said. “Maybe for some it is an exaggeration but for others a tattoo of the Virgin has the same meaning as a painting, but it must be done for something good,” he added.

Ruiz, the St. Mary’s College scholar, believes these tattoos are very personal homage to the Virgin and in no way are mockery or disrespect. “The fact that young people make use of tattoos does not detract from the sacredness. That personalized image is part of everyday life. It is a very personal connection,” she said.

Juan Forero had an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe tattooed on his arm in gratitude after his mother survived a high-risk surgery. “I promised the Virgin I would not separate myself from her if my mother survived. Now I carry her with me all the time and I always ask her to protect us.”

The artist Montoya said each person should decide how and whether to decorate his or her body. “For example, for men and women who are imprisoned for unfair reasons, a tattoo of the Virgin can give them strength to survive the conditions of the prison. Many tattoo themselves to survive. It makes them strong when they can sense the presence of a spiritual being,” she said.

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