Today is Guadalupe’s Feast day. As so many people do, I feel a special affinity with her. So much so that several years ago I collaborated with my fellow poet and author Kathryn Smith in writing, producing and co-starring in a two-woman show about the life and time of our favorite saint. We called it A Rose in Winter. It had three acts – the first dealt with the history of the Virgin Goddess, tracing her roots back to ancient Egypt and the Goddess Isis , then forward through the Moorish occupation of Spain, the appearance of the Black Madonnas in Europe and the coming of the conquistadores to the New World. The second act was a telling of the Guadalupe story from the point of view of Juan Diego’s older sister. The third act consisted of a series of vignettes depicting Lupe’s role in history up through modern times.
Kathryn and I were guided and counseled by Guadalupe’s presence throughout the process, though neither of us are Catholics or even believers. The Virgin has never been about belief – she has always operated on faith.
The longer I live the less use I have for beliefs. They seem to be closed systems, self-perpetuating and contained – doomed to die an entropic death. Faith on the other hand is not concretized needs no rules or explanations. It defies dogma and refuses to deify or inscribe anything in stone. This is the appeal of Guadalupe. She appeared to a man who could not read or write the language of his conquerors. Her story had to be transmitted orally. Whispered lip to ear, the tale spread like wildfire until, within ten years, the entire indigenous population was paying homage to the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The Spanish loved it of course. They co-opted the story and ran with it, but they never understood that Guadalupe’s power arose from an organic home-grown connection already long-established between her people and their land. Guadalupe appeared on a sacred hill formerly dedicated to the goddess Tonantzin, the maiden aspect of Coatlicue, the Aztec Mother Goddess, associated with the moon. (Notice Guadalupe stands on a crescent moon connecting her with other Maidens of mythology like Artemis, for instance.) Her appeal to the indigenous population had much to do with her Native American appearance and the fact that she stood, like an equal, to speak to Juan Diego. In other words, though a Goddess , she came among her people humbly, as one of their own.
It is no accident that her banner has led the fight for freedom throughout the Americas. She has become a symbol for liberation theology and social justice. And though her followers so often pit themselves against the establishment, the Church itself has had to bow to her authority and power, naming her Patron Saint of the Americas.
Her appeal is universal cutting across all barriers of class, education or wealth. Her image appears everywhere – tattooed on bodies, enshrined in bathtubs and rock gardens, carved into trees, painted across walls, embossed into t-shirts, coffee cups and wallpaper. It stands for protection. It stands for comfort and home. Somehow, no matter how often it’s repeated, the image never becomes banal of loses its power to please.
Within Guadalupe’s new ugly, hot, and uncharming modern Basilica faith becomes palpable and impossible to resist. It breaks down the defenses of logic and rationality, it strips you bare, leaving room at last for wonder and awe. Riding the moving sidewalk past Juan Diego’s cloak, pressed subway-tight between sweating human bodies. I swear I smelled roses in the air.