La Virgen de Guadalupe, or the Virgin of Guadalupe, first appeared to an indigenous man named Juan Diego in 1531, speaking to him in his native Nahuatl language and asking him to build a chapel in her name. When Juan Diego reported the request of La Virgen to a Catholic bishop, he demanded proof of her apparition. Per La Virgen’s instructions, Juan Diego gathered roses he found on the hilltop in his tilma, a cloak made of cactus fiber, and returned to the bishop. Upon opening the fabric, they discovered the beautiful image of La Virgen imprinted on the tilma exactly as Juan Diego had described her.

The tilma, which hangs in the Basilica de Santa María de Guadalupe today, has been the subject of scientific research, debate and religious devotion since the 16th century. Scientists have found no evidence of brush strokes on the tilma, declaring that coloration of the fabric does not contain any known animal or mineral elements. In 1921, when an anti-clerical radical set off a bomb in the basilica, the tilma remained unscathed, reinforcing the miraculous narrative of La Virgen.

“Guadalupe has been used alternatively, and sometimes simultaneously, as a symbol of liberation as well as one of accommodation and control,” writes expert on Marian imagery Jeanette Favrot Peterson, in “The Virgin of Guadalupe: Symbol of Conquest or Liberation?,” published by the College Art Association.

The similarities between La Virgen and native mother goddesses as well as her depiction as a dark-skinned woman facilitated the massive conversion of indigenous communities to Catholicism, serving as a key element in the spread of a hegemonic religion and maintaining the established colonial hierarchy dependent on the subordination of native populations. Even the usage of La Virgen’s image by creole insurgents such as Fr. Miguel Hidalgo during the war for Mexican independence in 1810 represents an attempt to manipulate the popular masses in the fight against Spanish colonialism.

It would not be until the social reform movements of the 20th century, such as those led by Emiliano Zapata in Mexico or César Chávez and Dolores Huerta in the American Southwest, that La Virgen was more actively used as an inclusive symbol of liberation in solidarity with oppressed communities.

Many emphasize the pre-Columbian roots of La Virgen as a source of subversion within sometimes-suffocating community norms or religious doctrine.

In her book “Borderlands, La Frontera,” Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldúa writes, “Guadalupe has been used by the church to mete out institutionalized oppression: to placate the Indians and mexicanos and Chicanos,” even “de-sexing” Guadalupe by erasing her indigenous origins in the Mexica mother goddesses Tonantzin and Coatlalopeuh.

According to Sandra Cisneros, author of “The House on Mango Street,” “She is a face for a god without a face, an indigena for a god without ethnicity, a female deity for a god who is genderless, but I also understand that for her to approach me, for me to finally open the door and accept her, she had to be a woman like me,” reflecting the manner in which Chicanas in particular have reclaimed and reinterpreted La Virgen as an act of self-affirmation.

As a white woman, I have not lived the experiences of people of Latinx, Chicanx and indigenous backgrounds, whom La Virgen has often aided in their struggles against oppression or for self-identification. But as I stared up at the tilma during my visit to the Basilica de Santa María de Guadalupe and processed the immense power of La Virgen, I cried, deeply moved by her ability to provide marginalized individuals with a revolutionary, loving space both within and beyond the walls of the Catholic Church.

Raised in an interreligious household but more familiar with the tenets of Catholic doctrine, I am frustrated by the patriarchal structure of the Church and the whiteness of Georgetown’s mainstream Catholic community, which fails to magnify the voices of communities of color or engage with the historically oppressive relationship between Latinx individuals and the Catholic faith that began with the violent conquest of the Americas. As an indigenous woman venerated by millions, La Virgen’s existence disrupts traditional Catholic spaces.

In my experience with Catholicism, a faith I have grown to love deeply despite my frustration with the Church, I have never focused on the Virgin as a liberating figure. But my brief glimpse of the tilma has provided me with a new interpretation of the Marian figure — one that “binds, contradicts, and explores intersectionality at its core,” as Salvadoran congressional candidate Wendy Carrillo says, in a celebration of duality and “the divine that exists within.”

Grace Laria is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. This is the third installment of Por Otro Lado.

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