Key Secondary Sources: Gómez-Peña piece

Guillermo Gómez-Peña, "The Two Guadalupes,"
in Goddess of the Americas, Writings on the Virgin of Guadalupe, Ana Castillo, ed. (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) 178-183.

When Ana Castillo first asked me to write a text about the Virgin of Guadalupe, I must confess that I was somewhat troubled by the idea. Why? Growing up under the agnostic fog of the seventies counterculture in Mexico City, I learned that religion was often used as a demagogic tool of control; and that the movimiento guadalupano was essentially a fundamentalist Catholic movement operating out of fear of modernity and change. The Virgin was certainly not aware of the way her powerful image as the "Mother of all Mexicans" was being used by zealots. She didn't know, and still doesn't know that, in her name, many people in Mexico have been forced into social submission, political passivity, and fear: fear of religious and cultural difference, fear of sex and "sin," fear of eternal punishment, fear of contradicting the majority, fear of being an inadequate Mexican. And ultimately, fear of metaphysical orphanhood, of not belonging to the great and harmonious Mexican family.

Mexico's ruling party, the PRI, has always been keenly aware of the importance of nurturing a mythology capable of unifying an otherwise extremely diverse society. In the official Olympus of la mexicanidad, "la Reina" Guadalupe stands proud next to Moctezuma, Cuauhtemoc, Father Hidalgo, Benito Juarez, Emiliano Zapata, and a few other mighty Mexicans. And together, they guard our identity, our national character, and our sovereignty. Again, la virgen doesn't know it.

In the late 1970s, I realized that although I was a strong critic of institutionalized Catholicism, whether I liked it or not I was culturally and ethnically a Catholic, and that my (ex-Catholic) agnosticism was merely the other side of the same coin. In other words, five hundred years of Mexican Catholicism couldn't simply be erased with political awareness. When I began to write poetry and practice performance art, inadvertently Catholic images and ritual ceremonies began to appear in my work, right next to my confrontational politics, my pagan (and eclectic) spirituality, and my wild sexual explorations. Despite a conscious rejection of formalized religion, my sensibility and my symbolic languages were soaked in the pathos, the high drama, and the excessive aesthetics of Mexican Catholicism. And this of course got me into serious trouble.

In late 1983, I was abruptly made aware of the dangers of recontextualizing Catholic imagery, especially that of "the Chida One." My performance troupe, Poyesis Genetica, and I were rehearsing a piece titled "Ocnoceni" (Nahuatl for "in some other place") at the Casa de la Cultura in Tijuana. In one scene, a slide of the Virgin of Guadalupe was projected onto the white hábito of a gigantic nun (on stilts). In the piece, the nun suddenly broke into a sweaty tropical dance, and began doing a striptease. The night before the opening, during dress rehearsal, a group of conservative-looking women in their fifties sat quietly in the back row of the theater. We didn't pay much attention to them. They stayed for an hour and left. The next morning when my colleagues and I went back to the theater we were told by the security guards what had happened. A group of militant guadalupanos, tipped off by the women who witnessed the rehearsal, had broken into the theater at night and trashed the set. They took a gallon of theater blood and painted religious slogans all over the floor and back wall. The message was clear: You simply don't mess around with the Great Mother of Mexico. We cleaned up the mess in silence. Despite the chilling effect this incident had on us, we had to open the show and perform it for four consecutive nights.

In 1987, an artist named De la Rosa had a more frightening experience. He opened a show at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City with collages in which he superimposed pop cultural images onto Catholic iconography. One of the pieces was a Virgin of Guadalupe with the face of Marilyn Monroe. Another one presented a Christ preceding the Last Supper with the face of legendary Mexican actor and ranchero singer Pedro Infante. Soon after the opening, a crowd of fierce guadalupanos stormed into the museum and demanded the removal of the director. It was election time, and in order to appease the conservative opposition, the Mexican government complied and fired the troubled museum director. It was a sad day for Mexican freedom of speech.

Effectively, la Guadalupe is an untouchable icon. If we research the myriad chistes (irreverent jokes) with Catholic references, we can find Jesus Christ, Mary Magdalena, the apostles, and even the Pope engaging in outrageous behavior, but la Virgen is conspicuously absent. There might only be one or two chistes about her, and they are pretty tame.

When I came to California in 1978, my relationship with what I saw as official Mexican iconography began to change. Suddenly the political and religious images that I used to question as icons of authority and as artificial generators of mexicanidad began to transform themselves into symbols of contestation against the dominant Anglo culture. I also discovered that my Chicano colleagues had a very different connection to Guadalupan imagery. They had expropriated it, reactivated it, recontextualized it, and turned it into a symbol of resistance, something that Mexicans have never been able to fully understand. (Progressive Mexican intellectuals still see Chicanos as naive guadalupanos.) In the Chicano movement, la Virgen was no longer the contemplative mestiza Mother of all Mexicans, but a warrior goddess who blessed the cultural and political weapons of activists and artists. She was against racism, the border patrol, the cops, and supremacist politicians. And in the Chicano feminist Olympus, la Guadalupana stood defiant and compassionate as a symbol of female strength, right next to la Malinche, Frida, Sor Juana, and more recently, Selena. (Again, the Mexican intelligentsia cannot quite comprehend the mysterious connection between these icons, which they find extremely corny.) She was no longer just standing motionless with praying hands and an aloof gaze. She actually walked; she showed up in demonstrations and strikes, and lent her image for barrio murals, album covers, T-shirts, and political posters. She could even sit down and take a break, abandon temporarily her holy diorama and jog, or let a working-class woman temporarily take her place, as in the artwork of Lopez. Clearly Chicanos were able to reinvent and activate the icon of la Guadalupe in a way that would be unthinkable in Mexico. And this became apparent when the Mexican feminist magazine Fem decided to publish on its cover an image of a jogging Guadalupe by Yolanda Lopez. They received several bomb threats and were forced to pull back. It really wasn't until the mid to late 1980s when Mexican artists, mainly the neomexicanista painters, began to use images of Guadalupe in their artwork. And even then, she was merely a decorative and somewhat neutral folk icon; a playful yet depoliticized symbol of mexicanidad. It wasn't a coincidence that some of these painters were heavily promoted by the Mexican government as part of its diplomatic cultural agenda.

My secondary hesitation to write this text was irrational. For years I felt that the mythology of la Guadalupe was an exclusive domain of Chicana artists and writers. Ana spelled out this fear for me "Precisely because of this, I want you to write about it. There is very little writing on la Virgen done by men."

Now that I have accepted the challenge of my literary comadre I am slowly beginning to disentangle my contradictory feelings about Guadalupe. Despite my continuous critique of the way her image has been used by conservative movements, my house in Mexico City is filled with guadalupanobilia Throughout the years, I have collected 3-D portraits, bakery calendars, and electric figurines that light up. I also have key chains, mugs, halo ties, belts, pillows, and even a towel with her image. And every year, on December 11 at midnight, I "religiously" go to the Basilica de Guadalupe to spend the night and witness the arrival of the largest pilgrimage in the Americas. Like every other Mexican, whether I like it nor not, I may suffer from an acute Oedipal complex. Like most agnostic Mexicans, I might in fact be a very religious individual.

With the great spiritual crises of the end of the century, my performance colleagues and I have undertaken a dangerous spiritual challenge to create ritual contexts capable of containing and expressing our fears and contradictions, our political uncertainties and cultural complexities. In the past two years, we have engaged in what appears to be extremely religious/(anti)religious artistic behavior. Verbi gratia: In early 1994, I crucified myself on a twelve-by-sixteen-foot wooden cross dressed as a stereotypical "undocumented bandido," next to my compadre Roberto Sifuentes, who crucified himself as a "generic gang member." In this activist performance piece, Roberto and I were not exactly commemorating the death of Jesus Christ. We were commenting on the climate of xenophobia currently afflicting California, and the fact that Mexican immigrants and Latino youths are being blamed for all social ills and publicly "crucified" by nativist politicians and the mainstream media. With a flyer we asked our audience "to free us from our martyrdom and bring us down from the crosses as an act of political commitment." Mesmerized by the melancholy of the image, it took them over three hours to figure out how to get us down without a ladder. In another project titled "The Temple of Confessions," Roberto and I exhibited ourselves for three-day periods inside Plexiglas boxes as "living (border) saints." We asked our audiences to "confess" to us their innermost fears and desires about Mexico, Mexicans, immigrants, and Spanish language. My colleagues and I have also created performance characters who comment on the great cultural wars of the 1990s, and many of them are religious hybrids chola/nuns, holy gang members, crucified Zapatistas, border shamans, and pop cultural madonnas. In our end-of-the-century mythology, Guadalupe has emerged with an entirely new meaning. She is a media star, "la tele Virgen," an anti-NAFTA heroine, and a pro-immigration activist. And her flamboyant colleagues, Virgins of sorts--del cruce, de la contaminacion, de la crisis de identidad--stand for pertinent political causes.

Understandably, since Proposition 187 passed and California once again became a xenophobic nightmare for Mexican immigrants, there have been several sightings of the Virgin in Mexican barrios. The sense of orphanhood and fragility currently experienced by the Mexican population in the U.S. has increased the faith in her. She simply cannot abandon us. She's got to be on this side of the border; in our own neighborhood and workplace, guarding our vulnerable backs against racist policemen, insensitive employers, and citizen vigilantes.

For the first time in history, the Virgin might have a similar meaning for Mexicans in Mexico. Last December 12, at the basilica, the three million Mexicans who gathered to celebrate la Guadalupe were there with a different purpose than other years. They went to ask her to help them outlive the crises; to fight unemployment, urban violence, and corrupt politicians. They were looking for a highly politicized Virgin. Paradoxically, when my friends and I arrived at the altar, we saw President Zedillo in the first row. And the masses behind were hoping to fight everything he stands for through her.

Today in 1996, I don't think I am more or less "religious" or "spiritual" than I was twenty years ago. I simply think that as a Mexican immigrant in process of Chicanization, I have learned to understand that symbols, no matter how charged they might be, can be emptied out and refilled; that religion in postmodernity is intertwined with pop and mass culture, and that I, as a border citizen, must constantly reinvent my identity using all the elements that my three cultures have provided me with. For this purpose, la Guadalupe has been good to me. She understands my multiple dilemmas and contradictions. She stands next to me on every battlefront. And like my mother, she has the unique capability of making me feel extremely guilty when I fuck up.

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