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Tucson Weekly Virgin Territory

The Virgin Of Guadalupe reigns supreme in the Southwest.

By Margaret Regan

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  THE VIRGIN OF Guadalupe is everywhere in the barrio: on the video store wall, in the front yards and even on the stark face of an electrical generating station.

Last week, just a few days before her December 12 feast day, artist Antonio Pazos led a tour group to assorted barrio murals, nearly all of them featuring some version of Mexico's beloved patron saint. The blustery day was so cold that the barrio houses seemed to shiver behind their chain link and you wouldn't have been surprised to see the placid Guadalupes pulling their star-dappled mantles tighter over their thin pink dresses. They didn't, but the painted Guadalupe at the electrical station was a little out of the ordinary. She appeared as both the Aztec goddess Tonantzín, adorned with feathers and shiny gold headplate, and as her usual familiar self, brown-skinned, not European but definitely Christian.

Down on South Tenth Avenue, the station is near the 27th Street dividing line between rival gangs, Pazos said. Along about 1993, Tucson Electric Power officials, frustrated by the weekly graffiti rituals of local teens, hired Pazos to get the warring kids to paint murals on the station's walls instead. What they got for their trouble was a block-long painting that is nothing less than a rewriting of the history of the Conquest of Mexico from the viewpoint of the conquered, black death ships and all.

But one panel on the mural, what you might call a panel of reconciliation, features Montezuma and Cortez bowing courteously to each other. The two ladies, Guadalupe and Tonantzín, stand at either side, symbolizing European and indigenous culture.

"She is the dearest of symbols in Mexico," Pazos explained. "To me she represents Tonantzín. To my father, Guadalupe."

Guadalupe has long been seen by Mexican and Chicano activists as a sort of reincarnation of the earlier Aztec goddess, whose name means Reverend Mother. In part, she stands for a wily allegiance to the old religion carried out under the unknowing noses of the Catholic priests. The story goes that an Indian, Juan Diego, was visited by the beautiful brown-skinned lady in 1531. The skeptical Spanish bishop didn't believe him, until Juan Diego unfurled his cloak to release a cascade of out-of-season roses. The cloak itself was miraculously imprinted with the image of the lady. The bishop took her to be the Virgin Mary but, the story goes, the Indians knew better, recognizing her for their own goddess.

The most recent scholarship, contained in Stafford Poole's book Our Lady of Guadalupe, however, persuasively argues that the Guadalupe cult was a top-down phenomenon, promulgated by Spanish leaders to win the conversion of Mexican Indians. Nor is there any historical evidence for another staple of the myth: that the Guadalupe basilica was built on an earlier cult site of Tonantzín's.

But on some level, the historical facts don't matter as much as the enduring emotional attachment to the story. Cesar Chavez effectively used Guadalupe's image on United Farmworkers banners, invoking her compassion for the sufferings of the exploited. And she continues to work in the modern world as a potent, and flexible, symbol for everything from ethnic identity to the eternal feminine, as an intriguing show at José Galvez Gallery vividly demonstrates.

The invitational exhibition, Imágenes de la Virgen de Guadalupe, offers some 19 works by Hispanic and Anglo artists, and their Guadalupes are all over the map. There's a gangster chick Guadalupe, a Mother Earth Guadalupe, a skeletal Guadalupe, even a Hindu Guadalupe. There's a Guadalupe fashioned out of cut paper, or papel picado, a quilted Guadalupe on cloth, and Guadalupes created by everything from cameras to computers to old-fashioned oils.

Margaret Garcia, a Los Angeles painter who has shown at Galvez before, has created perhaps the most traditional Virgin. Her large oil on canvas, "La Virgen y Las Rosas," has the conventional Guadalupe at the center, but her totemic roses have grown to wondrous size, crowding her out for space. The swelling red blossoms celebrate the bright colors and giant paper flowers of Mexican folk art, and just perhaps invoke a pre-Christian association of flowers with fertility. Catherine Eyde transforms one icon into another with her "Virgin and Juan Diego," an oil on wood. The Virgin of Guadalupe becomes the Nativity Madonna, scooping up Juan Diego and cradling him in her arms like baby Jesus.

Gonzalo Espinosa, who works in an art-based youth program in South Tucson, evokes contemporary barrio life in his "Super Lupe." She may not be in a low-rider, but his Virgin rides the hood of an old Volkswagen decorated with fringe, and she stands on a base painted in the red, green and white of the Mexican flag. Cristina Cardenas reworks a cliché from advertising art of the '30s: Her Virgin is a beautiful, water-color señorita gilded with hothouse flowers.

Ezequiel Esparza's sexy Virgin is easily the most outrageous. His Guadalupe is a babe in a bikini and she's flirtatiously pulling off the skimpy bottoms, made out of her usual green star-studded cloth. No doubt he's taking aim at the Church's traditional contempt for female sexuality. Alfred Quiróz, a UA prof, has made a political statement in his "Cliché": His skeleton Virgin is a victim of U.S. economic imperialism. Her flames are colored in the red-and-white stripes of the American flag, and dollar signs float around her skull.

The non-Hispanics also tackled the visually rich subject with relish. Judith Golden made an eerie photograph in silvery blacks and gray, picturing a young veiled woman who holds the Virgin's typical crescent moon in her lap. Maurice Grossman created a novel three-dimensional piece in ceramics and wood: a white cutout porcelain of the Virgin casts a shadow against the rough wood of the shrine-like background.

L.A. artist Michael Walker made perhaps the most heartfelt tribute to the hard-working mothers of the barrio, who may well be Guadalupe's most devoted fans. In "Planchando, Pensando" (ironing, thinking), a painting scanned into a computer and printed, the Virgin is hard at work ironing in her kitchen. Her crown is on her head, but her face is middle-aged, lined with years of hope and worry. She takes comfort in the family "photo" on the wall behind her, a painting of her husband Joseph and young Jesus, but like any good mother this household saint is taking no chances. A candle burns brightly in front of them, ensuring their safe return home.

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