(Essay) Guadalupe by Sara Wright


SW Guadalupe
Photo by Sara Wright

Last year on December 12th, Guadalupe’s Feast Day, I lit the retablo that sits in the one dark corner of the living room, yet I couldn’t feel Her Presence, this Lady who unites all peoples and is often called the Mother of the Americas. As I gazed up at her dark Indian face sculpted out of wood, cloaked in a blue green garment and held aloft by what appeared to be a young Indian boy (this figure was an angel, I learned later), a profound yearning sprung out of the deepest recesses of my heart, much as I imagined the spring that had once bubbled out of the barren ground at Guadalupe’s feet.

I had first discovered Guadalupe while living in Tucson Arizona. In the rural desert chapels I often found small statues of the Black Madonna behind the churches, some with candles or flowers spread around on earthen ground as offerings. What I found curious was that some of these small statues were black while others clearly Indian. I wondered what this could mean. Inside, magnificent images or statues of Mary adorned the altars. It was in the streets of downtown Tucson that I first began to answer my own question. Images of Guadalupe appeared on candles, cloth, mugs, and retablos that had made their way up from Mexico to be sold during the street fairs. It occurred to me that some of the statues I had found behind the Catholic churches in rural areas must have been statues of Guadalupe.

Guadalupe’s story, although differing in details is a simple one. What follows is one version. In 1531 a poor Indian peasant had a vision of a Lady, also Indian, who appeared out of a cloud and was surrounded by a mandorla of light on the hill of Tepeyac (located outside of Mexico city). Birdsong accompanied the vision. She spoke to him in Natuatl, his native dialect asking him to tell the Bishop to build her a chapel on this hill. Juan Diego duly went to the Bishop with the story but was not believed. The Bishop needed a sign. Next, Juan’s uncle became deathly ill and Juan went again to Mexico City for help and once again the Lady of Light appeared to him on the way telling him that his uncle was healed. Juan confessed the Bishop’s request to her, but the Lady already knew and told him to gather Castilian roses, jasmine and other flowers, none of which could grow on the barren rocky hill of Tepeyac. She arranged the flowers in in his cloak or tilma and instructed Juan to take them to the Bishop as the sign he requested. When Juan opened the cloak before the Bishop on December 12th, the fresh heavily fragrant flowers fell to the floor. More astonishing was that on the rough fabric of the tilma was an image of Guadalupe. A chapel was soon built on the spot. Curiously, this chapel was built over a shrine to the “Mother of the Gods” who the Indian people called Tonantzin. It is said that many miracles continue to occur here and that a clear spring appeared after one of the Lady’s miraculous appearances. The image of Guadalupe on Juan’s cloak is presently housed in the Basilica of Our Lady (Mary) in Mexico City, and is one of the most visited holy places in the world.

It wasn’t known until recently that the image had originally included a crown that had been removed. (The frame surrounding the image had been lowered so the erasure was obscured). Guadalupe’s picture has also been modified in other ways; the Mandorla, the stars on her cloak, the moon under her feet and the angel supporting her were apparently added later. Curiously, when infrared imaging was done it was noted that the original image was neither cracked nor flaked while later additions – the gold leaf, the silver of the moon – showed wear. The upper two thirds of Guadalupe’s image show no imperfections.

Although it is obvious that the image of Guadalupe was deliberately tampered with to liken her to the Virgin Mary (she eventually became a Catholic saint), I always believed the two figures were not the same.  The absence of the original crown remains an intriguing mystery. Perhaps my Native American heritage has biased my thinking and my heart but I cannot ignore the intuitive sense that this Lady is the Mother of the Americas, and indeed, to Indians at least, she is a figure that unites all peoples, and for me this includes all animals and plants.

I bought my retablo in Mexico after living in Tucson, fascinated by the peyote- like flowers, and the ayahuasca leaves that adorned the outside of the little shrine. My Guadalupe wears a necklace of coral that belonged to my mother, part of a rosary (I removed Christ on the cross) that belonged to my father, an Indian petrographed stone that belonged to my brother, a small deerskin bag that contains a lock of hair from my first grandson, and a crystal necklace of mine that reflects her crimson lights. Above Guadalupe’s retablo I have placed a pair of deer antlers, and many kinds of bird feathers adorn the small shelf beneath her along with a stunning beaded antelope made by the Huichol Indians of Mexico. During the winter I light her every morning just after making my fire in the stove, and over the years her comforting warmth and presence has helped me deal with increasingly harsh winters, bare and now treeless granite mountains, and monochromatic gray or snow – laden skies.

It is deeply troubling to me that in this last year and a half I seem to have lost my ability to feel connected to her in any meaningful way. She has been my mother, as well as the mother of the animals (wild and tame) and plants I have such an intimate connection with that I feel totally lost without her. I didn’t realize until this writing that for all these years she has been the tie that binds me to myself, to her, to nature. I also keep wondering if this sense of loss is connected to the Native American “Owner of the Animals” often portrayed as a bear or a deer depending on the tribe, who I intuit may be calling in her kin to leave this once beautiful wilderness area because it offers so little in way of protection and food, having been taken over by humans and their destructive machines. I have loved this patch of earth for many years but the character of the forest and field is changing, as I am. This leaves me with two questions: is there any place I can go to find Guadalupe again and, more urgently, why has she abandoned me? Inside I feel like I am a desert without the possibility of flowering. My life has become a longing to live again…

And yet, yesterday after standing in front of Guadalupe in my sorrow and with the two questions hanging in the air like ghostly apparitions, I looked out the window and there was an eight – point buck staring in at me. The unlikely appearance of a single buck in mid afternoon struck a deep chord resonating through my body because my Guadalupe wears her buck’s antlers like a crown.

Nature was speaking to me, answering both of my questions at once, I thought in wonder. Guadalupe is still listening and perhaps one day I will feel Her Presence moving through me when I once again find “home.”


Read Mago Contributor Sara Wright.