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Portraits of our lady.

When I visited a nursery in Tepoztlan, not far from Mexico City, a young man in his 20s, who was selling cacti and pansies, caught my attention thanks to the large quantity of tattoos on his body. I suspected that he also had one of the Virgin of Guadalupe. He pulled up his T-shirt to show me his torso, and there it was stretching from his collarbone to his narrow waist.

"Guadalupe is in my body and my soul," said this young gardener, Juan Diego, named after the saint before whom the Virgin made her first appearance.

This Virgin is also found on the back of many a Mexican prisoner who wants to avoid getting stabbed in a brawl with fellow inmates and on the dusty backs of illegal immigrants who cross the U.S. border, risking their lives to secure a better future. Guadalupe accompanies them northward, marked on their bodies like a shield that protects them from harm. Nobody attacks the Virgin, as nobody would offend her image.

Summoning the Virgin can perform miracles. One story about a kidnapping in Mexico City moved me in particular. After weeks of negotiations between the family of an 8-year-old and his captor, the boy's desperate young mother shouted into the telephone, "In the name of the Virgin of Guadalupe, return my son!"

The kidnapper asked her, "Are you a Guadalupana, Senora?" That afternoon the child was on his way back to his parents.

The Virgin of Guadalupe defines Mexico. She is the flag, representing Mexicans' aspirations; she is the country's most important icon, the essence that binds it together. She accompanied Zapata during the Mexican Revolution just as she accompanies her many believers today in their everyday struggles. Guadalupe has become a symbol of Mexican national identity. She is larger than life and is found in churches and most homes; her image is in offices, restaurants, markets, nightclubs, parking lots, and hospitals; she is in purses, on street corners and construction sites, and taxi drivers carry her in their wallets for protection. She can be seen at La Quebrada in Acapulco, where divers kneel down in front of her before plunging 150 feet into the sea, and near those cliffs children go to see her through the glass-bottom boats, where there is an effigy of her underwater. She is found on the T-shirts of the Monarch soccer team in Michoacan, as well as on the T-shirt of the rock star Alex Lora.

Guadalupe has ruled variously as La Virgencita, La Madrecita, and La Morenita ever since she appeared to Juan Diego in 1531. As every Mexican knows, the Virgin commanded Juan Diego, a simple Indian laborer, to build a church in her honor on the hill of Tepeyac, north of Mexico City. The Virgin miraculously imprinted her image on Juan Diego's tilma, a cloth made from maguey fiber, which today is venerated in her famous Basilica of Guadalupe. The Virgin showered fragrant roses upon the wintery hillside and convinced the Spanish bishop Juan de Zumarraga of her identity; millions of pilgrims have prayed to her ever since.

The myth of the Virgin was merged with the story of Tonantzin, the pre-Colombian fertility goddess, a common practice used to convert indigenous peoples, conflating pagan deities and Catholic beliefs. The Virgin, who is also known as Tonantzin-Guadalupe, then assumed all the qualities associated with the pre-conquest Earth Mother, though believers prayed to her for a variety of reasons, not just fertility or the fecundity of the land.

Twenty million people visit the Basilica of Guadalupe northeast of Mexico City every year, particularly on December 12, her feast day. They come in processions from all over Latin America--walking or crawling on bleeding knees, by bus, bicycle, and on the subway--to join in this celebration. At midnight the basilica rocks and rolls when famous singers such as Maria Victoria, Lucero, Guadalupe Pineda, and Ramon Vargas sing "Las Mananitas" to the sound of a mariachi.

The true miracle of the Virgin of Guadalupe is her overwhelming presence in the hearts of the Mexican people, millions of whom have tolerated the intolerable only because of their faith and devotion. She is Holy Mother to all Latinos and Chicanos--abroad her image covers entire walls side by side with that of Michael Jackson, Oscar Chavez, and other hugely popular artists. And after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, she could be found in the ruins of the Twin Towers.

Led by the renowned sprinter Ana Gabriela Guevara, family members of illegal U.S. immigrants jogged from the Basilica of Guadalupe all the way to New York, where they sought the legalization of 4.5 million undocumented Mexicans. The runners transported the images of the Virgin and St. Juan Diego across the border, concluding their 3,127-mile journey at St. Patrick's Cathedral on Dec. 12, 2002.

Guadalupe's influence on every aspect of Latin American culture is undeniable: Her image graces fine and folk art alike. And reverence for her extends across the world: Pope John Paul II had a profound respect for the Virgin of Guadalupe, and he came to Mexico to canonize Juan Diego in July 2002.

With her image stamped in our hearts, bodies, and thoughts, Mexicans carry out Guadalupe's will as expressed in the Nican Mopohua, the Aztec tale of the apparitions of Tepeyac, written by Antonio Valeriano in 1544.

In the words of the Virgin, "I very much desire that they build my sacred little house here, where I may express and make self-evident all my love, compassion, help, and protection. Because in truth, I am your merciful mother, to you and to the inhabitants of this land and to all who love me, those who seek me, those who trust me."

MARIE-PIERRE COLLE PHOTOS FROM GUADALUPE: BODY AND SOUL (VENDOME PRESS)

Excerpted with permission from Guadalupe: Body and Soul (Vendome Press, 2005). The book was based on an exhibition of photo organized by Marie-Pierre Colle and displayed along the Reforma, Mexico City's main thoroughfare. Colle died of pancreatic cancer in the spring of 2004.
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Author:Colle, Marie-Pierre
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Dec 1, 2005
Words:1009
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