Guadalupe is everywhere. This depiction of the Virgin Mary hangs on rearview mirrors, splashes across city walls, and illuminates shrines in the most unexpected corners. From Mexico City, to Chicago, to Los Angeles, her image is both sacred and stylish, making its way into pop culture symbolism. Guadalupe is one example of the cultural continuum of goddess worship.
Many indigenous, pagan, and earth-based religions have faded over human history as new empires rise and die; but many have lasted, fusing deep within dominant religions like Catholicism, often leaving their traditions hidden in plain sight. Mexico, one of the many countries colonized by Europe, specifically Spain, experienced a brutal and complicated shift from ancient to modern times. Like most colonized cultures, they were left reaching for their identity. For example, dark, indigenous features were, and still are, criticized, while light, European features are praised.
The Mexican people have had to grapple with who they are and who they desire to be, from within their political borders to the United States. Women in particular carried the burden of this crisis, their bodies often being ground zero for debate. The Spanish raped many indigenous woman, creating a mixed people commonly referred to as mestizo.
Colonized and subjugated people lose their foundation, and the more they fall away from stability, the easier they are to control. The Mexican people were shaken and dominated in many ways. But they found a way to hold on. What they had, specifically, what the women had, was something, or rather, someone, keeping them steady through the system of colonization: the goddess, Guadalupe.
Catholicism introduced the Virgin Mary to the indigenous people, and as they gazed upon her, they found something they recognized. The face of Guadalupe expressed mature eyes and a smile of compassion. She was familiar like the goddesses they knew. The face was particularly moving because they believed that the faces of people revealed their inner workings. Her hands are presented in a manner of offering according to the Indian tradition. Her fingers were shortened to portray Indian fingers, creating the fused image that became so powerful. Aspects of Aztec divinity are evident in her image: stars, sunrays, and the moon. She took hold of their long tradition of goddess worship. The densely indigenous elements of the image of Guadalupe, an image that is still paraded and revered in contemporary religious practice, became a lasting application of spirituality and a guide to liberation.
Before Catholicism, Mexico’s indigenous people had multiple goddesses, each representing essential elements such as water, salt, and food. The relationship of both women and men to these goddesses was very active and involved praise and ritual. They fed the gods and goddesses, and catered to them, building a constant relationship and interaction. This dynamic has carried over into the ways in which Guadalupe is summoned and praised today. Practices such as maintaining a shrine and offering items like flowers, mirror indigenous practices. This exemplifies the fusion of three indigenous elements: feeding the goddess, natural elements, and active worship. The goddess is kept “alive” through worship. As women “feed” the goddess, they also feed themselves.
The placement and presence of Guadalupe is accessible. She is in public spaces and within the home. Many women describe her as a guardian, watching over them. This is the most powerful element of Guadalupe and the goddess presence. The goddess is not only watching over you, she is within you. The goddess is you. This belief system and way of living dares to say that the sacred is everywhere. And that most of all, you are sacred. If you are sacred, then you are liberated. That means freedom under any circumstance.
This dynamic for women is essential to their survival, even though it is so seemingly couvert. Ancient goddess practices explored a completely different form of worship concerning women and their bodies. Women’s bodies were sacred because they were fertile and brought life. The miracle of life was the most revered mystery to indigenous people. The bodies of goddesses were full and celebrated as beautiful, sexual, and sacred.
The combination of those three elements: beautiful, sexual, and sacred, seem to be contradictory in Catholicism and contemporary society. That mentality is one of oppression. Mexican women, and women in general, are put under dangerous scrutiny. This creates polarized and impossible attitudes toward women: she is a virgin or a whore, the pride or the shame, she is the pious or the raped. It is simply impossible to find your place in this social order.
The modern woman can be all of these things and everything in-between. She is Guadalupe; the goddess is a reflection of her image. She is liberated, and has maintained internal freedom, even during the darkest times of colonization. Guadalupe’s image never disappeared, it simply evolved and flourished. The presence of the goddess couldn’t die. Floating on a pedestal, covered from head to toe, as the centerpiece of a shrine, the goddess is worthy of praise. Undressed, uncovered and sexual awakened, she is still worthy of praise.
If those colonizing you no longer hold the key to your spiritual freedom, then they essentially lose power. Guadalupe was not and is not only accessible through the Catholic church, an entity led by men, she is accessible most of all within you and within the home. The home is occupied and led by women. Meaning, women hold the key to the goddess encompassing spiritual liberation, protection and guidance for the family and community.
Gloria Anzaldúa is one of the leading scholars in this dissection of Chicana “liberation theology.” She has described Guadalupe as the symbol of the mestizo: the icon of Indian values, hope, faith and ultimately the anchor to Chicana ethnic identity.
Mexicans and Mexican-Americans practice many “superstitious” beliefs. Anzaldúa recounts these rituals in her writing, noticing that the more she ran into crisis, the more she practiced rituals. She would “call on the goddess” and find a direct route to her Indian blood. This gave her strength. Guadalupe was the liberator that was pulled out and exalted as the indigenous people fought to survive, eventually becoming the Mexican people. She transcends the terror and shame of their conquest past, even though she was brought over by the undertakers.
As contemporary theory has grown and shifted in regards to Chicana liberation and Guadalupe, women have used her image to not only liberate themselves from a history of oppression, colonization and sexism, but they have also liberated themselves sexually. We have already considered the imprisoning contradictions a woman is forced to live by, from pious, to promiscuous. Women have found freedom in their sexual identity by connecting with ancient goddesses who were at once sexual and motherly. Their desires and their ability to lead a community were not shamed, but celebrated.
Gender oppression also leads to sexual violence within the community. This is one of the many topics writer Sandra Cisneros has covered in her work. She challenges the virgin/whore, good girl/bad girl constraint women feel. When women are in constant fear of violence and sexual violence they are kept under control. Suddenly, men within your community or even within your family take over the role the Spanish once played, dominating and oppressing the sexuality and spirit of women. Cisneros’ book, The House on Mango Street, explored these topics through a nuanced narrative. The women depicted in the story are kept in silence, while their abuse and issues are left unsaid. Cisneros dares to say that the identities of women are complex. They do not fit within any structure, and they cannot be decided by outside sources, no matter how violently those sources try. Liberation is the goal, and the place Chicanas reach when they fight to define themselves.
As women embrace their complexity, they reclaim their lives and sexuality. Chicana women, straight and queer, have freed their bodies from the expectations of current oppression to declare them sacred. Divorcing the goddess Guadalupe from controlling traditions also meant divorcing their bodies from the shameful traditions of the Spanish, Catholic reign. Going back, deep into their Indian blood—the blood that runs through them and their goddess—women have undressed the cloak of expectation and exposed the deep mestizo skin of freedom.
Alma López, a queer Chicana artist, depicted the image of the Virgin in an intimate embrace with her other half, a mermaid goddess. She dared to say that a liberated Chicana could, in fact, love and desire another woman. The love of the goddess has no limits, and through Guadalupe, the artist and other women discovered the sanctity of their love, even if it failed to fit a mold. She traced this discovery back to her indigenous blood to declare that she was, and has always been, deeply and innately worthy, and so was any partner she chose.
The artist, who was raised in Los Angeles, explained that the images she created, including one of a controversially “undressed” woman channeling Guadalupe, was more about culture and community than religion. She grew up seeing Guadalupe on cars, in shrines, and tattooed on the arms of people (where you still find Guadalupe today). That is to say, the Virgin is greater than any religion, spiritual practice, or symbol. She is the source of an entire people and their strength, and she is not limited to one form or place.
The iconography and presence of the Virgin may not be contained within tangible borders, but the political border that divides Mexico and the United States complicates the freedom many women seek. Anzaldúa once called the border “an open wound.” It stamps women with the stigma of “undocumented.”
Daisy L. Machado explores the existence of these invisible women. They are often forgotten in the discourse and movement of theological and social liberation. While many women discover their identities and flee the prison of patriarchy, undocumented women struggle to obtain basic means. They take on low paying work, and carry the hope of future generations on their backs. While feminists rise to the forefront, many of these women fade, or as Machado explains, “They remain unnamed and mostly unprotected.” As we explore the aspects of liberation and the ever-present image of Guadalupe, we have to remember the sacrifice of the invisible women. They are as unseen as the Virgin is seen. They reach for her protection the same way other women do, and what they need is the sisterhood of the goddess and the recognition of the border as an extension of the colonial oppression that began hundred of years ago.
These are the women who are most powerless. All Chicana women, and women in general, sacrifice. The women of Mexico maintained their identity through Guadalupe. She protected them across generations and across borders. Now, women must come together and reconstruct the images of undocumented women. The stigma must be washed away. It is impossible to reconcile finding your own liberation without striving for the collective liberation of all women. The theories of theological and social liberation cannot be simply written and discussed, they must be applied to ourselves and to those around us. Across space and time, Guadalupe protected her people, and so must we.
From Mexico, to Los Angeles, from homes to city walls, Guadalupe guides, protects and strengthens people, whether they summon her into their hearts or simply pass her on a street. Watch your grandma, your mother, your friend, or as they knowingly or unknowingly call upon her in a simple superstitious ritual, in their sexual freedom, or even in a wish. She is history, motherhood, sexuality, love, and unwavering strength. She comes from a place in history deeper than we can ever calculate or imagine, and she radiates from a place deeper within you, more sacred than you might have ever known existed. She protects us when we are broken. She reaffirms our divinity. She empowers us to help our communities. The goddess has always been within, and as history has shown, that is all the strength we need to change and better the future.