Censoring Our Ladies
Does turning Guadalupe into a woman cross the line between sacred and profane?
By Richard L. Vasquez
"For her to approach me, for me to finally
open the door and accept her, she had to be a woman like me."
"She is not neuter like Barbie. She gave birth. She has a womb. Blessed art thou and blessed is the fruit of thy womb... Blessed art thou Lupe, and, therefore, blessed am I.
-- Sandra Cisneros --
In the book, "Goddess of the Americas",
Sandra Cisneros writes one piece called "Guadalupe the Sex Goddess"
in which she recalls the attitudes she was raised with about her womanhood,
body and sexuality. Even in the locker room, the Latina girls would hide their
bodies while the others walked around confidently.
This essay reflects a constant struggle with
the image of men and women in Latino cultures. Everyone knows of machismo,
where men have to be virile men and nothing less will do. Less talked about
is marianismo, the ideal image many have for women. Sandra Cisneros points
out that there is no talk of men emulating Christ, but women are called upon
to emulate the image of Mary, an everlasting virgin and constant intercessor
who sacrifices everything for the good of others. With Mary, or Guadalupe,
as the model for womanhood the natural question arises - "Is she really
a woman?" She was a daughter. She was a wife. She gave birth. But do
we allow Guadalupe to be a woman? Do we allow the women in our society to
believe that Mary ever grew from girl to woman, or that she had tender moments
with Joseph where they talked quietly and laughed with each other while embracing?
Was she ever allowed to be strong and take a defiant stance when she wanted
Sandra asked herself if Guadalupe was a woman
like herself. Or was she a two dimensional neutered character that young Latinas
were expected to become? She wanted to lift Guadalupe's robes to see that
she was real like herself.
Alma Lopez, inspired by this essay picks up where Sandra left off. In her recent digital art on display at the Museum of International Folk Art in New Mexico called "Our Lady", Alma lifts the robes of Guadalupe. She opens them up for us and shows us - Roses. Like the roses that surround the events of her apparition in Mexico. She, of course, could have shown Guadalupe nude in her interpretation, but instead she covers her in roses so that only her belly and legs show. Below, is a female angel supporting Guadalupe on eagle's wings. The angel, like many angels we see in art, is nude. Art or Profanity?
As two artists talk frankly about the woman
they are supposed to emulate, the woman who loved and gave birth just as they
are able to, they receive a response from critics. Instead of seeing what
I saw, a confident and strong woman that I believe Guadalupe had to be to
give her son to the world, Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan sees a "tart"
and sacrilege. By questioning if their Holy Role Model was anything like them,
critics have said Guadalupe is defiled by the act.
On April 4th, the museum board was supposed
to meet to determine if the exhibit, "Cyber Arte: Tradition Meets Technology",
should be removed from the museum. The exhibit shows the art of Latina artists
who blend folk art with modern art. The meeting was canceled and rescheduled
for April 16th, partially due to an unexpected crowd and partially to threats
of violence against the artist that asked herself "Is Guadalupe a woman
like me?" In the meantime, legislators have threatened the funding on
the museum based on this work.
Guadalupe is a permanent fixture for many Latinos,
especially Mexican-Americans. She is hung on walls, she is painted on walls
in the cities, she is on computer desktops and mouse pads, she is on calling
cards, and she is tattooed on arms and backs. Her image is on air fresheners
and stickers. Vicente Fox hung a banner during one of his first rallies with
her image on it.
The Mother Mary is a sacred and personal image,
yet it permeates every day life. It's her sacred nature that the protestors
use to back up their argument to censor. But because Mary is sacred, she is
a personal experience to all who revere her. She has shown herself in many
ways under many names throughout the ages. In Czestochowa, Poland the oldest
known image of Mary is known as the Black Madonna because of her dark skin.
In Mexico, she appeared as Guadalupe, with indigenous features. She has been
seen in Portugal, Yugoslavia and a host of other nations in various forms
and carrying various labels. Her image appears as Asian, African, European
and everything in between.
In medieval art, made during an era when sacrilege
invited death, Mary is often portrayed as breastfeeding baby Jesus. One Peruvian
piece from the 18th century shows Mary's exposed nipple. Today, women are
often chastised for feeding their children in public, even when they are driven
to placing a towel over the entire child as it nurses. States have to pass
laws protecting the women from being evicted from public places. In the 19th
century, Edvard Munch depicted Mary fully exposed. The artist today is threatened
for showing Guadalupe as a woman whose body is still covered.
Unfortunately, a part of marianismo dictates
that a woman must be a virgin or a "tart" (to put it lightly). There's
no room for compromise. The mere presence of exposed skin is viewed as "defiling"
the image of Guadalupe. The presence of breasts on an Angel - sacrilege? Or
is it just Chicana breasts?
I can't help but wonder how much of the protests
against this piece of work stem from the belief that women should either be
entirely chaste or entirely sexual. I see The Goddess of the Americas standing
strong and confident held up by another woman of strength. Others see nothing
but a defiling image. Something unholy. Skin. An angel with breasts. Male
or female, many of us carry certain remnants of machismo and marianismo in
our attitudes about ourselves and the other gender. I think the attacks speak
more about the negative image of women's bodies that the protesters have had
instilled in them. The word that comes to mind is misogyny. Guadalupe can
be African or Asian. She can be a tattoo or an air freshener. But she cannot
be a woman.
Recently the Mayor of New York City protested
a piece of art because it used elephant dung with the image of the Virgin
Mary. Some are giving the same treatment to an artist who finds power, strength
and solace in the fact that Mary was a woman. They are giving breasts the
same level of attention that dung received. Any particular piece of art gives
you a look into the artist's heart. We know where the artist's inspiration
came from. But where does the inspiration of the viewer who sees a tart come
from? The reactions give you a look into the heart of the viewer. As Guadalupe
shows herself in many ways to many people, so does this piece of art. I believe
the people who sexualize the image instead of seeking out the author's intent
commit the sacrilege by keeping the Queen of Heaven's subjects from looking
to her honeslty for guidance and recognition. Those who seek to silence Chicana
art or the ability of women to ponder their own nature commit another travesty.
Many women find themselves unable to address their womanhood because of their
association with Guadalupe. Because, when they do think about their womanhood
instead of hiding it with shame, they are called tarts. When Guadalupe's womanhood
is pondered, the Archbishop believes she's defiled.
In thinking about why these women look to Mary
to define their womanhood, I think of the following passage from Crossing
the Threshold of Hope, by Pope John Paul II where he describes how we over
sexualize women and how we should all turn to Mary to ponder the question
of feminism and womanhood.
I think that a certain contemporary feminism
finds its roots in the absence of true respect for woman. Revealed truth teaches
us something different. Respect for woman, amazement at the mystery of womanhood,
and finally the nuptial of God Himself and of Christ, as expressed in the
Redemption, are all elements that have never been completely absent in the
faith and life of the Church. This can be seen in a rich tradition of customs
that, regrettably, is nowadays being eroded. In our civilization woman has
become, before all else, an object of pleasure.
It is very significant, on the other hand, that
in the midst of this very situation the authentic theology of woman is being
reborn. The spiritual beauty, the particular genius, of women is being rediscovered.
The bases for the consolidation of the position of women in life, not only
family life but also social and cultural life, are being redefined.
And for this purpose, we must return to the
figure of Mary. Mary herself and devotion to Mary, when lived out in all its
fullness, become a powerful and creative inspiration.
-- Pope John Paul II --