Encounters Between Equals

‘The Aesthetics of Solidarity’
The Virgin of Guadalupe framed by flowers (Brian Overcast/Alamy Stock Photo)

Our Lady of Guadalupe has been a contested tradition for centuries. In colonial times indigenous peoples looked to her for strength, while Church and civic authorities contended she was a sanctifier of their stratified society. After Mexican independence, government officials lauded her as the emblem of the new nation, while many Catholic clergy asserted she was calling the nation to repentance and a renewed commitment to the ways of Christ. Today devotees link Guadalupe to an even broader range of concerns. Native American groups engage her as a source of indigenous spirituality. Supporters of the pro-life movement revere her as the patroness of the unborn. Chicana feminists contend that her purpose is to liberate women and all the oppressed. Church leaders proclaim her as a force for evangelization. 

As competing parties vie for a hermeneutical edge in channeling Guadalupe’s potency, their divergent and at times conflicting emphases underscore just how influential a phenomenon Guadalupe has become. Shrines are dedicated to her as far south as the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Santa Fe, Argentina, and as far north as Johnstown, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Her presence among Catholics is now a global phenomenon, as evidenced in worship spaces like an altar dedicated to her at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, a chapel next to the tomb of St. Peter at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, and a Guadalupe parish church in Puchong, Malaysia. The influence of Guadalupe extends even beyond the bounds of official religion, especially in Mexico and the United States. She regularly appears in scenes of telenovelas, films, murals, art, poetry, tattoos, T-shirts, and refrigerator magnets. Today the increasing number of perspectives on Guadalupe presents what could be deemed the postmodern challenge to understanding her: when the presence and meanings of traditions such as Guadalupe expand, their power to unite people around a common vision or cause can diminish. 

Some scholars have responded to Guadalupe’s interpretive malleability with the bold claim that, in the words of the late Stafford Poole, absent a documented “objective historical basis” for the Guadalupe-apparition tradition, “the symbolism [of Guadalupe] loses any objectivity it may have had and is at the mercy of propagandists and special interests.” In this view, unless there is evidence to verify the historical origins of the Guadalupe tradition, theological and other analyses of its messages are prone to co-optation. Of course, such pitfalls loom whenever a religious tradition has a wide-ranging sphere of impact, regardless of the extant textual evidence underlying its historical origins. The primary factor that leads to manipulative interpretations, in other words, is a religious tradition’s sway over the hearts and minds of believers, not its lack of historical substantiation. 

Nichole Flores addresses the historicity question at the outset of The Aesthetics of Solidarity: Our Lady of Guadalupe and American Democracy. She acknowledges the need for continued investigations into the historical context out of which the Guadalupe tradition emerged. At the same time, drawing on the works of other contemporary scholars (including those of this reviewer), she articulates insights such as Hans-Georg Gadamer’s concept of the history of effect, underscoring that for religious symbols such as Guadalupe we need to study both the history of their origins and the history of their evolving influence. Thus while the precise details of the tradition’s sixteenth-century origins are debated, “what is historically demonstrable is that the Guadalupe devotional tradition has been a potent religious and political narrative for people and communities in Mexico, in the United States, and throughout the Americas and the rest of the world.” Far from inducing theologians to abandon the field of Guadalupan interpretation, Flores concludes that the potential for manipulation makes critical theological assessment all the more urgent.

Far from inducing theologians to abandon the field of Guadalupan interpretation, the potential for manipulation makes critical theological assessment all the more urgent.

Flores’s own assessment contributes substantially to this urgent need. She echoes the insistence of Roberto Goizueta and other contemporary theologians that Guadalupe should not be examined in isolation, but in her encounters and relation with the indigenous neophyte Juan Diego, whom Pope John Paul II canonized in 2002. Thus Flores examines both ongoing theological and other interpretations of the Guadalupe tradition, as well as aesthetic performances like the drama The Miracle at Tepeyac, which the Chicano community-theater group Su Teatro developed in Denver beginning in the 1970s. Her volume proposes a political theology for U.S. democracy “predicated on a relational anthropology in which the encounter between equals within the context of oppression is offered as the narrative’s interpretive key.” The Guadalupe–Juan Diego encounter, in other words, is not merely a historical tradition but a lens through which to meet and learn from the poor and abandoned of today’s world. Juan Diego models the poor as protagonists for a robust and transformative solidarity. Foregrounding the relation between Juan Diego and Guadalupe underscores the ethical dimensions of the Guadalupe tradition and provides an antidote for temptations to co-opt and manipulate it. 

The latest volume in Georgetown University Press’s distinguished Moral Traditions series, The Aesthetics of Solidarity draws on the work of a number of scholars, especially John Rawls, Martha Nussbaum, and Alejandro García-Rivera. First, Flores assesses Rawls’s political philosophy, which underscores justice as fairness. He envisions a society whose members share basic rights and collaborate within an egalitarian economic system that conditionally allows economic and social disparities, but only to the extent that they leave the least-advantaged better off than they would have been under conditions of equality. Flores’s critique of Rawls centers on the implications of his work for aesthetics. Rawls presents a vision of political stability amidst diverse social groups, but Flores argues that he fails to adequately consider the struggles of the marginalized. The forms of expression among marginalized peoples include religious ones such as their Guadalupan devotion, which Rawls fears are too group-specific to meet the standards of public reason that overshadow religious, racial, class, and other differences within a pluralistic society. Yet in limiting religious expressions to the private realm, Flores concludes, Rawls presents a set of allegedly impartial and predominantly rational standards in public discourse that tend to privilege the perspectives of dominant communities. The result is the undervaluing of the potential of faith and its aesthetic expressions to empower the political participation of marginal groups.  

Martha Nussbaum builds on Rawls’s work with her theory of political emotions, that is, emotions that take the nation as their object. While she embraces many elements of Rawls’s thought, she adopts a more positive view toward the role of emotions in public life. She contends that narrative-based aesthetic forms such as literature, theater, and film focus societal members on pressing issues that need to be addressed, even if those artistic expressions do not provide a consensus viewpoint on how to address them. Thus the aesthetic, which can be a divisive source of tribal passions or even violence, can also motivate vigilance and action to confront social ills. It can accentuate the essential human elements of complex social problems, and motivate political participation among the varying groups in a pluralistic society. Nonetheless, Flores echoes other critics in noting that Nussbaum’s notion of political emotions emphasizes civic virtues such as justice and equality, which stabilize society by inculcating respect for our fellow citizens and for extant political norms. But Nussbaum’s theory is less sympathetic to political emotions such as anger at racism and other forms of injustice. Thus she does not account adequately for the particular aesthetic expressions of racialized communities such as those of the Denver Su Teatro community theater group. Flores highlights how Su Teatro interwove the traditional Guadalupe apparitions narrative with the local community’s advocacy on behalf of immigrants and its protest of the decision of archdiocesan officials to close their parish church. The anger and lament manifested in this drama are important political emotions that must be addressed in any attempt to systematize the pursuit of justice in a pluralistic society.

The beauty of flowers, song, and the tenderness in Juan Diego’s encounters with Guadalupe have decidedly political dimensions: they are expressions of her solidarity with him.

Alejandro García-Rivera, along with other Latinx theologians, provides a vision that more fully encompasses marginalized groups, the common good, and individual rights. García-Rivera articulates the communitarian theological anthropology in Latinx theologies, a view of the human that is fundamentally relational. Like Juan Diego in his encounter with Guadalupe, these theologians show that Latinas and Latinos do not tend to see themselves as autonomous individuals, but as communal beings formed by the relationships that constitute who they are. At the same time, García-Rivera joins various colleagues in asserting that this pervasive relational view can gloss over individual differences. It can even silence marginal or abused members of Latinx families and communities under the pretext of a false sense of family honor or group solidarity. To combat such tendencies, García-Rivera calls for the advancement of the “community of the beautiful,” one in which both the relational and individual elements of our humanity are respected. Without losing sight of the whole, such a community foregrounds particular experiences and persons, particularly the most vulnerable. Aesthetic practices such as Guadalupan devotion, which encompass both universal messages as well as the concrete encounter with the poor one, Juan Diego, enable this process of foregrounding. Thus aesthetic encounters can focus attention on marginalized persons, build bridges across the differences between peoples, and forge communities through a common act of interpretation and commitment to social purpose. Aesthetic experiences guide us to go beyond a quest for the uniformity of an imposed and superficial “oneness” to the wholeness of a deeper unity that does not erase difference.

 

Flores concludes that the Guadalupe tradition illuminates a paradigm of aesthetic solidarity that is necessary for democratic politics. The beauty of flowers, song, and the tenderness in Juan Diego’s encounters with Guadalupe have decidedly political dimensions: they are expressions of her solidarity with him and sources of his re-humanization after the debilitating effects of the Spanish conquest. Aesthetic experience also enables Juan Diego to grasp both the relational and individual elements of his humanity. He is drawn into relation with Guadalupe, but he also questions and even contests her directives. She in turn does not relegate him to the status of a passive subject, but respects his active partnership with her in their common mission. This enables Juan Diego to confront the colonial authorities in the person of the bishop. Juan Diego demands not just that the bishop fulfill Guadalupe’s wishes and build her a temple, but that the colonial authorities and societal structures respect the voice and humanity of indigenous peoples. The Guadalupe–Juan Diego encounter is an aesthetic experience that foregrounds the suffering and humanity of the downtrodden, deepens their appreciation of their full humanity, and enables them to be agents of personal and social transformation.

Flores insists that everyday religious practices should be examined as an instance of aesthetic expression, but she largely limits herself to analyses of the interpersonal dynamics in accounts of the Guadalupe–Juan Diego encounter, as well as theatrical productions and a few public processions with explicitly political overtones. Inclusion of the most prevalent of Guadalupan devotions—rosaries, mañanitas, flower offerings, parish feast-day celebrations, and the like—would be a welcome addition to her analysis. Nonetheless, theologians, other scholars, pastoral leaders, artists, and activists would do well to emulate Flores’s deft engagement of the Guadalupe tradition as an ethical tradition centered on the encounter between Juan Diego and Guadalupe. The Aesthetics of Solidarity models how to honor the Guadalupe tradition while consciously seeking to not co-opt it for one’s own purposes. Grounded in superb exposition of contemporary political philosophy and Latinx theologies, this volume also provides a constructive dialogue between those schools of thought and the religious traditions of the marginalized. Flores’s study offers significant insights for understanding the importance of marginalized groups, their struggles for justice, and their religious expressions within the political landscape of a pluralistic society. 

The Aesthetics of Solidarity
Our Lady of Guadalupe and American Democracy

Nichole M. Flores
Georgetown University Press
$49.95 | 184 pp. 

Published in the December 2021 issue: 

Timothy Matovina is the author of Theologies of Guadalupe: From the Era of Conquest to Pope Francis.

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