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.