A Gringo's Devotion
Gene Sager December 3, 2007 - 10:28am
I grew up in the Midwest as a Protestant Anglo in a small family with virtually no exposure to other cultures or religious groups. Even as a young adult I was “all white bread.” The idea of devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe was as remote as living on another planet. On my Protestant planet, Mary the mother of Jesus had died and was never seen again. She did not appear to anyone and no one prayed to her. Today I live on a different planet, and what follows is a brief account of the cultural and spiritual transformations I have experienced.
My journey toward Guadalupe began when I moved to Albuquerque to study at the University of New Mexico. In the halls of academia I learned about Guadalupe as just another appearance of the Madonna. She is said to have appeared to an Indian named Juan Diego near Mexico City in 1531. She instructed him to have an altar built there in her honor. But it was not in lecture halls or in books that I learned about the real meaning of the appearance of Our Lady. Through friendships with Mexican-American people, I gradually came to understand and feel the importance of devotion to Mary of Guadalupe. I joined a group of pilgrims for a trip to the basilica in Mexico City where the original tilma (poncho) is kept-the image of Our Lady miraculously appeared on the tilma. I was just an observer with the group but I marveled at the outpouring of devotion.
Returning to the United States, I came to realize that the border between Mexico and the United States is a kind of fiction. The geography, the terrain, is much the same for hundreds of miles on both sides. Spanish-language radio and TV stations abound in the American Southwest, serving large numbers of Mexicans and Mexican Americans here. Place names like Santa Fe, San Antonio, and El Paso reflect the Spanish and Mexican heritage. Vast areas of the Southwest used to be part of Mexico, and some of my Mexican-American friends have ancestors who were living in the Southwest long before it became part of the United States. Today, Mexican Americans display the image of Guadalupe in their homes, in chapels, as tattoos, and on cars and murals, showing that she reigns as queen among these people, wherever they are. She is the key symbol, the heart of the culture.
I was beginning to understand the people and the role of La Virgen de Guadalupe from the “inside”-as experienced by her devotees. Mexican and Mexican-American religion is what I call matrifocal: it is centered on the mother. It is mothers who practice, teach, and transfer the religion to future generations. In most religions it is the mother or grandmother who sees to it that the children are baptized, educated in the religion, and attend services. This is especially true in Mexican and Mexican-American religion. Despite what some scholars say about the all-male hierarchy of the Catholic Church, it is mothers who carry on the religious life of these people.
Mexican and Mexican-American religion is also matrifocal in its emphasis on the role of Mary of Guadalupe as both spiritual mother of the people and Mother of God. As spiritual mother, Guadalupe cares for her people as a good earthly mother cares for her children. She is always available and ever merciful; there is no greater love than a mother’s love. Guadalupe can relieve the suffering of her children here on earth and as Mother of God she wields incredible power in heavenly matters. Countless stories and jokes are told about how people enter heaven through the grace of Our Lady. One of my favorite stories is about the wayward Mexican who bypassed the imposing front gate of heaven guarded by St. Peter and was admitted through the back gate by the Mother of God. This story may not reflect official teaching, but it does express popular belief.
The perception of the Mexican and Mexican-American people is that Guadalupe came on a special mission to bless them. She appeared with a mestiza face (a mixture of Spanish and Indian, that is, Mexican), adopted them as sons and daughters, and promised them her allegiance forever. The ever-popular Spanish-language hymn to Guadalupe has her descending from the sky, welcomed by Mexican people with outstretched hands: Suplicante juntaba las manos, eran los mexicanos.... Because of Guadalupe’s appearance, says the song, it is essential for all Mexicans to be devotees of Guadalupe. The hymn calls her madrecita de los mexicanos. Through her blessing they have gained a special identity as a people.
Guadalupe has been credited with many miracles performed for her “chosen people”-Mexicans and Mexican Americans. These include relief from natural disasters and assistance to leaders like Miguel Hidalgo (Mexican revolutionary) and César Chávez (founder of the United Farm Workers Union). Hispanics in the Southwest remember that Chávez and his fellow workers attributed their victories to “La Morena”-Guadalupe. She has won the hearts of the people. Little wonder that she receives such devotion.
As I participated in the social and religious life of the people, they accepted me fully and I began to feel I had been “adopted” into the culture. By blood, I am gringo; but socially and spiritually I became an adopted son of the Mexican-American people and an adopted son of La Virgen de Gua¬dalupe. I converted to Catholicism and married a Mexican-American woman, sealing my commitment to Guadalupe and her people.
Among my friends, the history buffs have been very critical of my devotion to Guadalupe. Scholars have raised serious doubts about the history of the apparition and the existence of Juan Diego. The historical basis for the tradition is sketchy at best. I have read articles by experts like Stafford Poole (Commonweal, June 14, 2002), but my faith in Guadalupe remains untouched. I have always been skeptical of historical arguments that support or undercut religious devotion. My devotion is not based on historical documentation but on experience. I feel the presence and power of Guadalupe in my life and in the lives of her devotees, and so I accept the Guadalupano tradition.
Twenty-five years after my conversion, with two grown children raised in the tradition, I can now reflect on my transformation and evaluate the results. By becoming a Guadalupano I entered into a double richness that I value more highly each day. Socially, I have enjoyed a large, close family that maintains tradition. Spiritually, my experience is far richer than that of my Protestant past, although I do not believe that Protestants are inferior or deprived of salvation. Just as my “earthly family” is now large and close, so, in a parallel way, is my “spiritual family.” In addition to the Holy Trinity, Our Lady and the saints are available for comfort and guidance. For Protestants the spiritual family was downsized after the Reformation, leaving only the Trinity. Since I need all the help I can get, I appreciate the many saints and especially the soothing, nurturing love of Our Lady of Guadalupe, our spiritual mother. I was once a motherless child, spiritually speaking. Now I am a gringo Guadalupano, adopted into the tradition, accepted by Guadalupe and her people. As Our Lady said,
Am I not here who am your mother? Are you
not under my shadow and protection? Am I not
your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my
mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there
anything else that you need? Do not fear any
illness or vexation, anxiety or pain.
To me, these words are a constant consolation.
About the Author
Gene Sager is professor of philosophy at Palomar College.