Revelatory Narratives

Christmas Critics
Pilgrims carry a statue and image of Our Lady of Guadalupe near the basilica in her name in Mexico City, December 12, 2020 (CNS photo/Gustavo Graf, Reuters).

The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, together with its novena, has been an important part of Advent throughout my life, with the vigil celebrations a staple of my upbringing. The rhythmic, rattling sound of the coyoleras on the pounding feet of the danzantes is a prayer, a religious experience, and an important symbol of my personal identity. In adulthood, Advent and the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe have also become occasions for deeper reflection on my relationship to the Church, the need for the presence of Latinas in leadership, and whether Latinas will have an equal voice in helping guide the Church’s future. Recall how the Guadalupan narrative tells of the appearance of the Virgin Mary as a young mestiza woman. She communicates not with Church leaders but with a poor indigenous man, Juan Diego, whose attempt to communicate her divine message is rejected by the local bishop. Yet Diego of course is eventually vindicated: liberated by the fact that Our Lady bears the physical features of his people, he becomes a prophetic messenger of God. A fellow parishioner once expressed to me how incredible it is that on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe we celebrate, among many things, that a bishop was wrong and an indigenous person was right.

Narratives like these have revelatory power, something theologian Natalia Imperatori-Lee reminds us of in Cuéntame: Narrative in the Ecclesial Present (Orbis Books, 192 pp., $35). Drawing on examples from fiction and popular religion, ritual and art, and everyday lived experience, Imperatori-Lee expands our notions of theological reflection, while also advancing an inductive ecclesiology centered on the experience of Latina women—whose work in the Church is so often minimized and marginalized through the patriarchal characterization of it as a “feminine” contribution. Consider, for instance, the stereotype of the abuelita regularly summoned to speak about Latina women’s contributions to the Church. Without necessarily rejecting this image of the harmless, devoted grandmother figure who passes on the faith to younger generations, Imperatori-Lee also introduces the mature Latina who has the power to change the trajectory of culture and theology—throwing off the patriarchal narrative to engage those stories that haven’t been given sufficient telling.

The work of Latina women in the Church is often minimized and marginalized through the patriarchal characterization of it as a “feminine” contribution.

Regular exposure to institutional racism and sexism can have a numbing effect the longer it goes unaddressed. Fortunately, artists working in the horror genre are capable of delivering some necessary shocks to the system. Consider Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic (Del Rey, 352 pp., $27), set in 1950s Mexico. Noemí Taboada, a modern young feminist, strikes a deal with her father: in return for visiting her physically and mentally ill cousin in the countryside, she’ll get to go to university to study anthropology. The eerie mansion in which Noemí’s cousin is cloistered proves to be a source of horror, but not the only one. The English family into which she has married is also quite scary. After essentially colonizing a small mining town, they’ve embraced eugenic theories to convince themselves that their Mexican workers belong to an inferior race. For good measure, the family patriarch also makes clear his belief that a woman’s only true purpose is to bear children. The toxic brew of racism, colorism, and sexism illustrates just how dangerous actual life can be for objectified Mexican women, and as a Mexican-American woman, I often found myself more terrified by the English family than many of this novel’s other considerable horrors.

Here at the end of 2021, I still think of 2020 as a year of spinning in circles, a time in which we were caught up in a whirlwind of issues that made it impossible to focus on just one thing. This year has felt more like the moment right after you’ve stopped spinning: still dizzy, struggling to grab ahold of something so that you don’t fall. That’s probably why I reached for a book by David A. Sánchez that I first read eight years ago, From Patmos to the Barrio: Subverting Imperial Myths (Fortress Press, 222 pp., $21). Sánchez analyzes how John of Patmos, a follower of Christ in exile and author of the Book of Revelations, subverts Roman imperial mythology in Revelations 12. Sánchez compares this subversive action to the indigenous appropriation of Spanish symbolism from the same chapter in Revelations, the chapter from which the image of Guadalupe derives. He explores how this image continues to serve as a subversive symbol for Latinx people in East Los Angeles—a unifying flag that communicates both presence and reconquest. I know that each year I celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe, she becomes something new for me. Our relationship changes in new and freeing ways. In this new liturgical year, I’ll take her up as my personal flag, one representing not only my presence, but also my reconquest of the space given to me through baptism in the Church.

Published in the December 2021 issue: 

Claudia Avila Cosnahan is the Mission & Partnerships Director for Commonweal and an instructor and consultant for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Also by this author
Growing Pains

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Culture
Books