A North-of-the-Border Perspective
By Gene Sager
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. As a Protestant, I believed Mary, the mother of Jesus, had died and was never seen again. She did not appear to anyone, and no one had any reason to pray to her. Today I know better, and what follows is a brief account of the cultural and spiritual transformations I have experienced.
My journey towards Our Lady of Guadalupe — whose feast day we celebrate Dec. 12 — began when I followed my favorite professor from a college in the Midwest to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. In the halls of academia I learned about Our Lady of Guadalupe as just another appearance of the Madonna. She is said to have appeared to a native Mexican named Juan Diego near Mexico City in 1531. She instructed Juan Diego 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-Americans, I gradually came to understand and feel the importance of devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. I joined a group of pilgrims for a trip to the basilica in Mexico City where Juan Diego's original tilma (poncho) is kept; the famous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is on this 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 southwestern United States, 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 Our Lady of Guadalupe in their homes, in chapels, as tattoos, and on cars, proof of how she reigns as queen among these people, wherever they are. She is the heart of the culture, and her image serves as a reminder that we are invited to turn to her in prayer and to seek union with her Son, Jesus, through her.
I was beginning to understand the people and the role of Our Lady of Guadalupe from the "inside" — as experienced by her devotees. Mexican and Mexican-American culture is what I call "matirifocal": focused on the mother. It is typically mothers who practice, teach, and transfer the religion to future generations. In most religions it is typically the mother or grandmother who sees to it that the children are baptized, educated in the religion, and attend Mass. This is especially true of Mexican and Mexican-American religion. Despite what some critics say about the all-male hierarchy of the Church, no one can deny that by and large it is mothers who carry on the religious life of the people.
Mexican and Mexican-American religion is also matrifocal in its emphasis on the role of Our Lady of Guadalupe as both "spiritual mother of the people" and Mother of God. As spiritual mother, Our Lady of Guadalupe cares for her children as a good earthly mother cares for her children. She is always available, ever merciful, and she stands ready to ease the suffering of her children here on earth. As Mother of God she wields incredible power in heavenly matters. One of my favorite funny stories that points to the place of honor held by Our Lady concerns a 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.
The perception of the Mexican and Mexican-American people is that Our Lady of Guadalupe came on a special mission to bless them and instruct them on how to lead holy lives. She appeared with a mestizo face (a mixture of Spanish and native Mexican), adopted them as sons and daughters, and promised them her allegiance forever. The ever-popular Spanish language hymn "Las Apariciones Guadalupanas" pictures her descending from the sky, welcomed by Mexican people. Because of this apparition, 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.
Our Lady of Guadalupe has been credited with many miracles. This includes relief from natural disasters and assistance to leaders like Miguel Hidalgo (Mexican revolutionary leader) and Cesar Chavez (founder of the United Farm Workers Union). Hispanics in the Southwest still remember that Chavez and his fellow workers attributed their victories to "La Morena" — Our Lady of 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 Anglo; but socially and spiritually I became an adopted son of the Mexican-American people and an adopted son of La Virgen de Guadalupe. I converted to Catholicism and married a Mexican-American woman, sealing my commitment to Our Lady of Guadalupe and her people.
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 the riches of a large, close family that maintains tradition. Spiritually, my experience is far richer than that of my Protestant past (although I certainly 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 Our Lady of Guadalupe and her people. To me, these words of Our Lady are a constant consolation:
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.
Gene Sager enjoys writing about Mary, St. Francis, and the full range of environmental issues. He feels that Mary, as spiritual mother, wills us to protect all people and all of creation.