Ever since I can remember, my parents have introduced me to distant relatives and old family friends I’ve never met as “La Lupita.”
“¿¡Ay, esta es La Lupita?! ¡Hola mija! ¡Que bonita estas y ya tan grande! Yo te conoci cuando eras una bebe.”
Translation: “Omg, you’re Lupita?! Wow, hi! You’re so beautiful and so grown up! I met you when you were a baby.”
Also, my parents and grandparents always reference me as “La Lupita” in conversations with these people because I’m the middle child and pretty forgettable. If they didn’t say “La Lupita” they wouldn’t remember I even existed.
My name is not Lupita, short for Guadalupe, but the moniker is how people back home remember me, because they connect it to my birthday, December 12 — the day (mostly Latino) Catholics celebrate La Virgen de Guadalupe. I’ve always felt a strong connection to La Virgen because we share a special day, a day when the world celebrates us — in her case, more literally and in mine, the world in my vicinity. La Virgen has always been dear in my heart and always will be, but the way I view her has changed throughout the years, through various lenses with different interpretations, including now as a queer woman.
You’ve seen her everywhere: painted on sides of buildings as commissioned murals or graffiti, on candles in the supermarket, on t-shirts, on bodies, on jewelry, in art exhibits, on tumblr, on anything and everything. My mom has a mini shrine in her closet, and my grandma has a more typical altar in her garden, complete with a waist-high statue secured in a cement slab with flowers surrounding it. If someone in my family is going through difficult times, needs some protection or guidance, we light a candle with La Virgen’s image on it and pray to her. Some Latino Catholics have more faith in La Virgen than they do in Jesus, which is probably pretty blasphemous to say, but I’m being real. We’re very serious about La Virgen. Let me tell you why.
La Virgen de Guadalupe is celebrated on December 12, especially in Mexico, in honor of when she appeared to Juan Diego, a poor indigenous man about 500 years ago in present day Mexico City. During this time, the Spanish had recently conquered Mexico and thus began imposing their Catholic religion on the indigenous people, the Aztecs. The Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego as a brown woman with sun beams all around her on a former sacred hill devoted to the Aztec mother goddess, Tonantzin. In his native language of Náhuatl, she told him to tell the bishop to build a church at the same spot where she appeared. The bishop asked Juan Diego for a sign to prove what he said was true. La Virgen told Juan Diego to gather the roses growing on the barren hill and deliver them to the bishop. Roses growing in December was a miracle in itself, but once Juan Diego reached the bishop, he unfurled his tilma , a type of cloak, where he was carrying the roses to reveal an imprinted image of La Virgen de Guadalupe. And bam! – the rest is history. They built her a church in the same spot and where the orginal tilma with her image still hangs today.
Secular history suggests that a bishop in the mid 1500s commissioned a painting of the Virgin Mary from a native artist who created an icon that fused the Virgin Mother of God and the Aztec mother goddess, Tonantzin. It was a strategy to help Spaniards gain more converts by relating to the indigenous people and their native religion. I’d like to think the indigenous people tried so hard to hold onto their culture and beliefs and infused it with what their colonizers wanted them to believe in. Whatever the case might be, La Virgen de Guadalupe became a symbol of the new Mexico, la mestiza, a hybrid culture of Spanish and indigenous.
As a child, I didn’t quite understand how the Virgin Mary and La Virgen de Guadalupe were one and the same. I thought they were two different deities because they looked different and had different names. I would argue that they are two different beings. One is the white-washed mother of Jesus from the Bible and the other is a cultural icon, a mystical being with healing powers, a brown goddess that reflects the people she serves.
As a kid, I saw La Virgen as my protector. Whenever I was scared — mostly of the dark, Big Foot and UFOs, (yes, I was a weird child) — or when I was feeling anxious, I would pray to her and I would automatically feel safer. She was my guardian angel and I had faith that she would take care of me, just like the mother she symbolized. I also hoped that maybe she gave me preferential treatment because of the special day we share — like I had a double force field to conquer my fears. She was my superhero and I was comforted by knowing she was there watching over me.
On my 15th birthday it was especially significant to pay tribute to La Virgen, because in my culture this is the passage to adulthood. Traditionally during a Latina’s quinceañera mass, she pays homage to La Virgen de Guadalupe by bringing flowers to her altar in the church. I brought her roses on my quinceañera as to say “guide me through this newfound womanhood.” I was too young to form my own nuanced thoughts on what womanhood meant for me at that point, but the patriarchal world had already defined it for me. As a Latina woman, my machismo-filled community told me I was to be pious, pure, and a caregiver — just like La Virgencita. I was on the path to get married, give birth, raise a family and above all else have faith in God. That’s what society told me womanhood looked like.
Don’t worry, I didn’t follow society’s definition of womanhood, as you might’ve guessed. Because here I am writing on Autostraddle.com as a heathen feminist queer woman.
I figured out I was “not straight” when I was 17 years old, but it wasn’t until college that I embraced my lesbian identity. I dropped out of the Catholic church before I even started grappling with my identity, so I didn’t really have religious-related afflictions. I did wonder for a hot second if La Virgen would hate me/disown me for being a lesbian, but I knew she didn’t care, because not only did she love me with open arms and no judgement, but I also felt that she supported my women-loving self. After all, she resembles a vulva. I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, but being the Mother of God and all, it makes sense.
Chicana author Sandra Cisneros writes in her essay “Guadalupe the Sex Goddess” about how her religion and culture suppresses everything that is sexual. At first, she views La Virgen as a “goodie two-shoes” and resents her for enforcing a life of “marriage and motherhood.” It wasn’t till she viewed La Virgen as representations of Aztec goddesses and as a woman, just like herself, did her view of La Virgen change.
“Like every woman who matters to me, I have had to search for her in the rubble of history. And I have found her. She is the sex goddess, a goddess who makes me feel good about my sexual power, my sexual energy, who reminds me that I must, as Clarissa Pinkola Estés so aptly put it, “[speak] from the vulva … speak the most basic, honest truth,” and write from my panocha…
My Virgen de Guadalupe is not the mother of God. She is God. She is a face for a god without a face, an indigena for a god without ethnicity, a female deity for a god who is genderless, but I also understand that for her to approach me, for me to finally open doors and accept her, she had to be a woman like me.”
I couldn’t agree with Cisneros more. For me now, La Virgen de Guadalupe subverts the Catholic Church, machismo, the very image of the Virgin Mary by being indígena, mestiza. She is a woman deity that I get to worship in the way that I want. She is queer.
The image of La Virgen de Guadalupe is a cornerstone in my culture that transcends just being a religious or spiritual symbol. She is a brown beautiful goddess that looks like me and my people. She is a symbol of almighty femininity and womanhood. She is the mystical being that watches over me and my partner and my dog and my family. She is my queen in my heart forever.
I saw the title and thought “I really hope Yvonne wrote this.” Beautiful piece. Happy birthday!
Happy Birthday! It’s my birthdate as well, and my family associates me with La Virgen de Guadalupe too, it’s my middle name. I started to feel a connection when I turned 15, I wore a traditional indigenous dress & jewelery & danced around a cathedral celebrating La Virgen back in the motherland. I guess I felt a connection because there were other girls wearing the same clothing, the same aboriginal appearance, all dancing together in the streets, just celebrating and being happy.
¡feliz cumpleaños, guadalupe! desde otra guadalupe
Happy Birthday! I’m currently on internship at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, NM and we went on a field trip to Tortugas to watch some of the celebration today. I was super excited to see your article and learn a little bit more about la virgen, especially on such a personal level. Thank you for sharing!
From this point forward, it is likely I will associate Our Lady of Guadalupe with a giant vulva as depicted. I’m not mad.
This is amazing. Happy birthday and thank you, Yvonne! I’ve always been one to proclaim that Mary is my homegirl, but even when I say that, it’s still hard for me to imagine the traditional, Roman Catholic mother of God as being more than two-dimensional. I’m so glad to learn more about La Virgen and her awesomeness.
OH MY G-D LITTLE YVONNE ULTIMATE CRITTER
ok gonna read the rest of this post now
I love love love this article! And I totally prayed to La Virgen whenever I was scared as a kid too (and still do sometimes)! Since coming out I have totally embraced Her even more than I used to and it’s comforting to read a similar story. This is the best!
love love love this whole piece. i can’t even write a thoughtful comment cuz i’m just so deeply moved by all of this. thank you for writing and sharing and the pictures! and the two marys kissing and i’m gonna go resuscitate myself brb
Yvonne, I loved this so much and not just for the pictures although the pictures are pretty special too. It’s so great to learn more about you and the history of la virgen. HAPPY HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!
also please write more!
happy birthday! this was amazing.
Ay dios this is wonderful. I think it can be hard sometimes to figure out how to negotiate the deeply held Christian beliefs of Latin families while knowing the history of how they came to have deeply held Christian beliefs (rape, torture, murder, all that jazz). Sometimes I almost feel like I’m betraying my indigenous ancestors, siding with their rapists and stuff. This beautiful take on it really means a lot to me. I, too, have always felt a sort of sisterhood with Mary. I found out recently we apparently have the same personality type (except I’m like the sacrilegious version, I guess). Anyway, all that to say I loved this. More please.
“As a kid, I saw La Virgen as my protector. Whenever I was scared — mostly of the dark, Big Foot and UFOs, (yes, I was a weird child) — or when I was feeling anxious, I would pray to her and I would automatically feel safer.” YEAH. This is awesome. My mom taught me to pray Hail Marys when I was scared and sometimes I still do (on an airplane or if I hear a siren or see a car crash…)
I think many depictions of the Virgin Mary, ESPECIALLY La Virgen de Guadalupe, show her as the kind of warm, comforting female presence of God? If that makes sense? And that’s why different cultures know her so differently because their knowledge of Mary is based upon whatever religion they practiced before Christianity made their way in and I just think this is super fascinating. Then we can get into the personified feminine divine wisdom (Sophia) and then Gnosticism and wow, religion is fascinating sorry about the tangent.
Also I just wanted to say that this is a pretty awesome feast day to have a birthday on. :) (A guy friend from college had a birthday which was on the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Not so awesome).
Happy birthday! This was a beautiful article; thank you for writing!
miralook, this is the shit and so are you. Happy birthday, grrl. <3
Presented our culture in the most beautiful way! Thank you for sharing this with others who are curious about our culture. I sang happy birthday to her at exactly at 12
Felix cumpleano, Yvonne. Such a beautifully written article :)
Absolutely love this. Huge smile on my face; happy birthday :)
This is such a beautiful article, I really wish I could think of something meaningful to say in response. But that’s not who I am today. Today, I’m just going to say this:
I used to be scared of UFOs when I was a kid, too!!
Like, utterly terrified of them. My mother was obsessed with UFO abduction stories at the time and she would repeat them to me whenever she read one or saw one on TV. Every time, I would ask her to stop and tell her how much they scared me, and she’d apologize. Until she read the next one, then she was right back at it. After months of paralyzing fear and constant nightmares, I actually broke down sobbing and begged her to stop, which woke her up a bit. My mom had a lot of problems with PTSD and OCD at the time, and I think the alien thing was both an escape for her and a manifestation of her obsessive behavior. She’s better now.
So. There’s that.
“I did wonder for a hot second if La Virgen would hate me/disown me for being a lesbian, but I knew she didn’t care, because not only did she love me with open arms and no judgement, but I also felt that she supported my women-loving self.”
Mary has always been a big part of my faith life. In the coming out process people have brought it with the connotation (ranging from thinly veiled to completely blunt) that I couldn’t possibly be queer and relate to Our Lady. I’m not positive why they feel that they should be the voice for that particular facet of spirituality/ Catholicism, since they are neither gay nor the Virgin Mary, but I’m pretty sure they aren’t.
This article was beautifully written, and I love reading all of the ways that people relate to it.
Yvonne this was so good!
Happy birthday! <3
Feliz cumple! Great article. I remember learning about la virgen in my one of my 544665 latin american studies classes in undergrad. But I never thought of her as a queer icon before. Wow
Wonderfully written- thanks for this article!
I grew up in a strongly Catholic background and I’m having a hard time connecting to a lot of it now, for many reasons. One reason is that I find truth in all kinds of religions/ belief systems and the Catholic deal of saying they’re the only right way bothers me; another is obviously the Catholic Church’s unChristlike attitude towards queers.
So this article just gave me a wonderful new point of connection that symbolizes both hybridity and adoption of more than one truth at once, and also queerness and acceptance and sex positivity. Thank you, Yvonne.
Awwww shucks! Happy Birthday Gurl! It’s mine as well :) and even with Martinez in my family I didn’t really pay attention to this until I read your article. Good Stuff.
Such a beautiful article!! Do yourself amazing good by reading the book From Feminist Theology to Indecent Theology by Marcella Althaus-Reid. The book is centered around combining Feminist Theology with Latin American Liberation Theology and going further by adding sexuality and gender identity to create Indecent Theology. AMAZING!! As a queer Catholic woman studying to get my Masters in Religious Studies-Spirituality and Pastoral Care, your article once again awoke in me the purpose of my work and the need to reimagine old religious narratives (written by straight privileged white men who benefited from patriarchy). Thank you.
this is gorgeous! was wondering if you all already had a spanish translation? wanted to share with my suegra if so. <3 <3
Oh my! I just read this so late, but I relate so hard. I’m half Mexican, my mother and her family are Catholics from Mexico. La Virgin is in multiple rooms of my parent’s house.
I hadn’t heard about the painting commission, but that makes so much sense.
I also see her as a brown goddess. I don’t identify with Catholicism beyond family memories, but La Virgin is still such a queen in my eyes. TBH her shape.. well.. I’m drawn to it.
On a completely different note, my fear of UFOs and giants also kept me up at night.