Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Dos Señoras, Uno Sor

Even the most diehard non-religious person could not help but be impressed by the omnipresence in Santa Fe of the Virgin of Guadalupe – the apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary who appeared to Juan Diego (an Aztec convert to Christianity) near Mexico City in 1531.

This icon was one of the things that really caught our eyes when we first visited northern New Mexico in 1992. But, as we have mentioned before, we actually learned the story of the Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, not here, but instead from the 1990s PBS program “Wishbone,” which presented famous stories and works of literature in which the show’s title character (a Jack Russell Terrier) portrayed one of the main characters. Here is part of the Our Lady of Guadalupe episode, with Wishbone as St. Juan Diego.

In the City Different, Nuestra Señora can be seen in a wide variety of places: e,g, at the Santuario de Guadalupe Shrine (the oldest church in the United States dedicated to Her); on the highly polished hoods of lowrider cars; in souvenir tee-shirt shops; and on the arms or backs of Hispanic women and men.

tumblr_mzk7qmpZoT1tnr0qpo1_400.jpgOur home also has about a dozen of Her images including a letterpress print, a small statue, and a folk art retablo (painting) on a repurposed spam can.

And She is a common sight on “ex-votos.” – religious themed pictures created to fulfill a vow (“votive”) in thanksgiving for divine assistance that its creator had received.  
“This tradition originated in Italy in the 15th century when wealthy patrons commissioned artists to compose a visual representation of miracles they had been granted...In the early part of the colonial period it spread to...Latin America, reaching its height in Mexico during the middle of the nineteenth century. Some of the most significant transformations painted ex-votos underwent...were the diminution in size (from full size paintings to little paintings), the use of inexpensive materials (wood and zinc in Mexico), and the detailed visual and verbal narrative of the miracle it represented.” (“Stories of Miracles” on mariolinasalvatori.com)

We have three ex-votos. On two of which Señora Guadalupe’s hovering image looks down on the earthly narrative being portrayed.

Some of you may wonder: “cultural (mis)appropriation or “cultural appreciation?”

The “Stories of Miracles” website provides this perspective:

“From a religious point of view, these transformations desacralize ex-votos. On the other hand the increased availability and visibility they grant them might well generate and nurture a rekindled interest in their religious and cultural function.

“...Mexican ex-votos, construct a space and an audience for their poignant and sobering accounts of the daily fears, the spiritual and material needs, the dangers, the dreams and the aspirations of people that history tends to ignore. Humble and unlettered, they eloquently speak of enduring faith, class and economic inequalities, and human resilience and they pose challenging ideological and theoretical questions to scholars and collectors about ways of interpreting and representing them, as much as possible, on their own terms.”

So on what terms, if any, do Native Americans interpret and represent Señora Guadalupe? Especially since many Pueblo Indians say that they practice BOTH Catholic AND indigenous religions.

“Ask a mestizo or indigenous person and they will tell you that Our Lady of Guadalupe is really Coatlaxopeuh, another name for Earth Mother Tonantzin, to whom offerings were made on that same hill of Tepeyac hundreds of years before the arrival of the Spaniards.. 

"Tonantzin/Coatlaxopeuh appeared to Cuauhtlatoatzi to inspire hope in a people who were being oppressed by the Spanish – and, later when the Church acknowledged Our Lady of Guadalupe as the Patroness of Mexico, to allow the people to continue to honor her in safety...she is not either/or, but rather one: TonantzinGuadalupe.   Her blend of indigenous and European features represents the beauty and sacredness of both cultures.” (www.indiancountrynews.com)

But the Virgin of Guadalupe is not the only celebrated female religious figure in our new home town. La Conquistadora – the oldest continuously venerated statue image of the Virgin Mary in the U.S. – first arrived in Santa Fe on a wagon train in 1626 with Fray Alonso de Benavides. Tree-ring dating of the 30-inch wooden figure indicates that the work could have been carved as early as 1448.

During the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, which temporarily drove the Spaniards from New Mexico, the statue was evacuated to El Paso Texas. “She [then] accompanied Don Diego de Vargas, friars, families and soldiers on their expedition to resettle the villa 13 years later...Vargas believed that she had answered his prayers to regain the city without too much bloodshed, and in return he rebuilt the parish church that had been destroyed during the revolt in honor of the figure he called Nuestra Señora de la Conquista. 

The [annual] Fiesta de Santa Fe was created to give thanks for her role in the reconquest. She received a permanent home in what is now the cathedral in 1717.”


 Conquistadora’s main public appearance was at the Fiesta’s reenactment of the peaceful entry of Vargas into the city (the “Entrada”) – which many Hispanic Catholics believe to be an accurate historical portrayal of that event. Some of the proof for this opinion was provided by Fra Angelico Chavez, O.F.M. (1910 – 1996) – priest, author, poet, painter, and self-proclaimed revisionist historian.

In addition to his academic work Fra Angelico was also press representative for La Cofradia and the Caballerso de Vargas (men’s organizations dedicated to honoring Conquistadora and her traditions – and planners/participants in the Entrada.) For this and other reasons he has been criticized by many scholars as continuing the tradition of the “troubadours of Our Lady...poets who had blend history and legend in innocent abandon to celebrate [and] exalt the heavenly Blessed Mother, and to promote the faith.”

The Natives have their own oral history, which has been, until recently, largely ignored by those studying the past. The amount of blood that was shed during Vargas’ reentry, plus as many other facts, are points of serious and oftentimes heated disagreement between current day Indigenous Americans and those in the pageant. In 2017 concerns about counter-demonstrations led to an armed Santa Fe police presence on the rooftops surrounding the event. Two years later a negotiated agreement resulted in the complete removal of the Entrada from the Fiesta. And a smaller private parade for Our Lady.

But there is a third Catholic female religious figure in New Mexican history and culture – not as well known as Guadalupe, or as controversial as Conquistadora,

At a recent lecture we learned the story of Sor (Sister) María de Jesús de Ágreda, (aka the “Blue Nun” or “Lady in Blue”). Sor María told her confessor – whom our lecturer described as not being totally discrete – that beginning in 1620, while in a trance within her cloistered convent room in Ágreda, Spain, she was also at the very same time mystically present in New Mexico, Texas and other places in the present day American southwest and Mexico. (A phenomenon known as bi-location.) 

While there, Sor María said that she had spoken to the Natives and urged them to visit the Spanish missions to ask that a priest return with them to their pueblos and villages. 

By 1626, reports back to Spain relayed stories of Jumano Indians arriving at missions because a "Lady in Blue" had told them, to go there and speak to the padres. Over eleven years she reportedly made more than 500 visits, sometimes three or four in one day. (Had she been male, she could have been a “frequent friar.”)

 The evidence for these appearances, comes from the writings and reports of the colonial Franciscan missionaries. Among them was Fray Alonso de Benavide, who was assigned to New Mexico specifically to investigate these stories. 

He later spoke to Sor Maria at her convent in Spain and reported, “She told me many particularities of that land that even I had forgotten...[and] described the features and individual traits of the missionaries and various Indians, with details that only a person who had been in New Spain could know.”

However, Nancy Parrott Hickerson, in her book, “The Jumanos,” gives a skeptic's account of the miracle story – suggesting the Natives may have been manipulating the Spanish into providing them protection from other tribes. But both believers and doubters all seem to agree that the Indians did in fact show up uninvited at the missions wanting to talk to the priests.

As to the Native American perspective, historians Donald Chipman and Harriett Joseph found this piece of Jumano tribal lore that speaks to the origin of Texas Bluebonnet Flowers.  “When [the Lady in Blue] last appeared, she blessed us and slowly went away into the hills. The next morning the area was covered with a blanket of strange flowers that were a deep blue.”

María de Ágreda was also a theological writer. Her best known work,“Mystical City of God,” relates her revelations about the earthly and heavenly life, as dictated to her (she said) by the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

Not surprisingly, Señora María's fame eventually drew the attention of the Spanish Inquisition, which believed that such mystics ("alumbrados") challenged ecclesiastical authority and priestly functions. The nun argued that she did the work of the Church during her spiritual journeys – and never had to stand trial,

During the last twenty-two years of her life, Sor María was an active correspondent with (perhaps advisor to) the Spanish king, Philip IV.  She died at the convent in Ágreda on May 24, 1665. Less than ten years after her death, she was declared “Venerable” by Pope Clement X, for her "heroic life of virtue." The process of beatification (sainthood) was opened in 1673, but is not yet completed.

Sor María's casket was opened in 1909 and a cursory scientific examination was performed on the body. Eighty years later, a Spanish physician named Andreas Medina participated in another inspection of her remains. "When we compared the state of the body, as it was described in the medical report from 1909, with how it appeared in 1989, we realized it had absolutely not deteriorated at all in the last eighty years.” 

(Incorruptibility is a Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox belief that divine intervention allows some human bodies to avoid the normal process of decomposition after death as a sign of their holiness. Those lobbying for her canonization, see this is as further evidence of her sanctity.)  
 Her remains are on display in a glass-lidded coffin in the convent where she served as abbess until her death. 

Other than the occasional folk art or fine art painting, and the connection to Texas bluebonnets, neither Conquistadora nor the Blue Nun have found their way into popular culture to anywhere near the extent that Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe has.

That eponymous German Liebfraumilch wine promoted in the 1970s in radio advertisements featuring the comedy team of Stiller and Meara – and imbibed by many of us back then – does not count.

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