Re-Contextualizing Resitance: From the Shores of Patmos to the Barrios of East Los Angeles
“And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” Rev 12:1. Throughout the course of human history, dominating peoples have used foundation myths to justify their claims to power and the subjugation of those under their jurisdiction.
These foundational myths come in a variety of forms, some claim a special relationship between a deity and a people, and others purport a direct genealogy between the gods and a monarch or a prophetic figure of the ruling class. Regardless of form, these myths serve as justification for the construction of a social order and the creation of a hierarchy of varying categories of humanity. On the other hand, these myths have occasionally been reconfigured and manipulated by those who have been marginalized by the powerful of society. In shrouded moments of resistance, those living life on the margins take possession of these myths and claim them on their own interpretive terms, creating alternative categories of power. In seventeenth century Mexico and twentieth century East Los Angeles a similar reappropriation and recontextualization of the account found in chapter 12 of the book of Revelation took place.
The year was 1531, according to the most popular form of the Mexican myth, that the Virgin Mary appeared to an Aztec peasant by the name of Juan Diego, a mere ten years after the Spanish conquest of central Mexico. The Virgin’s message was one of comfort, support, and compassion. As a sign of her epiphany, she would leave an imprint of her image on the cloak of this Aztec peasant that he might convince the Spanish religious of her desires. Fig. 1 is a photograph of the cloak that is believed to retain her image and is venerated by millions annually in a basilica in Tepeyac, Mexico.
Upon first glance, the story seems a neat package for the propagation of the theory that this epiphany transpires in response to the tragic miscarriage of justice that occurred during the colonization of the Americas by the Iberian conquistadores. But upon closer analysis, a complex and highly textured tradition of religious resistance emerges that begins not in the Central Valley of Mexico, but in the southwest of Spain and the island of Patmos in Asia Minor.
The name given to this Marian apparition is not the Virgin of Tepeyac, where the epiphany took place and where the cloak now resides, but rather the Virgin of Guadalupe, a toponym that finds its roots in the Estremadura region of Spain. Fig. 1 is the Spanish Virgin of Guadalupe, the precursor to her Mexican counterpart. Note the differences in the two images. The Spanish Guadalupe holds the infant Jesus and is a statue, whereas the Mexican Virgin is a painting without child—nevertheless, both are given the name Guadalupe suggesting a shared tradition.
It takes minimal effort on the part of the historian to come to the conclusion that the Mexican Virgin is an import from Spain. Upon first cultural contact, the myth functions as the master’s tool in service of imperial ideology. Louise Burkhart, a contemporary historian of the Guadalupan myth, notes that: “The story is highly consistent with European legends about apparitions and the foundation of religious shrines;” the Mexican Virgin is, in her terms, “highly European.”
It is also of note that the chief conquistador, Hernan Cortés, himself a resident of Estremadura, Spain, bore the image of the Virgin on his battle standards and made a common practice of leaving Maria images in Aztec temples. Burkhart on this matter that:
In Christianizing non-Christian scared spaces with images of Mary, Cortés was following the common Spanish practice of turning mosques in conquered Moorish territories into churches by dedicating them to [the Virgin of Guadalupe].1
Chroniclers of the conquest recount tales that along with St. James, the Virgin Mary supposedly cast dirt in the eyes of Aztec soldiers during many battles, thereby advocating for and defending Spanish troops. The Guadalupan myth was no doubt well entrenched in Spanish sensibilities long before any expeditions to the New World. The comforter of the Americas made her first appearance as la conquistadora of the Americas, a transformation that should not go unnoticed.
Based on a cursory review of sixteenth-century accounts of the conquest, I am compelled to recognize that the introduction of the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe to the indigenous people of Central Mexico came not with the epiphany at Tepeyac, but rather as a result of Spaniards bringing her from their homeland. I acknowledge the European roots of the Virgin of Guadalupe not to dilute or discount her later appropriation and veneration by generations of Mexicans, but rather to highlight the colonial or imperial phenomenon in which subjugated peoples appropriate and subvert the foundational myths of their conquerors. I am trying to understand how and why the myth becomes so embedded in Mexican Catholic identity and Mexican notions of nationalism if indeed the story’s roots come from Spain, the conqueror and colonizer of Mexico.
To answer this question we must turn our attention to seventeenth-century Mexico. This century becomes relevant because until this time, specifically 1648 and 1649—117 years after the traditional apparition date, the icon of Guadalupe functioned without an Americanized form of the myth. Up until that time, the shrine’s principal clientele was the Spanish population of Mexico City. So what happens in 1648? A Creole priest by the name of Miguel Sánchez writes what is recognized as the foundational myth for the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe using Revelation 12 as his interpretive optic—a text filled with its own imperial entanglements.
Also illuminating is Stafford Poole’s explanation of the tense relationship between the Spanish peninsulars and the American-born Creoles. He observes:
Though the only difference between criollos and peninsular Spaniards was their place of birth, the criollos saw themselves as marginalized. Disdained by the peninsulars, excluded from the topmost positions of local government, and fettered by what they regarded as second-class citizenship, they reacted by developing a strong sense of group identity…criollism.2
Poole goes on to note that:
The eagerness and rapidity with which the criollos, especially the clergy, embraced the new devotion and used it as a basis for a myth of uniqueness and distinct identity show that criollism had reached a critical mass by the mid- seventeenth century.3
The script was in place. Sánchez had willingly adopted the peninsular Spanish tradition of Guadalupan worship and had reframed it as the myth of origins for the new chosen people, the Creoles of New Spain, through the interpretive worldview of Revelation 12. It is a powerful example of the appropriation and subversion of myths by these so-called marginalized Creoles.
In 1649 the myth is appropriated once more. Again, it is a Creole priest, Luis Laso de la Vega, who adopts it, but on this occasion his recontextualization of the myth expounds a much different agenda than Sánchez’s. De la Vega writes his account in Nahuatl, the native tongue of the Aztecs (Sánchez had composed his version in Spanish), most likely an attempt to appeal to the common language and symbolism to encourage Marian devotion among Nahua (Aztec) audiences. In contrast to Sanchez’s reading in favor of Creoles, de la Vega stresses the Virgin’s concern for the Indians. According to Poole:
Unlike Sanchez, Laso de la Vega did not identify the Virgin of Guadalupe with criollismo; rather he pictured her as the mother and protectress of the Indians, toward whom she shows special love.4
Departing from the model of his predecessor, de la Vega recontextualizes the myth of Guadalupe for the promotion of an indigenous agenda in New Spain. This recontextualization is even more fascinating in light of the fact that de la Vega wrote the introduction to Sanchez’s work! Evidently, he was not comfortable with its Creole agenda and felt compelled to respond to it only six months after it was written.
What is acutely evident is that within 130 years of the conquest, at least three forms of the Guadalupan myth are circulating in New Spain: one advocating Spanish colonialism through an apocalyptic religious worldview, another promoting the rising Creole sense of uniqueness, and finally another advocating for those Aztecs whose social, cultural, religious, and political worlds had been displaced by Spanish colonialism.
According to Poole, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it is de la Vega’s appropriation with its indigenous agenda that has continued to capture the imaginations of contemporary Mexicans, and by extension, Chicanos. This allegiance to de la Vega’s account was no doubt fueled in 1810 by Miguel Hidalgo’s employment of the popular myth in the upstart revolution to expel Spain from Mexico. Since that time, many movements of resistance have taken up arms behind the banner of the beloved Virgin.
Today, contemporary East Los Angeles is no exception. Figures 2–4 are just a few examples of her omnipresence in East Los Angeles. The Virgin has taken up permanent residence in these barrios. She is literally everywhere. What can we say about her presence and contemporary modes of resistance? We must begin by asserting that her earliest manifestations in public art can be attributed to the Chicano Resistance Movement of the 1960s and ’70s. She is representative, then, of a Chicano political consciousness. We should be explicit in recognizing that the term Chicano is first and foremost a political term. It is a rejection of the hyphenated and benign label Mexican-American, and is synonymous in many ways to the Black rejection of African American. In my worldview, to call oneself Chicano is to take a political posture of resistance. It is also an act of appropriation and subversion. It is not a self-derived label but the resignification of a derogatory term imposed upon Mexican field workers by Anglo landowners of the southwest United States, formerly Mexico. It is claiming the master’s tool on our terms.
So then, what are we to make of this public art, this muralism of our Lady of Guadalupe on the streets of East L.A.? Shifra Goldman has observed that the mural genre is embedded in and reflective of resistance. Muralism, to her, “was clearly an art of advocacy, and in many cases it was intended to change consciousness and promote political action.…The role of the arts was to restore understanding of and pride in the heritage and cultures that the concept of [imperial] superiority had subverted.”5
Chicana scholar and activist Alicia Gaspar de Alba, commenting on the mindset of resistance in Chicano public art, notes, “Embedded in the images of the brown skinned Virgin and the black thunderbird on the red United Farm Workers flag was the ideology of resistance—to dehumanization, colonization, and assimilation—as well as the politics of affirmation.”6 From the time that Spaniards employed her in their battles with the Moors through the period of the Chicano Resistance Movement, the Virgin of Guadalupe stands at the center of advocacy and resistance, appropriation and subversion.
From Patmos to East Los Angeles
My project of studying the murals of East L.A. has challenged me to account for and define the relationship that binds three very different historical moments and locations: first-century Asia Minor, seventeenth-century Mexico, and contemporary East Los Angeles. I have attempted to understand this relationship by emphasizing documented patterns of resistance where the powerless, the colonized, or the imperialized are subjugated by the very powerful. On these patterns of resistance, Vincent Wimbush makes the following observation:
If power is really power insofar as it is comprehensive, sedimented, or profoundly, deeply embedded within every aspect of social order, with the purpose of holding all constitutive elements in place, then there must first always be resistance to it.7
The symbolism offered by popular religion is one of the few resources of identity over which an oppressed people can exercise some authority.8 This appears to be the case in Revelation 12, the literary model for subsequent artistic representations of Guadalupe. Revelation 12 with its heavenly woman, dragon, and divine offspring is an appropriation and subversion of the Greco-Roman Leto-Python and Apollo myth, a myth foundational for manifestations of imperial worship in Asia Minor.9 Adela Yarbro Collins notes:
The similarities between these two narratives are too great to be accidental. They clearly indicate dependence. Since the Leto myth is the older of the two, we must conclude that Revelation12, at least in part, is an adaptation of the myth of the birth of Apollo.…There is a considerable amount of literary and monumental evidence which shows that the Leto-Python-Apollo myth was well-known in Western Asia Minor in the first centuries BCE and CE.10
What is most striking about this observation is that John’s island prison of Patmos is not at all far from the sacred island of Delos—the place where the divine Apollo is said to have been born. Based on this observation it may be possible to extrapolate that at least one early Christian author sought to write back at the Roman Empire using their own symbolic language and ideologies of domination. What John of Patmos masterfully does is appropriate and subvert this imperial ideology to his listeners’ (and, later, readers’) advantage. It is a Christian recontextualization or redirecting of a myth used to justify imperial notions of domination. In the hands of the empire this myth was used to justify claims to power, and on occasion, claims of divinity by several Roman emperors. In the hands of the marginal it is used as a counter-discourse in the construction of a counter-empire with messianic allusions to a counter-king. In the hands of the empire it is an example of at least one myth used to justify the subjugation of non-Roman peoples. In the hands of the marginal it is an idealistic call for the reordering of power in apocalyptic Christian terms.
The book of Revelation has been an enigmatic text for Christians throughout the centuries. In Latin America and other third-world countries it has been read as a book of hope and final redemption in a world order that has been so unjust. It reflects upon a time when God will reorder current power structures that, in their terms, have been created by no one less then Satan himself. In first-world countries, this counter-imperial text is read from the perspective of the imperial, and, as we read in other pages of this magazine, at times is even used to justify religious violence in the name of God’s people in hopes of ushering in God’s bloody apocalypse.
The examples from Patmos, Mexico City, and East Los Angeles are illuminating because they explicitly juxtapose imperial and counter-imperial readings, thereby highlighting the issue of ownership and interpretation of sacred texts. Unfortunately, representations of these complex relationships are generally obscured by the fact that it is usually those with power that document such encounters relegating strategies of the marginal to the periphery leaving us with a one-sided, imbalanced history. It should, however, be emphasized that the powerful are not in the interpretive position to decipher the meanings and strategies conjured by those living on the margins of society. And this fact is the beauty of the whole nature of the appropriation and subversion of dominant worldviews. It is an off-stage performance not meant for the eyes of the powerful serving as a subliminal strategy of survival and renegotiation. Whether it is Rome and its subjects, Spain and its colonies, or these United States and its continued practice of neocolonialism, the marginalized continue to present a public face of appropriation and submission, and an off-stage performance of subversion and resistance, in the hope that that the powerful might “see without perceiving and hear without understanding.”
1. Louise Burkhart, Before Guadalupe: The Virgin Mary in Early Colonial Nahuatl Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 2.
2. Stafford Poole, Our Lady of Guadalupe: The Origins and Sources of a Mexican National Symbol, 1531–1797 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997), 1.
3. Ibid., 1.
4. Poole, Our Lady of Guadalupe, 126.
5. Shifra M. Goldman, “Mexican Muralism: Its Social-Educative Roles in Latin America and the United States,” in The Chicano Studies Reader: An Anthology of Aztlán, 1970–2000, eds. Chon Noriega, et al. (Los Angeles: Chicano Studies Research Center Publications, 2001), 281.
6. Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Chicano Art: Inside/ Outside the Master’s House: Cultural Politics and the CARA Exhibition (Austin: University of Texas Press,
7. Vincent L. Wimbush, “Introduction: Interpreting Resistance, Resisting Interpretations,” Rhetorics of Resistance: A Colloquy on Early Christianity as Rhetorical Formation. Semeia: An Experimental Journal for Biblical Criticism (1997): 6.
8. Robert J. Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies (New York: Orbis Books, 1985), 136–7.
9. It is not my contention that the Leto–Python– Apollo myth is the only pagan influence for the highly textured Revelation 12; it is however, the most relevant for this current discussion of later appropriations.
10. Adela Yarbro Collins, The Combat Myth in the Book of Revelation (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1976), 67 and 71.
David Sanchez has taught in the Religious Studies Department of Mount Saint Mary’s College in Los Angeles, California. Later this year he will assume a teaching post at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles. A student of Vincent Wimbush (’78M.Div.), he is currently completing his dissertation, which is a study of the imagery of the book of Revelation in Chicano murals in East Los Angeles.