Jesus Suarez was on his lunch break, and in a big hurry to eat, but not such a hurry as to keep him from darting into the other room and returning with a framed print that hid most of his body.
His wife, Josephina, spooned large helpings of morisqueta, a spicy dish of pork, beans and rice that’s popular in Jesus’ hometown of Michoacan, Mexico. He propped the enormous picture against the dining room wall.
The image was of an Mexican woman, dressed in a turquoise cloak, with rays of light emanating around her. Her skin was the dark, tan hue Mexicans call “cafe,” and around her hands she wore a black ribbon, showing that she was pregnant.
Jesus returned to his food, and Jospehina spoke of her family’s great devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“She is the mother of Jesus, and the mother of us all,” she said. “She is close to the heart of all Mexican people.”
Throughout the world, Mary, the mother of Jesus, wears many faces. In the Orient she has the small, delicate features of Asian women. In Africa she has short, coarse hair and a long, swan-like tribal neck. Throughout Latin America, “La Virgen,” as she is known, has obsidian hair and mocha skin, the hallmark features of the Aztecs, the indigenous people who inhabited Mexico when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century.
According to the story, in 1531 Mary appeared to an Indian peasant named Juan Diego. Her intercession helped bring peace between the natives and the Spanish, and as a sign of proof the virgin emblazoned her image on Diego’s cloak.
A skeptic might see traces of revisionist history in the story, but that doesn’t diminish the symbolic power that Our Lady of Guadelupe has among Hispanic Catholics.
She is everywhere – in homes, in churches, even on belt-buckles and tattoos.
At El Reparo Mexican store in New Albany, owner Veronica Valadez held a candle featuring the image of the virgin, a popular item among the people from Latin American countries who patronize her business.
“She is like a symbol of unity,” said Valadez, recalling neighborhood celebrations in her childhood home of Michoacan, big parties held on hillsides that were decorated to resemble the sacred Tepeyac Hill, just outside Mexico City, where the apparition occurred.
At the counter, Raquel Fuentes, a native of Jalisco, spoke of her firm belief that miracles come through the intercession of the virgin.
“I’ve seen it,” she said. “People believe that if you pray for the virgin’s help, she will care for you with love and tenderness.”
Belief in the virgin’s miraculous powers pervades Hispanic culture.
Maria Elena Mendoza’s son, Ishmael, was born with a skeletal defect affecting his skull and legs. Doctors in Mexico didn’t give him much of chance but Mendoza prayed to the virgin for her “pobrecito” and, after a series of operations – first in Mexico, then in Memphis – he was able to walk and to function at a high level.
Mendoza is convinced La Virgen interceded to Jesus on behalf of her son and, as a memento, throughout her “poor, little house,” she keeps images of the virgin, including a tapestry, and several statues and candles.
To the uninitiated such trinkets might seem like idol worship, but according to Elquin Gonzales, Hispanic minister at St. James Catholic Church in Tupelo, that’s a misunderstanding.
“We should think of Mary like the Arc of the Covenant,” said Gonzales, pouring green salsa over hand-made tortillas filled with carne asada and chorizo. He said a quick hello to the cooks at La Carreta Mexican Restaurant in Tupelo.
“The Virgin of Guadalupe is pregnant, she carries Jesus inside. The children of Israel didn’t worship the arc, they treasured what was inside it.”
Hispanic Catholics, said Gonzales, don’t pray to Mary, nor do they worship her. They venerate her as the means through which Jesus entered the world.
“This is not magic,” he said, gathering a pinch of cilantro. “She is the ‘nuevo arco,’ the new Arc of the Covenant.”
The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, celebrated Dec. 12, is more than just a religious observation, it’s a celebration of Hispanic heritage.
This afternoon Gabby Martinez will portray the virgin in a vehicle parade that will make its way through the streets of New Albany.
The 14-year-old considers it a great honor to portray Mary, and she admires the fact that the mother of Jesus didn’t allow public opinion to dissuade her from following God’s call.
“Fr. Mario told me I might have to spend some hours in the sun, first,” said Martinez, laughing and rubbing her light brown skin.
Jessica Guzman, 14, will portray the virgin in the church’s Christmas festivities.
“She was strong, and she had the courage to bring Jesus into the world,” said Guzman.
Over the last nine days Hispanic members of St. James in Tupelo have held a novena, meeting each night to pray and to recite the rosary, a series of meditations upon scripture and the life of the virgin.
After the rosary the members of “La Danza” performed the tribal dance of the Aztecs. Underneath the bright moon the dancers moved like ghosts, bouncing and turning to the haunting beat of drums, demonstrating how their ancestors once honored the virgin.
Their dress and stoic, tan faces looked like a mystical vision of the past.
St. James, too, will have a procession today, starting at noon in the MDOT parking lot and ending at the church.
Church youth will portray the peasant Juan Diego, and the virgin who spoke to him of hope in desperate times. This year the story is especially poignant.
“The Christian faith is dynamic, and adapts to meet the needs of each age,” said Gonzales at St. James.
The virgin first revealed herself to a very poor man, and this year Hispanics, who are statistically among the poorest in the nation, are being hit hard by the recession.
Many are turning to Our Lady of Guadalupe for help.
Sigifredo Bonilla, Hispanic pastor at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Ripley, perhaps said it best.
“The virgin is a great consolation, a source of strength, to people who cry out in need,” he said. “Like all mothers, she is the giver of love, the protector of the poor.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal