Thursday, March 12, 2009

Virgin Territory -- Introduction

Hooray! Two of my paintings have sold! The Face in the Crowd at Chichicastenango remains on display at Xaltemba, and perhaps may also find a home before the show closes on the 15th of this month. Today is market day, and I'm headed over in a few minutes to check it out.

In the meantime, I've been writing more on Virgin Territory. I had another reading last week, and those attending were enthusiastic. Also, their feedback was invaluable. I'm coming to appreciate the communal nature of creativity. Raise the rate of circulation and the work itself is invigorated. I've decided to start posting some of the chapters here on the blog. Here's the introduction --

In late 2006, my husband and I moved to the Pacific Coast of Mexico just north of Puerto Vallarta, having sold practically everything we owned in the United States. It was a decision made in a moment of either inspiration or sheer madness, but we have had not one regret. Our new home is in a rural area, though visions of a glitzy “Riviera Nayarit” dance in the heads of the governor and local movers and shakers. It hasn’t happened yet. Perhaps with the current economic meltdown, paradise may be safe for a while longer.

For me, like thousands of other gringos, Mexico these days represents a new beginning. It is definitely “virgin territory” in that sense. But our new beginnings are planted in the dust of ancient civilizations. Vestiges of those who have been here before remain in various forms and practices. Most notable of all is Our Lady of Guadalupe, “Goddess of the Americas.” She is an indigenous icon with origins that stretch back thousands of years, and her presence and influence continue to grow stronger both north and south of Mexico’s borders. Clothed with the sun, heavy with child, she graces more pickup windshields, notebook covers and shopping bags than she does church altars. Though appropriated by the Catholic Church, she transcends any religious denomination. She may very well be the reason women in particular feel nurtured and protected in a country that is so completely “other” from its neighbors to the north.

Christianity, in general, has not dealt well with the Virgin Mary. It’s sort of been “thanks for the baby, lady, now go get lost.” Many Protestants look on her with downright suspicion, like adoptive parents fearful of the claims of a teenaged birth mother. But in Mexico the Virgin, La Madrecita, is honored as no other place on earth. On December 11, pilgrims converge on the second-most visited Catholic site in the world, the Shrine of Guadalupe. The number grows exponentially each year. This past year there were over five million. They come to “watch” with her on the day traditionally celebrated as the anniversary of her appearance to Juan Diego on the hillside of Tepeyac outside of present day Mexico City. Smaller crowds, no less fervent, gather in other parts of the Americas from Anchorage to Tierra del Fuego. Where I live now, it’s celebrated in tiny, makeshift shrines in the dirt streets of La Colonia and La Penita – and it is celebrated exuberantly in Technicolor and surround-sound. Evidently Guadalupe loves fireworks.

“We’re looking for Christmas lights,” my Canadian neighbor says, speaking in the clipped, exact tones of her native South Africa. “White ones that don’t flash.” We’ve met in the tianguis, the Thursday market in La PeƱita on the American Thanksgiving Day. “Tupperware Alley” is what gringos call the extension of the market which stretches away from the Indian handwork and colorful displays in the main plaza. Here vendors spread the more mundane items that are needed on a daily basis – plastic dishes, clothes pins, pirated DVD’s, patent leather sandals, some of the most formidable padded bras I’ve ever seen, and now, Christmas decorations. There is not a white light to be found. Guadalupe likes color, and preferably color that flashes.

Very shortly after we moved to Mexico, both my parents had major health crises. My mother sent my sisters and me notes she’d made for obituaries -- hers and dad’s. My father’s ran on for pages; hers was no more than a paragraph. Mom, who had always been there. Dad, who even when physically present was mentally preoccupied with something other than the child before him. I received the notes when I opened my email the morning after the night I’d spent at a velada for Guadalupe, an all night watch which I’d left at midnight. Scrolling through the pdf attachment written in my mother’s still strong and legible hand, I felt vindicated for our move to Mexico. Here I was in a country that honored La Madre, that told and retold her story, celebrated her appearance each year with hot chocolate and tamales and fireworks at two in the morning. Mothers matter in Mexico, and Guadalupe is the archetype.

Not that Guadalupe is the only virgin in Mexico. Oh, no. She appears in many forms and places, a great variety of virgins – the one at Talpa, at Zapopan, as well as others. The dust of Mexico is heavy with stories of how and when she’s graced humanity with her presence. In the New World, it is usually in a field, usually to a peasant farmer, and usually the virgin asks for a shrine to be built so the indigenous population can convert their pagan worship to a more institutional form. Telling other people how they should pray is a time-honored tradition that continues alive and well today.

And yet there is a growing tendency to refuse religion in a box, to resist having one’s spiritual content accounted for with the detail of Nutrition Facts on the back of a cereal carton. Perhaps this is why Guadalupe’s influence is growing. More than any other icon, she epitomizes a popular religiosity unconfined to any institution. An unmediated experience of divinity is no longer the privilege of an ordained few or of a specific gender. And Guadalupe isn’t just for Hispanics and Catholics any more. She is a current symbol of an ancient ethos, a touchstone for what is colorful, primitive, and free-flowing.

In 1810, Mexico’s Father Hidalgo raised a flag emblazoned with the Virgin of Guadalupe to encourage rebellion of the indigenous classes against the despotism of the ruling Spanish. Guadalupe still symbolizes resistance to “the man.” Her image has been appropriated for better or worse by street gangs in the States and narco-traficantes plying their trade across borders. But she also provides a rallying point for creative rebellion. For anyone at odds with engrained church doctrine and tradition of any denomination, she offers new mental and spiritual landscapes to explore. For the hurt or wounded, the mentally, physically or spiritually abused, she reflects an image that is unbroken, unharmed and intact. And for anyone who longs to claim a unique identity and an intrinsic value above and beyond conventional roles and relationships, the Virgin embodies a one-in-herself-ness, that says “YOU are complete and worthy right now, just the way you are and just because you are.”

For anyone who longs to reclaim their own inner virgin, I dedicate these pages.


Laura said...

wow, that makes you a professional painter!!! an "artiste"!

you are so amazing. love that you're posting your book, too.

love you!

Chris said...

Yes! Congrats my friend!