Virgin Territory 

Who's Defacing Our Lady of South-Central

Wednesday, Nov 10 1999

Marvin Torres has a theory about the Virgin Mary. In the eyes of some people, he suggests, she has a dark side. Catholics may hold her dear as a symbol of all things pure and righteous, but followers of other faiths harbor serious doubts. ”I know someone who said that before she had Jesus, she was just one of the people,“ he says. ”She lived like everybody else, she did what everybody did. And she had another rep back then, a bad rep. Some people say she slept around -- that she wasn’t even a virgin.

“I don‘t believe this. But it’s what I‘ve heard people say. And these people,” he says, gesturing out the open door to the traffic on Central Avenue, “maybe they like these stories. Maybe they want to bring attention to the bad side of her. Maybe they don’t even believe in her.”

By “these people,” Torres means the unidentified vandals who over the past month have been defiling local murals depicting the Virgen de Guadalupe, the apparition of Mary revered by Catholic Mexicans. Up and down San Pedro and Central avenues, from 27th Street to 60th Street, someone has taken spray paint to the virgins, obscuring their faces with blotches of blue, plastering “666” across their middles. At Rosita‘s Market at 36th and San Pedro, a Virgen bears the mark of the beast in a muddy red; nine blocks north, on the wall of Alvarez Furniture, her entire image has been obliterated with white paint, leaving visible only the landscape of succulents that surrounds her. On a mural at 40th Place and Central, renderings of Mickey Mouse, a medieval king and a blond angel who looks like a cheerleader have all been spared, but the Virgen has been tagged in the blue of a video screen gone blank. A few weeks ago, the vision of the Virgen on the building where Torres works, Evita’s Furniture at 5736 S. Central Ave., had been painted blue in the face, too. But the store‘s owner, Eva Rivera, quickly paid another artist 30 dollars to fix it, and after eight days, it remains unsullied.

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Other self-declared muralists around the neighborhood have been offering to touch up marred virgins for the same price, giving rise to yet another rumor. “You know who I think did it?” offers Torres’ father, Rafael, shouting down from a ladder he has climbed to install a wall-mounted security camera inside the store. “The people who are now offering to repair it. For them, this is just business.”

Pedro Villalobos, husband of the Rosita for whom the market is named, blames the usual neighborhood kids. Veronica Hernandez at L.A. Meat Market suspects that the culprits attend one of the Pentecostal or Evangelical churches now competing with the Catholic Church for Latino members. Like Marvin Torres, she wonders if the people who have been moved to destroy the image regard Mary as merely human. (Pamphlets have been circulating the neighborhood declaring, “God has no mother” and denouncing the “cult” of Mary.) Some non-Latinos have suspected the Crips and the Bloods, but Latinos on Central Avenue dismiss that notion. “I don‘t think it would be African-Americans,” says Hernandez, whose brother, Octavio, owns the market. “I mean, why? What would they have against the Virgen?” Absolutely no one suspects Latino gangs. From the 18th Street to the Mexican Mafia, or “Eme,” the gangs on these streets hang Virgens from their rearview mirrors and display her on their T-shirts. “Even the pandilleros respect the Virgen,” says Eva Rivera. “They would never be doing this. They know it’s bad luck to touch her.”

On December 12, 1531, so the story goes, on the hill of Tepeyac in the town of Guadalupe, a woman wearing a turquoise robe over a pink dress appeared before Juan Diego, an Aztec Indian who had recently converted to Catholicism. The vision bore a distinct resemblance to Diego‘s people; she had their dark skin and narrow eyes, but she also came surrounded in a mist of gold -- a sure sign to Diego that she was not of this world. The Virgen asked Diego to approach the local bishop, Fray Juan de Zumarraga, about building a shrine in her honor. Diego did as instructed. But Zumarraga refused the request on the grounds Diego had no evidence of a miracle. So the next day, the Virgen showed up again -- this time presenting Diego with a bouquet of roses in a land where no roses were known to grow. Diego wrapped the roses in his poncho and returned to Zumarraga, who reportedly fell to his knees, burst into tears and commissioned the shrine. Imprinted on the cloth of Diego’s garment was the now-famous image: the Virgen with hands in prayer, her body being held aloft by an angel.

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