Dear God!

Photo by Jack Gould

It’s a windy afternoon on the Plaza of the People, and Ruben Bermejo is staring at one of the most sacred images to Latin American Catholics, the Virgin of Guadalupe, revered as the “Empress of the Americas.” Bermejo’s prickly salt-and-pepper eyebrows, though, are furrowed in anger and dismay. In his view, this once awe-inspiring Empress has been shuffled off to the maid’s quarters by the so-called Princes of the Church who’ve hung the image in a niche outside and to the far right of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

“Why is it out in the open, exposed to the sun and the weather?” asks the longtime Catholic activist. “Anyone can see it’s been damaged and has faded. Couldn’t they find room inside for the Mother of God?”

Bermejo, a freelance events promoter and volunteer for a number of humanitarian causes, was born in Mexico and raised in East L.A. His experience of the Virgin is common to the vast majority of Latinos who’ve grown up with this incarnation of Mary as a source of spiritual and cultural pride.

“Walk into any Catholic home, and the first thing you’re going to see is the Virgin of Guadalupe. She’s the mother, our mother. That’s how important she is to us. Would you put your mother outside on the street? For Guadalupanas and even to non-Guadalupanas, this is an insult. They should call her the ‘Homeless Virgin.’”

Believers hold that in 1531 the Virgin appeared to Saint Juan Diego, a poor, humble, native Mexican farmer. Since that time, her likeness has become nearly ubiquitous wherever the population waxes Latino, popping up in everything from murals and posters to tattoos and T-shirts.

What makes the cathedral’s version of the Virgin different from countless others is this: It’s a digital replica of the original image, prominently and permanently displayed in Mexico City’s Basilica of Guadalupe. In addition, it is one of several such replicas blessed by Pope John Paul II for exhibit throughout the Americas.

Legend has it that the Basilica’s icon was a result of a miracle in which the Virgin’s portrait was imprinted on Juan Diego’s tilma, a cloak or poncho woven from cactus fibers. Photos of the tilma show a traditional Madonna with mestizo features dressed in a colorful robe of green and gold. However, in the digital reproduction outside the cathedral, the colors are paler than a cheap pack of cigarettes left to rot in the rain. And there are other signs of wear and tear.

“There’s a big spot on it already,” says Martha Jimenez, a soft-spoken Guadalupana who lives in City Terrace. “And inside you can see a little bit of moisture. So we’re afraid it could deteriorate. Already the colors are fading.”

Sure enough, at the top right of the image, inside the Plexiglas, there’s a dark stain that’s a dead ringer for Mikhail Gorbachev’s birthmark. Nevertheless, Los Angeles archdiocese spokesperson Carolina Guevara insists there’s been no noticeable damage to the image since it was installed last year. She says the frame is waterproof, and that the reproduction is shielded from the sun’s rays with special UV protection. As for the shrine’s cranny outside of Cardinal Mahony’s palatial, $189 million cathedral complex, the archdiocese asserts that this is a place of honor, where the most people can see it.

“We don’t want to ever keep the faithful from the Virgin,” explains Guevara, who says massive celebrations of the Virgin’s December 12 feast requires it to be outside and accessible. “She is the Virgin of the people, and the Plaza is a place where everyone communes and comes together. It’s unfortunate some feel she’s been placed, I guess you can say, in the ‘servant’s quarters,’ because that wasn’t the intention. On the contrary, we wanted to give her a special place where she can be honored in the way she deserves.”

Guevara points out that on the other side of the Virgin’s niche a 12-foot-high tile mural of the Virgin can be seen from the Hollywood Freeway, and she adds that since the Virgin was installed, thousands have visited her without any formal protest. That may soon change as Guadalupanas I spoke to said they were planning demonstrations during the month of June. Adding fuel to the fire, both Univision and Telemundo have both done stories on the controversy. Talk-radio personality Alicia Alarcón of Radio Unica’s 1580 AM says she’s broadcast several shows on the subject, each receiving an overwhelming response from listeners. And the traditionalist Los Angeles Lay Catholic Mission recently made the item page-one news.

Despite Guevara’s assurances that the Virgin is well-protected from the elements, Jack Duganne of Duganne Ateliers in Santa Monica, a fine-art printmaker with 33 years of experience, told me that the combined factors of sunlight, pollution and humidity make the outdoors a particularly aggressive environment for a print. Though he could not comment directly on the Virgin without knowing details of how the image was reproduced (details that the archdiocese didn’t seem to know, either), Duganne said even UV-resistant Plexiglas would only retard the process of deterioration on most prints, not halt it.

“Having a digital image on paper outside is a crapshoot,” he says. “There’s no way to guarantee it isn’t going to fade. Such prints are very fragile and are generally not shown outdoors.”

Guevara did not know how much the cathedral’s reproduction cost. She was confident the archdiocese could order another if need be, but insisted this would not be necessary as the image had incurred no damage. The archdiocese’s position seems to be that their Virgin has looked like this from the beginning and that those who say there’s been deterioration are surely mistaken.

“They should tell that to Jose Feliciano,” scoffed Bermejo, referring to the blind balladeer. “Maybe he’d believe them — as long as he didn’t listen to anybody else.”

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