Photo by Jack Gould
Its 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. Bermejos 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 maids quarters by the so-called Princes of the Church whove 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 its been damaged and has faded. Couldnt 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 whove grown up with this incarnation of Mary as a source of spiritual and cultural pride.
Walk into any Catholic home, and the first thing youre going to see is the Virgin of Guadalupe. Shes the mother, our mother. Thats 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 cathedrals version of the Virgin different from countless others is this: Its a digital replica of the original image, prominently and permanently displayed in Mexico Citys 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 Basilicas icon was a result of a miracle in which the Virgins portrait was imprinted on Juan Diegos 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.
Theres 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 were afraid it could deteriorate. Already the colors are fading.
Sure enough, at the top right of the image, inside the Plexiglas, theres a dark stain thats a dead ringer for Mikhail Gorbachevs birthmark. Nevertheless, Los Angeles archdiocese spokesperson Carolina Guevara insists theres 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 suns rays with special UV protection. As for the shrines cranny outside of Cardinal Mahonys palatial, $189 million cathedral complex, the archdiocese asserts that this is a place of honor, where the most people can see it.
We dont want to ever keep the faithful from the Virgin, explains Guevara, who says massive celebrations of the Virgins 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. Its unfortunate some feel shes been placed, I guess you can say, in the servants quarters, because that wasnt 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 Virgins 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 Unicas 1580 AM says shes 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.
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Despite Guevaras 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 didnt 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. Theres no way to guarantee it isnt going to fade. Such prints are very fragile and are generally not shown outdoors.
Guevara did not know how much the cathedrals 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 archdioceses position seems to be that their Virgin has looked like this from the beginning and that those who say theres been deterioration are surely mistaken.
They should tell that to Jose Feliciano, scoffed Bermejo, referring to the blind balladeer. Maybe hed believe them as long as he didnt listen to anybody else.