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Virgin Territory

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.

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.

As with most religious miracles, there are deep and telling politics to this story. The Spaniards had arrived scarcely a quarter of a century before, and the process of colonizing the indigenous peoples required quick conversion to Catholicism. According to Marcos Sanchez, manager of the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) in Venice, the hill in Tepeyac was also the site chosen by Coatilceu (Kwad-lee-kay), the ancient Aztec earth goddess. The colors associated with the Virgen -- turquoise, gold and pink -- were also the colors of Aztec royalty.

“The Virgen de Guadalupe is one of the oldest images native to Mexico,” says Sanchez. “She‘s not an imported icon. Her skin is bronze. Her features look like the Mexicans’. She redeemed a people who survived the conquest, who had just had their whole world taken out from under them.” If the appearance of the Virgen was comforting to the Mexicans, she was also convenient for the conquistadors, a sign of Catholicism‘s pre-eminence. “Some people will say that it was all orchestrated by the Spanish to control the Mexican population, and that’s partly true,” he avers. “But that does not take away the faith people have placed in this icon, nor the attachment the Mexican people have to her.” Here was a holy apparition that looked like them, chose to visit them and gave them power in the face of authority. She offered hope.

“We use the expression ‘patron saint,’” says Sister Diane Donoghue, executive director for Esperanza Community Housing, an organization that builds homes for low-income families in the Hoover-Adams neighborhood. “For the Irish, it‘s St. Patrick, for the Italians, St. Francis. But for Mexicans, it’s the Virgen de Guadalupe. You may not be practicing your faith by attending mass on a regular basis, but you have this innate sense of loyalty for this special person who stands as protectress.” The vandalism, according to Donoghue, “is like someone defacing your mother. It‘s a personal affront.” She worries that the graffiti will spread, that there won’t be a Virgen left south of the 10 freeway with her head and hands intact. “Ours haven‘t been hit yet, but we’re quite conscious of the fact that they could be,” she says. “All around the area they have been. We have apartment units over by 28th Street and Maple, and there have been a couple near there that have been defaced.” Still, she downplays the religious significance of the tagging. “The archdiocese has been very clear that they don‘t see it as any kind of religious response. But it’s very hard to say where that kind of anger resides, and who has decided that this is the way of expressing it.”

“This is about the power of images,” declares Camilo Jose Vergara over the phone from his home in New York City. “And this is about how an attack on an image can be an attack on goodness. That‘s what it is. An attack on people who need to believe in goodness.” A photographer who has spent over a decade documenting transitional neighborhoods, from Newark to Detroit to Los Angeles, Vergara is passionate about his subjects, in particular the people who have built their “Little Mexicos” in the traditionally black neighborhoods of a South-Central. He has paid special attention to their images of the Virgen; a few years ago, when I accompanied him on a tour of Watts and environs, we stopped at no fewer than a dozen murals of Our Lady, whose creators Vergara had sought out and interviewed. “I met one guy who paints the Virgen on cars,” he tells me. “He doesn’t believe in her, but he knows how to get it right -- he doesn‘t take any liberties with her.” For his recent exhibit at New York’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum, “El Nuevo Mundo of Latino Los Angeles,” the museum commissioned a portrait of the Virgen de Guadalupe to loom over the proceedings. “We wanted the Virgen large, standing over the city of L.A. as its patron saint. But this guy who painted her could not get the face right. I said to him, ‘What are you doing, man? It looks like she’s smelling shit! The Virgen de Guadalupe is the sweetest image, and you‘re not getting it. No one coming here would believe it was the Virgen.’ So I made him do it over.”

As with Senator Barbara Boxer, who has written to Attorney General Janet Reno asking that the vandalism of the Virgen be investigated as a hate crime, Vergara views the defacement as far more than simple graffiti. It is, he argues, a loaded act of violence. “This is happening in a community that sees itself very embattled -- there is the whole issue of being legal or not legal here, of getting access to education, to health care, to employment. And one way to make Los Angeles reassuring is to bring images of home to it. There are more symbols of Mexico in the Latino neighborhoods of Los Angeles than there are in Tijuana,” Vergara notes. “They need them more there, because they need to know who they are. To obliterate her face and hands . . . this is desecration, an inconceivable act.”

Vergara finds the defacing of the murals in South-Central far more disturbing than the recent scandal at the Brooklyn Museum of Art caused by Holy Virgin Mary, an interpretation of the mother of Christ done in elephant dung and body parts. The artist, Chris Ofili, who describes himself as a Catholic of African descent, has defended the image as reverent -- elephant dung, he insists, is a sacred substance in Africa -- but Mayor Rudolph Giuliani vowed to strip the museum of its public funding for the offense. (Last week, Judge Nina Gershon of the United States District Court in Brooklyn ruled Giuliani‘s move unconstitutional.)

“The image at the Brooklyn Museum doesn’t conform to any of the traditional forms the Virgin has been depicted in,” Vergara explains. “It‘s only a Virgin because somebody says it is. If I showed it to my mother, she would think that artists are weird and they do strange things. But if I took her to South-Central to show her what’s going on there, she would be horrified.” The Virgen de Guadalupe, according to Vergara, resonates as “an image passed through time. This is the image you saw when you were a child, the image your mother saw, your grandmother saw. There are a lot of people who came from a Catholic culture -- even people who call themselves atheists -- to whom this image has a lot of meaning.”

Among the businesses along Central and San Pedro avenues, it‘s hard to find anyone waxing that romantic about the murals. The Virgen’s job in South-Central is practical: She‘s there to discourage graffiti. Even taggers would be reluctant to mess with the Virgen, the theory goes. But now, apparently, she invites graffiti.

And to the Los Angeles Police Department, that’s all it is -- graffiti. “I‘ve had people from New York calling me, I’ve had reporters call me, I‘ve had Europeans calling me, but all I know was what was on the news,” says Officer D. Roberson, a detective in the Newton Division of the a LAPD. “People are calling in from other places wondering why we aren’t doing anything about it, but they‘re not getting their stories straight. Someone from New York indicated it was churches being vandalized. Now, we have a police clergy and we would have been all over the case if that were true. But we haven’t even had a report. We‘ve only had one business call in, and they didn’t make a report. They had a mural at the liquor store, and someone came by and splashed paint on it.

”In our community here,“ Roberson continues, ”which is predominantly black, we have murals of Martin Luther King Jr., and Cesar Chavez, and lots of others. Some of them, they‘ve been defaced from time to time, and I don’t hear the big human cry on that.“

”If the street begins with San -- you know, like San Pedro -- they do it in red,“ Rafael Torres claims from his ladder. ”I think it might have something to do with the new year, you know, the millennium. If you take the last three numbers in this year, 999, and turn them upside down, what do you get? 666.“

”That‘s what they say,“ Marvin interjects. ”999 is worse than 666. And it could be that Satan worshippers are doing it, like a landmark before the year 2000. Then they can say they’ve done something before the year 2000.“

”So,“ I ask Rafael, ”your theory is, this person is a Satan worshipper who wants to make money painting Virgens?“

”Right!“ he says with a laugh. ”You got it! But that doesn‘t answer the question, does it? The question is, who is it?

“If you paid attention on the street, it would be easy to find out,” Marvin asserts. “It all could have been done in one night. It’s lonely around here at night. The streets are empty. Someone could have driven by, painted over the walls, and no one would have seen him do it.”

Veronica Hernandez confirms that most of the businesses who have seen their Virgens tagged report that it happened around a month ago. “When I heard the news in Spanish, they were saying it started when the Virgin Mary was coming from Mexico,” she reports, referring to a digital reproduction of the Virgen on Diego‘s shawl that has been touring Los Angeles since mid-September. But the vandalism started later, in early October, and some Virgens have been despoiled repeatedly. Several business owners have repainted their murals only to see them mauled again within the week. On the other hand, many Virgens remain intact: On Central and Nadeau, a mile south of Evita’s Furniture, the silver-filigreed Virgen on the side of an auto parts store has not been touched, nor is the man who painted it, Enoc Martinez, particularly concerned that it will be. “I‘ve been painting them for five years,” says Martinez. “All the ones I did are fine. If someone paints it over, I will fix it.”

“This is nothing to be afraid of,” Marvin declares. “It’s just a human being running around ruining paintings. It‘s just someone who wants to be heard.”

“Remember Chaka?” asks Rafael, referring to Daniel “Chaka” Ramos, the tagger who sprayed his name on an estimated 10,000 surfaces throughout the city before his 1990 arrest. “He was around here tagging everything he could. And you know, it was just because he wanted to get on the news.”

Uriel Hernandez, whose family owns the El Rey de Copa Mini Mart on 40th Street and Central, where Mickey Mouse seems to be as potent a talisman as the Virgen, agrees. “I think it might be the Jehovah’s Witnesses doing it,” he conjectures. “Because they don‘t believe she’s their queen, the way we do. But we aren‘t worried about them. We’ve been here 10 years and we know all the people around here, and we‘ve always felt safe. We put it there so there wouldn’t be graffiti. So it didn‘t work. Things happen.”

“This doesn’t hurt me,” Marvin Torres contends. “This doesn‘t hurt the Mexicans. What is it? It’s just a painting representing the Virgin Mary, not the Virgin Mary herself. The person who painted it only painted it for the money. Does he drive by to see it? To say, ‘How’s my painting? Is it okay?‘

”I’ll tell you what would hurt,“ he continues. ”If it was my painting, and I took my time and put my heart into it, and then someone did that to it -- that would make a big difference to how I feel. If you put something up on a wall, and you love it, I understand that it would hurt you to see it ruined. But it‘s just an image. It can be fixed.“