I am not Catholic, nor am I Mexican, though maybe I was both in a past life, as I am inexplicably drawn to the Virgin of Guadalupe — the Mexican Mary, with her burnished skin, green cloak scattered with stars, and full body halo, radiating golden electric zig zags — and have been ever since I separated from my husband seven years ago.
During those first interminable weekends when my children were with their father, I felt sad and disoriented, like I’d lost my compass and didn’t know how I’d ever find it again. To pass the time I would often visit Bazaar Mairead, a little store filled with imports from India, Peru, and Mexico. I had moved from the master bedroom I had shared with my husband and taken over the small room under the stairs. It fit only my bed, a dresser, and a nightstand. It seemed smart to be in a small space, as if this way my sadness couldn’t get any bigger than the room. I went to this shop to get things to redecorate — a bedspread the color of bougainvillea, pillows with little mirrors sewn into them, curtains to replace the door I’d taken down so my bed would fit. Standing with my purchases, I saw a tile with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, her eyes downcast, her face peaceful and full of — there is no other word for it — beneficence. Not being Catholic, I felt a little funny picking it up, but I couldn’t resist. I put it on top of my pile of stuff. “I need all the help I can get,” I said to the woman toting up my purchases. I didn’t know exactly what the Virgin was offering, I didn’t even know her name, but I think somewhere I felt that she might be able to help me find my compass.
Seven years and two trips to Mexico later, my house is filled with the image of the Virgin. She is on candles, in shadowboxes, on shopping bags, on my bed — a campy Virgin of Guadalupe pillow — and around my neck, on a medallion that helps to center and guide me. I don’t pray to the Virgin, not exactly, but her presence continues to comfort me as it did on the day I found her, reminding me that there could very well be someone watching over me, smoothing my journey, pointing the way.
On my first trip to Mexico where I was visiting my friend Lili, we took a cab, then a bus, then walked a mile down a dusty road to the village of Tlacochahuaya (tlah-koh-chah-WYE-yah) to pay homage to the Virgin. There, in a 16th century church, hangs a group of paintings depicting Lupe’s legend — she appeared four times to the peasant Juan Diego, but no one believed him until he showed up at church with roses she’d asked him to pick for her. He had wrapped the roses in his cloak and as he unfurled it, out they tumbled as her image flashed on the inside of the cape, a miraculous hologram, proof to the men of the church that San Diego hadn’t been telling tales. Looking up at the paintings I felt gratitude to be seeing them, to be in a beautiful church in a tiny village in Mexico with my friend, gratitude that I had found my way there.
After I’d gone, Lili found a retablo at the market for me, wrapped it up, and sent it in the mail. A retablo is like a thank-you note to the Virgin. Often painted on tin, they depict the survived mishap, and in all of them the image of the virgin floats in a corner of the painting. The subjects of these painted thank-you’s are as varied and specific as the human condition: accidental gunshot wounds, water boiler explosions, red ant attacks. Sadly, my retablo got lost in the mail, but Lili tells me it said, “Thank you, Virgencita, for helping me through my divorce.” She didn’t describe the painting, but it’s just as well, because I imagine it was of a woman in a small room, sitting on a pink bedspread, the Virgin of Guadalupe floating in the corner looking down on her.
[Photo Credit: Nikolai Stern]