By the time I reached the Fullerton Museum Center to see its new exhibit, "The Virgin of Guadalupe: Interpreting Devotion," I had already seen the Goddess of the Americas thrice. Before turning on my car, I pulled out a prayer card of Her and kept a short vigil. As I drove through Fullerton's tough Tokers Town barrio, I saw la virgencita again in the form of a mural. And it was at a red light on Harbor Boulevard and Orangethorpe Avenue where I experienced Guadalupe's third apparition: on the back of a fabulously gaudy silk shirt worn by a Mexican man bedecked in glimmering belt buckle, boots and tejana.
This impromptu confluence of the theological, artistic and sartorial Guadalupe was a wonderful primer for what awaited at "Interpreting Devotion," an excellent exhibit that gathers renditions of Mexico's patron saint dating from the 17th century to modern-day, from the traditional to the abstract. It opens up majestically: a massive wooden statue of Guadalupe greets gallery-goers, rose petals speckled below Her feet. "Among the many qualities attributed to the Virgin of Guadalupe," curator Lynn LaBate writes in her opening statement, "none is more striking than her ability to appeal to and support widely divergent and sometimes even contradictory causes and devotional practices."
LaBate then guides the curious through a chronological journey of Guadalupan artistic interpretations that unwittingly tell a second, more subversive history of Mexican culture itself. The first half of "Interpreting Devotion" consists primarily of paintings, statues or illustrations that present Guadalupe much like she originally appeared to the Indian Juan Diego in 1531: billowy dress blown about her by some divine wind perhaps and kept in place by a sash, with a splendorous cape flowing from her hair to the ground. There's just one glaring difference—these Virgins are as white as the Spanish conquistadors, in stark contradiction to Guadalupe's famously olive skin and Aztec facial features. It's as if artists could not bear to accept Guadalupe's redeeming message of the mestizo's holiness even when depicting Her, the most famous mestizo in Latin American history.
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But "Interpreting Devotion" shows how artists began darkening Guadalupe's skin as the centuries progressed and began rendering her in bolder methods. Photos in the exhibit show how revolutionaries from Mexican liberator Miguel Hidalgo to Pancho Villa to the modern-day Zapatista movement carried banners of Guadalupe into battle, while posters from the Royal Chicano Air Force and United Farm Workers call upon the Virgin for help in their struggles for farm workers' rights. This politicizing of the Virgin reaches its hilarious apotheosis in José Antonio Burciaga's 1989 tableaux The Last Supper of Chicano Heroes, in which Latino icons replace Jesus and the Apostles (Che is our new Savior!) as Guadalupe looms over the table.
Most of the latter-day pieces in "Interpreting Devotion" are stand-alone works that mightily tweak the familiar Guadalupan image—J. Michael Walker's Getting Ready, for instance, paints a faceless Guadalupe putting on Her crown while looking out a window, a grocery bag hanging from a nearby hook. But LaBate also includes a couple of ex-votos, paintings created by Catholics as thanks for a perceived fulfillment of a prayer and describing in print the miracle attributed. In one of the ex-votos, for example, a woman swears lifetime fealty to the Virgin for saving her daughter from a sewing-machine accident. Although the artistry of the ex-votos isn't particularly impressive—one is painted on a car hood, for chrissakes—the inclusion of these is a reminder of Guadalupe's profundity for the faithful.
And toward that effect, the best piece in the exhibit is also probably the simplest: a picture of a girl who's dressed like the Virgin in preparation for a Los Angeles-area ceremony of Guadalupe's feast day, Dec. 12. The child's cloak is made of cheap fabric; the brilliant halo that surrounds this barrio Guadalupe is probably made of cardboard. But the little girl's smile is radiant, and her beatific eyes can save even the most jaded soul from their struggles and problems. Like the Virgins I encountered earlier in the day, this is what Guadalupe is ultimately about—a living, breathing saint, the most beautiful woman in the world: truly, the Mother of us all. Oh, yeah: the little girl is brown.
"The Virgin of Guadalupe: Interpreting Devotion" at the Fullerton Museum Center, 301 N. Pomona AVE., Fullerton, (714) 738-6545. Open Tues.-Wed. & Fri.-Sun., noon-4 p.m.; Thurs., noon-8 p.m. Through Nov. 28. $1-$4 ($1 for all ages 4-8 p.m. on Oct. 7 & Nov. 4).