I enjoyed reviewing Deirdre Cornell’s new book, American Madonna: Crossing Borders with the Virgin Mary , partly because it is an excellent book, partly because I met the author in central Mexico in the early 1990s. I never forgot her; she is one of those people that linger in your memory. With my own research and time spent in Mexico, I know many of the places she talks about, and have shared some similar experiences. Yet her book was something new and interesting. It caused me to see things that I have taken for granted in a new light.
Don’t be fooled by the title. With a view from both sides of the border, this book is more than it seems. It is at the same time a journey into the historical heart of a complicated nation and a deep expression of devotion and belief.
The book travels with the author as she visits and contemplates three different shrines to the Virgin Mary in Mexico over a three-year period. While living with her husband and young children and working as a lay missionary in the southern state of Oaxaca, she becomes immersed in the exploration and veneration of the Virgin of Juquila in Santa Catarina Juquila, the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City, and the Virgin of Solitude in the City of Oaxaca.
Grounded in her personal narrative and her own search for spiritual guidance, she seeks refuge with and explores the historical evidence regarding the origins and expressions of each Virgin. I found her chapter on the Virgin of Guadalupe so compelling that, as I was reading the book while actually in Mexico, I was tempted to visit the local craft market to have one of those temporary tattoos of Our Lady proudly placed on my arm! I wanted to participate in the Virgin of Guadalupe’s role in making her children, the indigenous of Mexico, visible. “For when the Virgin becomes visible, her children become visible as well” (p. 94).
As the history of the Virgin in each manifestation unfolds, so too does the history of Mexico. From the horrors of the conquest, through generations of exploitation, to the modern day consequences of “free trade” and emigration (a theme that runs throughout the book), the veneration of the Virgin is a support and a refuge for all the people of Mexico, and, at the same time, a force of solidarity and hope. As the author has witnessed from her work with migrants in New York, this critical role of the Virgin Mary does not end when migrants cross over to the US. Indeed, the importance of the Virgin to the migrant in the US is magnified.
I learned more than history and theology, however. I also gained a new understanding into our guests that come to Casa Juan Diego, and indeed, to the entire population of migrants from the Global South. While suffering, sorrow, and loss of family and home are obvious, less apparent, but equally important, is the loss of spiritual life:
“From devout Catholics that left their home villages for cities in Mexico or for a destination in the North, I have heard a repeated concern. In trading a rural for an urban setting, or one’s own homeland for a foreign county, emigrants face difficult experiences and culturally different religious practices which can, at times, prove alienating. There are more material distractions in the prosperous North, while simultaneously, the collective spiritual life is poorer. Keeping spiritually centered – a challenge for believers of any religion or background -becomes an extraordinary feat” (p. 74-75).
For anyone who knows Mexico, or wants to know it, this is a must read. For others, this book provides a rare opportunity to contemplate the power of the Gospel in history, applied very close to home.
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXI, No. 1, January-February 2011.