Chapter Three – La Dama

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La Dama: La dama puliendo el paso, por toda la calle real.

The Lady: The lady, taking an elegant walk along the main street.

Rose studied her map carefully. She determined the best way to approach the main plaza and headed in that direction. She had over an hour before her next class, and decided to visit the cathedral. Morelia, the capital city of the state of Michoacan, was a beautiful city. In the center – or what used to be the center – of the city lay a grand plaza, surrounded on all sides by a street, which was in turn banked by buildings. Most buildings housed hotels and cafes, and the entrances were shaded by a covered promenade. Vendors of all kinds set up in the arches that looked on the square, displaying their goods in carts, on the sidewalk, on tables, and on makeshift clotheslines rigged inside the arches. The consequence of this set up was that the cathedral and plaza were obscured from most viewpoints.

The cafes that extended off the hotels had inviting tables set up, with menus, glasses, and silverware set out on colorful tablecloths. People wove in and around the tables, stopped at vendor stalls, greeted friends and colleagues – Rose had to pay attention for traffic jams and sudden stops ahead of her. Rose was enamored with all things Mexican – she was attracted to the bright colors and intricate details. The needlepoint and painted items, the ceramic tiles and vessels, the copper and crosses and statues – she wanted to buy everything she saw.

She resolved to wait and make her decisions carefully – she had the whole summer to choose her souvenirs.

An old woman came up to her with a basket of cards. As she came closer, Rose could see that they were prayer cards with images of Mary – in particular, the Virgin of Guadalupe. Rose was familiar with Mary, who was the mother of Jesus, and the importance of the Virgin to Catholics. Her grandmother had been a devout Catholic, but her patron saint of choice was St. Francis of Assisi. Most images of Mary in her memory were wan, pastel images with rays of light shimmering behind her raiment. The Mexican version of Mary, however, was quite different. She wore a lovely gilded red dress, a gold crown, and a green veil which fell to her feet. Her hands were held before her in prayer, and her head bowed demurely, eyes closed in meditation. There was a small angel at her feet, and spiky rays of gold emanated from a space behind her body. It was a beautiful image.

Rose stopped the woman, and said, “Cuanto cuesta?” She hoped that she would understand the answer.

The old woman replied, “Diez pesos, senora.”

Ten pesos was almost a dollar, and Rose knew that she should make a counter-offer. But there were some things you just did not barter on. She thought that the Patron Saint of Mexico qualified as one of these cases. She paid the woman, and decided to stop in a café for a Diet Coke (her first of the day) while she read the pamphlet that came with the image. In it was a retelling of the legend surrounding the Virgin in both English and in Spanish. It read as follows:

“For more than three hundred years, the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe has been celebrated and revered in Mexico as the Patroness of Mexican and Indian peoples, and as the Queen of the Americas.

She stands on home altars, lends her name to men and women alike, and finds herself at rest on their skin in tattoos. The image of Guadalupe is reproduced on candles, decals, tiles, murals, as well as old and new sacred art. Churches and religious orders carry her name, as do place names and streets. Far from vulgarizing her image, these items personalize her and maintain her presence in daily life. She is prayed to in times of sickness and war and for protection against all evils.

The story of Guadalupe begins in December 1531 in Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) when the Virgin Mary appeared four times to the Indian peasant Juan Diego. He was on his way to mass when a beautiful woman surrounded by a body halo appeared to him with the music of songbirds in the background. As the birds became quiet, Mary announced “I am the Entirely and Ever Virgin, Saint Mary.” Assuring Juan Diego that she was his “Compassionate Mother” and that she had come out of her willingness to love and protect “all folk of every kind,” she requested that he build a temple in her honor at the place where she stood on the eastern edge of Mexico City. (This spot has been identified as Tepeyac Hill, the site where once stood a temple to the Aztec goddess, Tonantzin.)

Juan Diego went directly to the bishop of Mexico to relate this wondrous event. The churchman was skeptical and dismissed the humble peasant, who then returned to Tepeyac Hill to beseech the Virgin Mary to find a more prominent person who was less “pitiably poor” than he to do her bidding. Rejecting his protestations, the Virgin urged him to return to the bishop and “indeed say to him once more how it is I, Myself, the Ever Virgin Saint Mary, Mother of God, who am commissioning you.”

Juan Diego returned to the churchman’s palace after mass, waited, and was finally able to enter his second plea on behalf of the Virgin. This time, the bishop asked the humble native to request a sure sign directly from the “Heavenly Woman” as to her true identity. The bishop then had some members of his staff follow Juan Diego to check on where he went and whom he saw.

The next day, Juan Diego was called to the bedside of his dying uncle, Juan Bernadino. The old man, gravely ill, begged his nephew to fetch a priest for the last rites of the church. The following morning, before dawn, Juan Diego set off on this mission. He tried to avoid the Virgin because of his uncle’s worsening condition, but she intercepted him and asked “Whither are you going?” He confessed that it was on behalf of his uncle that he was rushing to summon a priest. During this third meeting, she assured him that the uncle was “healed up”, as she had already made a separate appearance to him. This visitation would start a tradition of therapeutic miracles associated with Our Lady of Guadalupe. She also comforted Juan Diego with the assurance that she would give him sure proof of her real identity.

On December 12, 1531 the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego for the fourth time and bade him to go to the top of Tepeyac Hill and pick “Castilian garden flowers” from the normally barren summit. She helped him by “taking them up in her own hands” and folded them into his cloak woven of maguey plant fibers. Juan Diego then set off to the bishop’s palace with this sure sign of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe’s identity. As he unwrapped his cloak, the flowers tumbled at the churchman’s feet, and “suddenly, upon that cloak, there flashed a Portrait, where sallied into view a Sacred Image of that Ever Virgin Holy Mary, Mother of God.”

This imprint of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, the “Miraculous Portrait” as it is often called, hangs today in the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Millions of pilgrims visit the site every year, often approaching on their hands and knees for the last yards of their journey to petition the Virgin for a miracle.”

Rose drank her Diet Coke as she pondered this information. Off-handedly she noted that the Diet Coke tasted different from that in the United States. Sweeter, maybe. Like this bit of information about Juan Diego and his discovery. Rose was not a particularly religious person, but she liked to think that she maintained a connection with God, and was open to miracles – when her cynical side did not yell comments from the sidelines.

Rose had once lived near Conyers, Georgia. For years, a woman claimed that the Virgin Mary had appeared to her regularly – once a month around the 13th, she thought it was – and spoke prophecy. Conyers became a regular Lourdes, with thousands of people crowding to that cow pasture around the woman’s house to hear the words of Mary from this woman’s mouth. Rose was sure that lots of money was made as well – Catholic pilgrims seemed awfully fond of souvenirs. She had even seen a bumper sticker once proclaiming a pilgrimage to see “Our Lady of Conyers.” Eventually, the sightings tapered off, and Mary stopped appearing in Conyers. Rosa had read somewhere that the visitors were becoming a nuisance. Perhaps the woman had cashed in on her fame enough.

Rosa then remembered a time that she was driving in the country east of Conyers. In her rear-view mirror, she suddenly saw a large image of Christ’s head, rising out of the earth. She only saw his head, but upon it stood a crown of thorns and she could make out clearly the expression of agony on his face. She recalled braking sharply to see it more closely. She realized that the image was in the form of an uprooted tree. She remembered with amusement her simultaneous thoughts: one that she was lucky to have seen this vision and the other that she should buy that plot of land and capitalize on her discovery.

Rosa was prone to this sort of random, free-associated stream of thought.

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