One December as a child, I helped my Presbyterian grandmother decorate for Christmas. While placing the Nativity on the side table in the living room where it usually went, I asked her what she thought of Mary’s … situation.
“That must have really been something, right? To have become pregnant by God without having even been with a man?”
She looked at me and scowled before saying, “Come on, Sarah. You know she wasn’t really a virgin.”
It’s a story that cracks me up every time I think about it now, but when my 11-year-old-self heard her say those words, it really gave me something to think about.
What if she was right and the magic was all made up? And was that vitriol in her usually warm and fuzzy guidance-counselor voice because she thought the magical elements of the story were absurd, or because she thought it was terrible for someone to claim to be a virgin when they clearly were not?
Why was it so important to be a virgin anyway, and why did it end up being an important distinction only for girls?
La Virgen — de Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico specifically, also known as La Guadalupana — is on my mind now that her celebration is upon us. From December 9 to 12, much of the country will be at a standstill as she is celebrated.
There will be carnivals, lots of fireworks (as I write this on December 9, they’ve already started and my dog is trembling beside me), processions of pilgrims on their way to the Basilica de Guadalupe and packed churches.
The devotion is real, and it’s widespread and plentiful.
Most people familiar with Mexican culture know of this devotion and might even know the story behind it. It goes like this:
A brown-skinned Virgin Mary appeared to the recently converted Christian indigenous man Juan Diego. She told him that she wanted a shrine built for her on Tepeyac hill, on the northern edge of Mexico City.
Juan Diego informed the local Catholic bishop, who wanted some sort of sign as proof before he would agree to build a church. So La Virgen appeared to Juan Diego a second time and told him to collect roses in his cloak.
He did so and took them to the bishop. When Juan Diego opened the cloak to let the roses fall out, her image was imprinted on it.
This is, according to legend, the very cloak that is on display at the Guadalupe Basilica.
If the story was a plan by the Catholic Church — and my non-miracle-believing self suspects that it might very well have been — then it was a truly brilliant move. True or not, it made the indigenous of Mexico feel ownership of this new religion that had appeared — winning hearts and minds rather than forcing converts through violence, a technique not nearly as effective.
It gave the indigenous people a god (or goddess, as it were) in their own image, a benevolent mother who would love and protect them during ever-turbulent times.
In my more cynical days, I wrote the Virgin of Guadalupe off as simply the fantasy product of an idealized female figure invented by a chauvinist and too-powerful church determined to always insist that women behave as perfect, godlike beings while men get the benefit of being seen as the fallible animals we all are — and therefore free from blame for their animal-like behavior.
More so in some cultures than others, girls grow up keenly noticing all the ways that we’re not living up to the feminine ideal, which itself is a jumble of contradictions: be seductive but not a tease, beautiful but humble, submissive but smart, cunning but not a bad-intentioned bitch.
While there exists a masculine ideal as well, boys are given more of a pass when they don’t live up to it.
Though the culture is gradually changing, the gender of ridicule in Mexico is still decidedly female: there are few worse ways to insult a man than to call him a woman (or woman-like), but that’s not true the other way around.
So to me, the Virgin was just one more figure in a long line of impossible ideals that I and the rest of my gender would be criticized for not living up to and, besides that, an obvious ploy by the Catholic Church to trick the indigenous of the Americas into giving up their own religions, having just happened to request her altar at the site of the Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin, which I don’t think is a coincidence.
As I’ve aged, my judgments have softened. While I certainly don’t live in a constant state of Zen, it has become much easier with time to learn to just chill instead of getting all worked up about stuff, which allows me to reflect on things in a different way.
And besides, now I have something in common with her: I’m a mother.
La Virgen, unlike me, is a perfect mother: self-sacrificing, adoring, devoted to her children above all else. It’s no coincidence that the concept of motherhood in Mexico especially is held up as the noblest calling for a woman.
Women in general may be the subject of ridicule and scorn in plenty of settings, but the sacredness of the mother — especially one’s own mother — is untouchable. And the mother as an archetype is irresistible. If you’ve been lucky enough in this life to feel a mother’s love, you know that it’s endless.
If you’ve been lucky enough to become a mother, naturally or otherwise, you know that aching, loving feeling as well. If you haven’t had a mother who’s showered you with unconditional love (or if you did but have lost her since), in La Virgen, you do have one: the mother of all, in fact, watching out for you, loving you unconditionally.
She is the loving god embodied, her love for her children making any sins they might commit downright irrelevant. She doesn’t need to give forgiveness because nothing could cause her to turn away from you in the first place. She does not stand in judgement.
So, this year, I’m reframing La Guadalupana for myself as a spiritual kind of Mother’s Day. The traffic the pilgrimages cause is frustrating, but I’d certainly walk hundreds of miles in the middle of the road myself if it meant feeling my own mother’s presence again.