Our Lady of Defaced & Venerated Murals in Los Angeles

by Felipe Agredano-Lozano, MTS
photography by Emmanuel Sandoval

I was born into a war of religions. My paternal abuelita, Enedina González viuda de Agredano, was a fervent Guadalupana Católica de hueso colorado. She stood adamantly opposed to any new secta de protestantes. So when my maternal abuelito Pedro Lozano had a religious conversion in the 1950s, it was a battle of familias. Both believers were from the Los Altos de Jalisco, arguably the most ferociously Catholic and Pope-loyalist region of the “New World.” News of his joining the wild religious cult of firebrand “aleluyas” was alarming news in the village.  His band of Pentecostal-Apostólicos in California sent shockwaves through this Cristero region of Los Altos.

Decades later at a raging holy-roller service in August of 1969 in El Siloe Apostolic Church in East L.A., my mother, pregnant with me—the fruit of her womb—was baptized in “Jesus name.” She did it behind my father’s back. Both had grown up in the Holy Mother Church in Los Altos de Jalisco, a Cristero stronghold, the same region who had fought with the Pope for the Roman Catholic Church against a secular Mexico.

My abuelita was a woman of a few words. I remember being five years old, her leading las Guadalupanas in rosary, her giving me a blessed rosario from her visit to Vatican, teaching me the sign of the cross for dummies—since I didn’t go to catechism—and her clearly telling me that my mother’s church was la iglesia del Diablo (the church of the devil). Baptized Catholic by my father but raised an aleluya by my mother, I wasn’t allowed to part-take of communion in Catholic mass. I was born in a Protestant nation, in a Latino Catholic community.  My cousins all completed Catholic sacraments and could fully participate in the Ostia. I was not allowed to, I felt like an outsider looking into the Chicano-Catholic community, a minority within a minority.

The war raged on further, decades later spilling over into the City of Angels.

In 1999 when sightings of defaced venerated murals of La Virgen de Guadalupe first appeared in a local rag, Boca Magazine, it soon became a national story.  I wasn’t surprised. The New York Times, CNN, PBS and our local LA Times covered the virgin’s defacement. "'Why the hell are they doing this?’" a South-Central resident named Alejandro Espinoza was quoted in an Los Angeles Times article as exclaiming.  Stunned, the Catholic community asked who dared paint over la Lupe’s face. Even gangbangers and bad-ass cholas respected la Virgencita de Guadalupe; she’s the Dios’ mother, for God’s sake! The primary suspects were bible-thumping Protestant-Pentecostals, “los aleluyas,” and overzealous Christian Evangelicals. Satanist were suspects, too. La Lupe had been the decades-old target and focal point of this wild band of spiritual holy rollers, who dared thumb their noses at her mere presence. I quietly understood why. On my father’s side she was symbol of a mother’s love. On my mother’s side she was an idol, whose veneration diminished that which rightly go to God.

In 1531, when reports of the Guadalupe image appeared at Tonantzin’s sacred site, an already deeply revered Nahuatl-pagan space, Guadalupe stirred controversy of historic proportion. She immediately became the target of the Catholic hierarchy, who questioned not only her apparition and hybrid cult, but symbolically defaced her and saw her as a stain and a stubborn residue of the Indian past, Juan Diego. Mexico’s first Catholic Archbishop Juan de Zumarraga was silent on the mater, raising doubts by anti-apparitionists opposing Juan Diego’s canonization in 2002. “Idolatrous”, “superstitious”, and “satanic” said the Franciscans, Augustinians and Dominican priests at the first mentions of Tonantzin Dios-Inantzin Our Lady of Guadalupe in the 1500s.

The theme has been picked up and continued by iconoclastic Protestantes.  For more than two centuries, even the Catholic curia in Vatican refused her formally into the church. She’s an unwelcomed renegade, a defender of those on the outside looking in: immigrants, poor, transgendered, undocumented, gays, cholos and misfits anywhere. She was always the outsider looking in, unaccepted by Rome.

“Growing up Bautista I had no connection to La Virgen de Guadalupe,” said journalist Macarena Hernandez. “She is so intertwined with Chicano identity. So as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started seeing her as a symbol, more political than religious.”

Paul Botello mural on Hazard St. in East LA.
Long before La Lupe is defaced in East LA, Catholic leadership had unsuccessfully tried to stamp her out, miserably failing to squash this neo-pagan hybrid cult of la morenita. Originally, it was the Catholics who early on disregarded her as non-Christian paganism.

In the original sources of this story, The Florentine Codex written from 1545 to 1590, Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan evangelist stated,It appears to be a satanic invention to cloak idolatry under the confusion of this name, Tonantzin.”

One LA Times article noted how some residents, “blamed the attacks on evangelical Christians or Protestant Pentecostals, who have been critical of Guadalupe devotion as idol worship.” Pentecostal-Apostolicos easily glance too readily over biblical passages of Mary. Too often, choosing to ignore passages in Luke “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” and unapologetically turning their scriptural back on Jesus’ mom. Protestantes entirely discard Gabriel’s “hail Mary,” Guadalupe-Mary in one single swipe, dismissing them all as pagan Catholic icons that are non-Christocentric and borderline unbiblical. Protestants, have had a long and tumultuous bloodied history with Mary and Guadalupe devotees. They also have an impressive command of scriptures; an almost rabbinical one with exegesis and source commentary, but the anti-Catholic zeal and history of persecution of Mary’s followers is often greater. Such was the case of my abuelo Pedro Lozano.

In 1999, when “In Boyle Heights and South-Central Los Angeles, the Virgin's image…[was]… repeatedly desecrated…Along Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, at least 10 murals of the Virgin of Guadalupe…[were]…defaced with slashes of paint. On San Pedro Street throughout South-Central, a dozen images have been attacked, some with the number ‘666’ and "La Bestia," or "The Beast," scrawled under the Virgin's abdomen,” the LA Times reported,Defacements have sparked outrage among Catholics in the community, especially Mexicans, who revere the image as protectress and mother.  Attacks…coincided with the tour through the region of a replica of the Virgin's image…displayed in churches across the Los Angeles Archdiocese.”
Even U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, a Jewish-American, had to jump in on this pleito. All too familiar with religious and anti-Semitic hatred, Boxer demanded a full investigation into this matter.

La Virgen is everywhere in Boyle Heights and East LA, more so than Jesus and the cross of Jesus. Recently however, the New York Times reported on the changing identity of Latin America, my abuelito Pedro Lozano, an Apostolic was an early part of that change. Latinos are choosing to leave the mother church in Latin America, Boyle Heights and East Los too.

Years later during a visit to Rome, during mass, my Anglican/Episcopal and other mainline protestant peers from Harvard Divinity School all partook in la Ostia (Holy Eucharist) at Vatican. This was a shock to me for non-Catholics to participate and be in communion with Catholic saints. The Blood of Christ! Blasphemy! I reflected deeply on how I had accepted my place outside the body, I had allowed myself to be excluded from my Latino community. 
Empowered, I resolved to never again be excluded.  In college and graduate school, I started seeing her for the cultural, political and spiritual icon she is for many within and outside. Perhaps she is our Apostolic Lady of Pentecost, Our Lady of Evangelicos and protestant evangelization to all. I realize how much of a cultural Catholic I was. I confess, I have never prayed to La Virgen. However, during a recent mural tour of Boyle Heights and East L.A., I visited virgin murals, all intact, along the way I noticed many stores, panaderias, botanicas, liquor stores, medical marijuana shops and also new apparitions of storefront aleluya churches. After decades of battles, religious wars and migration, this was the new blessed fruit.

Felipe Agredano-Lozano holds a Master’s in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. He resides in the City of Angels and has taught on Chicanos and Religion at Harvard University, CalState University Northridge and World Religions at East LA College. He often appears in national networks such as: CNN Español, Univision, NBC/Telemundo and is quoted in the LA Times, Wall Street Journal, and La Opinion. To contact Felipe LIKE: www.facebook.com/TeologoFelipeAgredano or e-mail: felipe_agredano@post.harvard.edu


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