written by Juli Del Prete, Literary and Public Programs Intern
La Virgen de Guadalupe leads many lives. You might know her best as a classic Latina icon: in classic Mary robes, hands together in prayer, surrounded by a starburst. But on any given day, you can also find her on a mural watching over a gas station in El Paso, TX, in a contemporary art gallery, or gracing the sides of buildings in Pilsen. Do a quick Google search, and you’ll find her seducing a mermaid, running a marathon, or done up as a stereotypical chola.
To some, these latter images, these non-traditional images, might be disorienting. Last night, in a special post show discussion, a group of scholars, art curators, and artists gathered to discuss la virgen’s role in Latino art. They noted the parallel between these contemporary reimaginings of her and the way Mary is represented in the play The Testament of Mary. This quickly brought to the fore discussion of what playwright Lucas Hnath dubbed “stereoscopic theatricality”: the theatricalization of a famous figure to create dissonance between the idealized version and the living, breathing human onstage.
This dissonance is exciting. It can also be uncomfortable. When one panelist mentioned “Our Lady of Monsanto,” one of la virgen’s many incarnations, it elicited laughter from some audience members. If we’re used to seeing the Catholic Mary depicted as holy, bringing her down to our Earth, to Monsanto, is weird and funny. But as panelists pointed out, the Catholic church has kept their iconography remarkably consistent over the centuries. Latinos, on the other hand, took la virgen from the image of an Inca grain goddess, and la virgen has been reclaimed time and time again as a form of cultural expression ever since.
“If we don’t reinterpret,” DePaul professor Delia Cosentino pointed out, “things become meaningless.”
After seeing so many images of la virgen, I can’t help but agree. When I see la virgen depicted as a luchadora, I remember the ways that Mary fought. When I see la virgen in the style of Superman, I remember that mothers are heroic. When I see la virgen with a black censorship bar over her face (as she is depicted in a drawing donated to us by the J-DEF Peace Project), I remember the ways that Mary, and so many women, are silenced.
Which brings me back to the play.
This production of The Testament of Mary opens with Mary bathing. An audience member commented that seeing Mary doing something so vulnerable immediately humanized her, allowing access to her testimony. And shouldn’t art remind us that people can be public and private, icon and mother, perfectly imagined and imperfectly reclaimed? Shouldn’t art reflect the struggles and joys of the people that create it? Shouldn’t art, in its purest form, remind us just how human we are?