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Virgin travel

15 December 2009

A new mosaic, depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe, was installed at St. Christopher’s Church on 12 December.  This would be unremarkable, if St. Christopher’s was somewhere like Los Angeles or Houston or Phoenix — or even Burlington North Carolina… but the church sits on Zhongshan North Road in Taipei, in the heart of what is known in the Taiwanese capital as “little Manila.”

The thread of the story of how the Virgin of Guadalupe ended up in Taiwan in a church serving a Filipino congregation begins with… well… thread.

Spain had a silk industry at the time of the conquest, but the best silk, of course, came from China. But, in line with the mercantilist theories of the time, it was assumed the purpose of colonial expansion was to create a market for the mother country… meaning Mexicans could buy silk, but only the inferior Spanish silk, and at inflated prices. Then, as now, enterprising Mexicans considered “alternative import sources”… i.e., smuggling. Knowing perfectly well that the world was round, but still having no idea of how far the Americas were from Asia, by the mid-16th century, Mexican smugglers (er… explorers) were already searching for a route to the silk supply.

Miguel López de Legapi and Andrés de Urdaneta (a retired sailor turned monk, who was along as chaplain, but took over when most of the crew died of scurvy) discovered a route to Manila in 1565, given Spain a backdoor to China. (Gods, Gachupines and Gringos, page 95).

If Pinoy culture sometimes bears some striking resemblances to Mexican culture, there’s a simple explanation. Until 1821, the Philippines were not a Spanish colony, but a part of Mexico.

It was a cumbersome administrative burden (a ghost story of the early 17th century tells of the Philippine soldier so faithful to his post, that when the governor of Manilla and his guards all died in an epidemic, the faithful guard’s ghost showed up in Mexico City’s Zocalo to report on the situation… and asked to be relieved), one exploited by those entrepreneurial Mexican merchants.    Complaints from Spanish merchants had convinced Philip II to limit the official galleon trade between Manilla and Acapulco to two ships a year in 1593, but unofficial trade — and cheap silk (not to mention spices and Chinese made products, although plastic doo-dads and radios were far in the future) managed somehow to make their way to Mexico… and Mexican goods to the Philipines (and onward to China).

As did Mexicans and Filipinos. Filipino ancestry is not uncommon in western Mexico (Mazatlán, for example, considers Pinoy merchant Antonio Machado, it’s true founding father), nor Mexican ancestry in the Philippines.

Along with the pirates, bureaucrats, soldiers and honest merchants, of course, the Mexicans — not the Spanish — sent out priests and monks. And, the Virgin of Guadalupe went along for the ride. Although separated from the step-mother country when Mexico gained independence, and between 1898 and 1946, a United States possession, the Mexicanization of the culture, and Mexican-style Catholicism had deep roots among the Pinoy.

As with other island-dwellers, the Pinoy are great seafarers and explorers. And, in the late 20th century and now, their government has encouraged remittance labor. It’s no surprise there is a “little Manila” in Taipei… nor that a mosaic of the Virgin of Guadalupe is being installed in a church with a largely Pinoy congregation.

The mosaic, by the way, is of Talavera tile (a product of Puebla) and Guanajuato limestone. The mosaic itself was produced in yet another former Mexican town… San Francisco, California, by Nick Berg and Alan Roth of Exact Mosaics.

Exact Mosaics

One Comment leave one →
  1. 6 January 2010 4:40 pm

    Fascinating. I’ve been to Taiwan many times but didn’t know there was a “little Manila” there, let alone St. Christopher’s Church. I’ll have to go check this out the next time I’m there.

    Oh, and thanks for the history lesson!

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