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Rebranding saints

3 August 2012

Ten years after his canonization, Saint Juan Diego — the visionary of Tepayac and patron of the indigenous — has not been adopted as one of more popular saints in Mexico, nor has he been recognized by the indigenous community as “their saint”, because his “official” image is not that of an indigenous Mexican, but of a Spaniard.

The “official” Juan Diego image, from the Cabrera painting

Diego Monroy, presently rector of the Shrine of St. Juan Diego and former rector Basilica of Guadalupe, said the saint’s “official” portrait,  by eighteenth century painter Miguel Cabrera has not impressed the Indians.

Elio Masferrer, a researcher at the National School of Anthropology and History (INAH), said that the Vatican-selected “official” Cabrera image is the problem:  “Just look at his nose and his beard.  That is not an ‘noble Indian’ .

Although the Milenio article from which I translated this is focused on the lack of support for the Juan Diego shrine (which might have something to do with  Rev. Monroy’s track record of cost overruns and financial irregularities at the Basilica), the relative indifference to Juan Diego among the faithful may be more than a matter of an 18th century make-over.

Of course, there was some “Euro-centricism” involved in picking the “official” image of Juan Diego, and There probably is some justification to Elio Masferrer’s observation. The historical Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin was an Otomí.  Miguel Cabrara, a native of Oaxaca, certainly knew what indigenous people looked like (among other things, he was a master of the popular “casta” genre — portraits illustrating the then-prevailing racial categories of Mexican people) and Otomí men — even after five centuries of intermarriage with outsiders — don’t look anything close to the official image of Juan Diego.

But to point that out is to presume that “the Indians” can only identify with people that look like themselves.  The Vatican had good intentions in tying Juan Diego’s canonization to the Church’s mission in serving Indigenous communities, but to presume that “authenticity” in portraiture is the way to go about this (or, more cynically, that the Cabrera image was a poor marketing decision) is to presume “Indians” are somehow completely different in their human reactions than other people.

But, I don’t think it’s ethnic identification that is at issue here.  It’s something of a mystery why the Mexicans “adopt” certain official saintly images as “their” saints and reject others. Or of any particular saint.  Saint George (the dragon-slaying one) somehow ended up as the patron saint of Georgia (hence the name) and England and a bunch of other places with no real ethnic or cultural connection to the fourth or fifth century Cappadocian soldier.  It was the dragon that caught the fancy of early Mexican converts from religions in which snakes had spiritual significance, and Saint George’s popularity may have nothing to do with him personally, although saints on horseback do have some appeal.  Saint Martin of Tours — San Martin Caballero — based on his iconic presence showing him giving a cloak (or, rather, half a cloak) to a beggar has been re-interpreted in Mexican popular belief, making him:

… especially popular among shop-keepers, who rely on the kindness of passing strangers for their livelihood, and among truck drivers, who see in his horsemanship a parallel to their own manner of earning a living. Because the horse he rides is associated with the lucky horseshoe, he is also a favourite saint among gamblers.

(Of course, maybe Saint Martin’s interest in gamblers is because he only lost half his shirt).

Neither Martin nor George — nor Judeo Tadeo (Saint Jude), nor Saint Michael the Archangel — all of whom are unavoidable in Mexico have a particularly Mexican look in their popular iconography.  The only one who does among the saints who’ve caught the popular imagination is Toribio Romo, who after all was a Mexican.

When it comes to holy cards, blondes raise more funds. Toribio (left) and Pedro (right)

Never mind that there is an official saint of immigration to the United States (Francis Cabrini) and another Cristero saint, Pedro Maldonado Lucero who worked as a day laborer for a time in the United States (he was a seminarian in El Paso), the holy go-to guy for migrants to the United States is Toribio Romo.    Although the Catholic Church would have him a symbol of devotion to the Eucharist, in the popular imagination he is a “spirit guide” for border crossers.  I’ve said I think Saint Toribio was selected for the simple reason that he came from Los Altos, Jalisco (a font of both particularly devout Catholicism AND emigrants to the United States) and he was a regular featured, good looking fellow.

Good looks may not get you to heaven, but the popular saints are celestial celebrities.  And, just like terrestrial celebrities, we expect them to be attractive in ways that have nothing much to do with whatever it is that they do.  That the English singer Susan Boyle was so celebrated a few years back was something of an anomoly… that an unattractive woman could sing marvelously was seen as something of a … to use a religious term… miracle.  The very rarity of her celebrity underlies the point.  Princess Diana was a rather pretty young lady until she became a celebrity, when she became an international beauty.  Her looks didn’t change, just the perception of her popularity.  Fictional celebrities — think Batman or Spiderman aren’t played by unattractive actors — and even santones — the unofficial saints — like the mythical Jesus Malverde — are given a retroactive makeover.

And, when it comes to the Virgin of Guadalupe, that Juan Diego was the intermediary in bringing her to the attention of the official church is less important in the popular imagination than the idea that Virgin answers all requests personally.  Juan Diego — whether presented in the guise of a  Spaniard or an Otomí — really isn’t all that necessary to the devout — or to the Mexicans who find the Virign herself, all the celestial celebrity they need.  When the Mother of God is Mexican, one already knows what her favored sons look like… they look like everybody and anybody.  And unless they’re very good looking indeed, no need for a pinup.

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