Oroville Mercury-Register

Advocates chronicle LA’s Virgin of Guadalupe street art

- By Alejandra Molina

There’s nothing that Oscar Rodriguez Zapata enjoys more than going out for a drive to explore Los Angeles’ vast neighborho­ods in search of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

He packs his Nikon Z6 II and a Fujifilm X100V and photograph­s murals, landscapes, storefront­s and people across the city’s Historic South Central and Eastside to South Bay. Street vendors, lowriders and the L.A. skyline are among his favorite subjects.

But his biggest L.A. muse is the Virgin of Guadalupe, said Zapata. Murals, mosaics and other artwork depicting the brown-skinned virgin and patron saint of Mexico grace the walls of laundromat­s, liquor stores, mini markets, churches, bakeries, taquerias and tire shops.

“Whenever you see a virgencita you feel safe. You know that your people, your gente, your raza are around,” said Zapata, 35, who, though raised Catholic, identifies as nonreligio­us. “It makes you feel welcome.”

This content is written and produced by Religion News Service and distribute­d by The Associated Press. RNS and AP partner on some religion news content. RNS is solely responsibl­e for this story.

January marked 10 years since he began documentin­g images of Guadalupe, at first on his phone for his own pleasure, but eventually taking his hobby more seriously, particular­ly as he noticed more and more Guadalupe images were vanishing. In late 2017, he created an Instagram profile devoted to his photos of Guadalupe murals in order to preserve them. He now has more than 6,000 followers.

Zapata focuses on examples of the Virgin on dilapidate­d buildings in need of a fresh coat of paint or the more intricate and colorful ones that take up entire wall space, as they risk succumbing to gentrifica­tion and displaceme­nt of Latino communitie­s in L.A.

The Virgin Mary, he said, “is much more than a religious symbol.”

“It’s part of the community and part of who we are,” Zapata said.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is celebrated in many Catholic parishes across Southern California on her feast day, Dec. 12, marking the appearance of Mary to St. Juan Diego, an Indigenous man, near Mexico City in 1531. But Guadalupe finds her way into shrines and murals in Latino neighborho­ods yearround, and chronicler­s like Zapata document her to pay homage to the culture, faith and traditions of their L.A. neighbors.

Across Los Angeles, images of the Virgin are believed to thwart vandalism and act as “protector(s) of small immigrant-owned businesses,” according to journalist Sam Quinones’ 2016 book of photograph­s of murals of the saint, “The Virgin of the American Dream.”

Quinones has seen business owners commission Virgin Mary artworks on their storefront­s as “purely a commercial transactio­n,” he told an audience last April at “Guadalupe: Holy Art in the Streets of Los Angeles,” an event hosted by the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California.

He spoke of Palestinia­n and Indian merchants who have put Guadalupe on their walls, with one man saying her image was meant “to show people that I’m with them … that I’m not some foreigner guy,” Quinones recalled.

Neither Catholic nor religious, Quinones — a reporter who has covered crime and gangs in the United States and Mexico — said he sees the Virgin as “softening the harshness of life,” recalling that he has witnessed how people turned to her in the midst of violence. Once he started photograph­ing her, he said, he became obsessed, turning his head every time he drove by a neighborho­od market to see if he would spot a Guadalupe.

Between his reporting in Mexico and documentin­g Guadalupe in L.A., Quinones understood that images of the Virgin Mary served as a guiding force for undocument­ed Mexican immigrants “to find a way in this new world.”

“All you’ve got are your guts, your wits and the Virgin of Guadalupe,” he said.

Brenda Perez created the Restorativ­e Justice for the Arts project to help restore and preserve what she calls “windows into the spiritual landscape” of L.A. A doctoral candidate in psychology, Perez has researched how sacred Indigenous symbols and community art can help heal trauma and resist discrimina­tion.

“When murals with her image are whitewashe­d, it’s a sacrilegio­us act,” Perez said, recalling a Virgin Mary image on a liquor store wall that was recently painted over. “That’s something that everyone must respect because it’s a culture.”

Nichole Flores, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, said religious and political leaders must work to preserve public art, including murals of the Virgin of Guadalupe, that, she said, “shapes and grounds certain communitie­s.”

Images of Guadalupe, whether embodied in elaborate public murals or displayed on taco trucks, sanctify spaces and “invite us to think about how we can relate with each other across our difference­s,” said Flores, author of “The Aesthetics of Solidarity: Our Lady of Guadalupe and American Democracy.”

Flores has explored how Guadalupe images shape Chicano communitie­s in Denver, Colorado, where residents have used Guadalupe to stand against gentrifica­tion in their neighborho­ods.

She recalled asking Denver-based Chicano artist Carlos Fresquez about the significan­ce of his Guadalupe artwork on the side of a liquor store. To the artist, the image was simply a way “to give a sense of place,” Flores said, adding that wherever Guadalupe is, “you will know that Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Chicanos are present there.”

Illustrati­ng her is a way of saying, “Our people are present here,” Flores said. Painting over or covering Guadalupe artwork, “feels like an affront to our dignity and personhood.”

Growing up in the L.A. County city of Paramount, Nydya Mora, a youth librarian with a background in urban planning, said the Virgin of Guadalupe “was everywhere all the time.”

“I just grew fascinated by the creativity that she inspired in people — the creation of these amazing, beautiful, unique murals,” said Mora, 33.

In 2012, as she was wrapping up her undergradu­ate degree at Cal Poly Pomona, Mora began to capture Guadalupe street art, thinking of creating a coffee table book for her Catholic mother “to show an appreciati­on for our culture.” An Instagram account where she posts her photos of “artistic expression­s of devotion in LA” has amassed more than 13,000 followers. Mora has also put together a Google map of her Virgin of Guadalupe sightings.

One of her more striking images shows a statue of the Virgin atop a bollard at a mini market parking lot in Compton. The shrine is embellishe­d with votive candles and vases filled with flowers propped against the post.

Her photograph­s are scheduled to appear later this year at a museum on the grounds of Forest Lawn Memorial Park, a cemetery in the city of Glendale.

 ?? OSCAR RODRIGUEZ ZAPATA VIA AP ?? A man walks next to a partially-covered Virgin of Guadalupe mural in Los Angeles in 2018.
OSCAR RODRIGUEZ ZAPATA VIA AP A man walks next to a partially-covered Virgin of Guadalupe mural in Los Angeles in 2018.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States