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For over four centuries the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe from Tepeyac has been,
and continues to be, manipulated by visual artists. Despite the various alterations made to the
original image over the years, today Guadalupe stands as a symbol of freedom, renewal, and
compassion. In the Spanish colonial period artists in New Spain associated her with the
emerging idea of criollismo. To the criollos her ethnicity was not a question; even though she
was said to have spoken an indigenous language and the early texts describe her as “silvery
brown” or “brunette” in skin color, they did not recognize her as an indigene. This may have
been because the image of the Virgin Mary in Extremadura, Spain, commonly called Our Lady
of Guadalupe also had dark skin. Whatever the reason, colonial criollo artists identified with
Guadalupe themselves and often represented her with fairer skin than that of Native Americans;
seemingly to separate her from her original devotees and more closely align her with the criollo
devotion of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. During the war for Mexican Independence
and again during the Mexican Revolution the image was called forth as a symbol to unite all
Mexicans against Spanish rule. The image served as a compassionate figure who was said to
watch over natives, mestizos, and criollos alike, all of whom participated in the bloody battles,
and died to fight oppression. The banner of Independence portrayed Guadalupe as she had been
inherited from the hands of criollo artists— a light skinned woman. While her looks changed
little, her meaning had broadened to include all the ethnic and racial types of Mexico. Despite
her light complexion, she became the embodiment of Mexicanidad. Interestingly, it was not
until the latter half of the twentieth century, and outside of Mexico, that the image was changed
to more closely correlate with her significance. In the United States during another struggle
against oppressive forces Mexican-Americans, mestizos, and Chicano/as appropriated
Guadalupe , transforming her into a recognizably “ethnic” figure. Writing about the Chicano
Guadalupe, Guillermo Gómez-Peña concludes that,

In the Chicano Movement la Virgen was no longer the contemplative mestiza Mother of all
Mexicans, but a warrior goddess who blessed the cultural and political weapons of activists
and artists. She was against racism, the border patrol, the cops, the supremacist politicians.

And in the Chicano feminist Olympus, la Guadalupana stood defiant and compassionate as a
symbol of female strength.1
Artists began to represent the Guadalupe from Tepeyac as an empowered mestiza and Chicana
capable of overcoming all obstacles. Her indigenous heritage was written on her face and on her
skin tone. Artists, such as Barraza and López, reinvented and activated Guadalupe making her
into a new icon for all women to revere.

Over the centuries the image of Guadalupe from Tepeyac has been altered to visually
communicate social identities and political agendas. Artists have altered the image to express
their beliefs not just in Catholicism but in particular social movements, political agendas, and
issues of ethnic identity. The manipulation of the image, in terms of her various complexions
and ethnic characteristics, served to communicate to the targeted audience the relevant issues of
the time. One constant feature of Guadalupe is her identity as a mother figure; despite the
changes in her ethnic identity over time, she continues to unite the people and culture of Mexico.

After examining the various interpretations of the Guadalupe image over four centuries I
have come to realize its importance in peoples’ lives. The image belongs and connects to the
individual despite their social and political beliefs, or ethnic identities. As stated by Eric Wolf,
“the study of this symbol seems particularly rewarding, since it is not restricted to one set of
social ties, but refers to a very wide range of social relationships.”2 Perhaps because of its
historical ambiguities, the Guadalupe image from Tepeyac has been open to varying
interpretations. Because she encompasses a wide range of people representing different social
classes and ethnicities, the image has been appropriated by various groups seeking a symbol of
unity. Although originally heralded as a Roman Catholic icon, she is considered now to be
“beyond Catholic” because Guadalupe has been integrated into all cultural spaces. Based on the
history of the past four centuries we can anticipate that as new groups discover Guadalupe, we
will witness the Guadalupe image appropriated and transformed over and over again.

Guillermo Gómez-Peña. “The Two Guadalupes” (in) Goddess of the Americas. Castillo, Ana. (New York:
Riverhead Books, 1996), 180.

Eric Wolf. “The Virgin of Guadalupe: A Mexican National Symbol.” The Journal of American Folklore 71, No. 279
(1958), 34.