Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
May 6th, 2010

La Lupe

My Identity, My Culture, My Faith

 
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lalupe-flash
I guess I wasn’t all that different from most college freshman who get swept off their feet. Every year, scores of first-year collegians return home for Christmas break itching to try out all of their newfound wisdom on the folks back home: psychology majors suddenly become experts in diagnosing their families’ dysfunction, philosophy majors proselytize about existentialism with a new convert’s zeal. 

After finishing my first semester as a theology major at Notre Dame I returned home to my Mexican-American family in El Paso, Texas, poised and ready to judge the religiosity and spirituality of any relative I came into contact with.  Armed with words like hermeneutics, eschatology and praxis, my first target was an easy choice, my grandmother.

Grandma — whose name is Guadalupe but whom I affectionately refer to as La Lupe — is a feisty jorobada (crooked-backed) woman who stands 5 feet tall, and weighs no more than 90 pounds.  She grew up very, very poor in Chihuahua, Mexico, got married at 22, and gave birth to eight children. When her second child (my dad) was just 3, she moved her young family to El Paso and has lived there since.  She raised eight kids on next to nothing and then raised me and my 18 cousins (not to mention a lot of my cousins’ kids). 

La Lupe takes her role as the matriarch of the family very seriously, especially the “educator of the faith” part.  She never lets an opportunity pass to lecture about morality, work ethic or God.

On that first day home from college as I sat on her couch drinking the atole (oatmeal water with cinnamon and milk) she made for me, I looked around her home and decided that La Lupe was superstitious and her spirituality was too Mary-centric. Every room in the house had an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  She has an unending number of little medals of La Milagrosa that she pins on us if we are going out of town.  She always tells us that we should honor Mary and pray to her.  She watches Mother Angelica pray the rosary on EWTN every morning even though La Lupe doesn’t speak English.  When I left for college, she gave me a framed image of La Virgen to put on my desk so that she could cubrirme con su manto (protect me with her mantle).  Like any obedient granddaughter I did this, but it didn’t really mean anything to me except to remind me of her Marian obsession.  Yup, La Lupe was bordering on worshipping Mary.

I always dearly loved and respected La Lupe but I was also a little embarrassed by what seemed more like Mexican-American stereotypes and superstitions than intelligent, mature faith.

And her superstitions.  Where do I start?

Sickness: On excruciatingly hot summer days, my uncle would give us an excuse to play outside in the water and wash his car.  Of course when we asked La Lupe if we could go we were never allowed because we might catch pneumonia.  Pneumonia.  In 100 degree heat.

Pork: La Lupe always reminds us that if we eat pork and shower in the same day we will die.  Yup, ham and cheese sandwich + shower = death.  (I still to this day get strangely anxious when trying to enjoy a nice BLT.)

Babies: My family and I would compulsively have to pat every cute baby on the head even if we didn’t know them because La Lupe would remind us that we were going to give the baby ojo. Ojo is the evil eye.  If you admire a cute baby girl but do not show her affection by touching her then you are casting the evil eye on her.  This results in the baby being restless and fussy.

Vicks: La Lupe swears by it.  She uses it on everything.  If she feels sick she rubs some on.  If she has a bruise, she rubs some on.  She has instructed me to put Vicks on cuts, burns, pimples, you name it.

I always dearly loved and respected La Lupe but I was also a little embarrassed by what seemed more like Mexican-American stereotypes and superstitions than intelligent, mature faith. She never made a lot of sense to me and in some ways she seemed pretty silly.

My view changed entirely

I decided to be generous however and held off my critique of La Lupe’s spirituality until after Christmas. It wasn’t going to be easy though. When I walked into church with her for Christmas Mass, La Lupe immediately walked over to the statue of La Virgen and kissed her feet.  I rolled my eyes.  Then we walked over to some nuns selling prayer cards and my stomach tightened.  La Lupe saw a card of Our Lady of Guadalupe and picked it up.  I rolled my eyes again.  As she held it she mentioned how beautiful it was because Mary looked pregnant.  She then kissed her finger and touched Mary’s stomach on the image.

I was stunned…

Suddenly all the different images of La Virgencita that she had in her home began to rush into my head.  Sure enough, one by one I realized that the only pictures of Mary that she has are ones where it is clear that Mary is pregnant. It was at that exact moment that my view of La Lupe changed entirely. She loves Mary for her role as the mother of Jesus.  She wasn’t worshipping Mary; she was giving her the respect and honor that being the God-bearer deserves.

In a single moment, my feelings of condescension were replaced with a recognition of the depth and insight of La Lupe’s devotion. I was strangely happy to be proven wrong; it felt right that she was wiser than I.

La Lupe understands Christ more deeply through Mary’s joys and sufferings. After 82 years of raising or helping raise over 50 children she has seen it all. Her heightened sense of worry is bound up with her maternal sense of love. She thinks you will get pneumonia if you wash a car because her best friend died of pneumonia when she was little and she probably attributed it to getting wet while being outside.  Eating pork and showering in the same day will cause death because she also knew someone who had likely died of trichinosis from eating undercooked pork and she had linked it to their taking a shower that day.  When it comes to dealing with ojo, I do know that if I don’t lightly touch my daughter when I check on her while she is sleeping, she wakes up.

(Ok, I confess that I still don’t completely understand the whole Vicks thing but it seems to work for her.)

I had written her off as quirky and old-fashioned my entire life.  I judged her spirituality to be simple and sentimental. In a single moment, my feelings of condescension were replaced with a recognition of the depth and insight of La Lupe’s devotion. I was strangely happy to be proven wrong; it felt right that she was wiser than I.

The textbooks I read as a theology major label La Lupe’s spirituality as “popular religiosity” but that term belittles the wisdom of her faith and the witness it has provided so many of us. In my studies, I have read millions of words about God that have helped my understanding grow enormously, but somehow those words only make sense to me when set against the backdrop of La Lupe’s deep love and lived faith.

 
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The Author : Vanessa Gonzalez Kraft
Vanessa, a Notre Dame grad, loves the Catholic Worker Movement, Catholic education, and overbearing Mexican mothers, which she may or may not be. She lives in Austin with her husband and three daughters and is a freelance writer. You can find Vanessa at v.kraft.im or follow Vanessa on Twitter @laluped.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Noe

    As with OLGuadalupe, I have a similar relationship with Arcangel Miguel…on a bus trip from the grocer, there was a wee Latino toddler in momma’s lap and he looked at me, reached out to me bearing his teeth, and so I was like “Of course i should give him something”, so I took out an Archangel Michael icon card that I keep with my work ID and gave it to his mom to give to him, which she did with a big smile and only briefly nodded questioningly to me like “really?”, and took it smiling nicely, tried to get the toddler to say ‘thank you”, it was really cute. He held it and swung it around in his hand and didn’t let go. he would look at me, wave it at me, etc. I gave away something “important” to me thinking “it’s like $1, if that! I get another”.

    So yesterday at work I printed something out that I wanted to keep “close” to have around even if i didn’t think about it, so I opened a desk drawer – of course the one I never use – and there was an Arcangel Miguel card – in Spanish – that I forgot I’d bought and put in that drawer for a similar “keep close” reason.

  • Noe

    Thank you for once again, elevating my angst for my family’s ‘miscegenation’…

  • Marnie

    I’ve had so many “Lupes” in my life, my abuela, my aunts and my mother. I too used to looked at their faith and wondered if it bordered on superstition. And like you, I came to the realization that what they could not express with the words of St. Louis-Marie de Montfort.
    Now there is a whole new generation of “Lupes” in my family. My cousins, sister and I smile when we catch ourselves kissing the tummy of the Theotokos.
    Great article-had me smiling and crying.
    Marnie
    Barcelona, Spain by way of So. Cal from El Paso, Texas.

  • ruth housman

    A WONDERFUL grandmother and great grandmother:
    I read this lovely piece and had to smile, because I do believe our beliefs, if about love, being about love, have buried within, nuggets of gold. We live in a world of diversity, and each of us is truly unique.
    Some cultural practices of course, many, are shared. We do this thing together, which is, we pass the torch, and share the fire. I like to think the small English i is a candle, that burns within us all, and the expression of that soul candle are the stories we tell, the beliefs we hold, and how we hold each other and share this thing, we call: LOVE.

    I love hearing these stories because they are about warmth and loving. We are all making connects through life, and we learn through these connects. There is a deeper spirituality, a well, that connects us all, and makes us well, too, in the practice of love.

  • Meagan F.

    Wonderful job, Vanessa! Thank you for this. Your daughter has a wonderful mother to fill her with the faith of La Lupe.

  • Theresa

    Behind every priest is a woman who encouraged love for the Christ Bearer. It is such women who make me realize woman’s important role in the world. It is NOT to BE priests but to BEAR priests for Holy Mother Church as Mary bore the first High Priest. The greatest imitation of Mary is a mother with such faith.

  • Belarmino A. Castellanos

    I can empathize with your experiences post-Freshman year (returning with such a Sophomoric attitude). It didn’t take long for my sisters and parents to remind me that I do not know as much as I think. The La Lupe’s in our lives are plentiful. I thank you for such a wonderful article. Not only was it very moving and “real”, but it truly illustrates an experience many of us share in our Hispanic Catholic culture. Best wishes to you! BC

  • Caitlin Lassus

    Beautiful to read as we head to Los Angeles to look for a place to live. I will hold it in my heart while taking care of the abuelitas and their families at UCLA-Harbor in Torrance!

  • Jeanne Harris, OP

    Yes, Vanessa, your grandmother has the most basic thing about Mary very right—her gift of Jesus to the world! The entire OLG image came alive to me from a lecture and notes given by Professor Jeanette Rodriguez (University of Seattle) when she and I were working at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in the early 90s. I came to appreciate (and share) OLG way above other apparitions for its many messages of hope for the unification of the human race built on inclusive communities. The black sash, e.g., symbolizes Mary’s pregnancy and calls us as well to continue our struggle to bring Jesus’ new creation to birth everywhere. The image is rich in many other symbols related to the Nahuatl culture of Juan Diego. All this doesn’t prevent people from going too far in their love of Mary, but for me OLG from 1531 is one apparition worthy of diligent study and implementation—and for many, devotion.

  • Michelle Goodwin

    Great story, Vanessa. Our grandmothers are great teachers of the faith by their lived example. It seems their wisdom is veiled to us until the right moment and then our lives and faith are richer because of their dedication and devotion.

  • Rob

    Great story. It also makes me rethink my own versions.

  • Marnie

    I’ve had so many “Lupes” in my life, my abuela, my aunts and my mother. I too used to looked at their faith and wondered if it bordered on superstition. And like you, I came to the realization that what they could not express with the words of St. Louis-Marie de Montfort.
    Now there is a whole new generation of “Lupes” in my family. My cousins, sister and I smile when we catch ourselves kissing the tummy of the Theotokos.
    Great article-had me smiling and crying.
    Marnie
    Barcelona, Spain by way of So. Cal from El Paso, Texas.

  • Guillaume

    Dear Vanessa,
    Great article!
    Two weeks ago, I was in Lourdes on a pilgrimage accompanying a group of teenagers from a high school in Paris (France), where I live. We were accompanied by our 40 something year old priest who is a remarkable intellect and a great pastor and mentor for our very educated group of kids. I did the whole eye roll thing when he told me that some of his parishioners had asked him to bring back bottle upon bottle of water from Lourdes to give to all of their relatives. “Popular religiosity” bordering on superstition I mused and for sure, pouring Lourdes water on yourself believing it will cure or protect you does not smack of high flying theology.
    Yet we also have an expression in French which is “avoir la Foi du charbonnier” : to have the faith of a coalman (laborers that used to do the back breaking menial work of delivering coal to homes and stores). The “coalman” represents the uneducated person with completely unwavering faith and is often admired and looked upon with nostalgia by today’s more “sophisticated” believers. So let’s celebrate the “quirky and old-fashioned” coalmen and jorobadas ! They seem to know things through their experience that we may never fully grasp, as your article illustrates.
    Yours in Christ,
    Guillaume
    PS : The framed Virgen in the picture looks beautiful and I’m thinking a similar picture would make an original First Communion gift for my little girl.

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