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.
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.
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.