“In Mexico, Our Lady of Guadalupe is the boss, ” says Lalo Garcia, a Los Angeles-based
visual artist, folkloric dancer and man of faith. “She is our most visible symbol of Christianity – even more than Christ,” he says, explaining that Catholics in Mexico – and elsewhere – credit Our Lady of Guadalupe for helping them through difficult times. “When you go into a church in Mexico you may or may not find a cross, but you will always find an image of the Virgin.”
At the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Los Angeles last weekend, devotees gave thanks to the Virgin with flowers, prayers, food and their art.
The sybol of the Virgin is based on a Catholic teaching from Mexico in which Jesus’ mother appears in 1531 as a dark-skinned woman, speaking in the local indigenous language to Juan Diego, an Aztec Indian peasant. Appointing him as her messenger, she sends him to the local bishop with a message: build a church for me on the Hill of Tepeyac, a traditional site of worship for the mother goddess Tonantzin. The request is seen as a sign that the divine is with all people, no matter how marginalized.
The apparition was especially meaningful to indigenous people, for it came at a time when they were suffering at the hands of Spanish conquerors and representatives of the Catholic Church.
The symbol of the Virgin of Guadalupe has come to have deep religious, cultural and political significance for Mexican, other Latin and Asian cultures.
After the performance, some members of the audience ventured outside to say a prayer at
the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, created by Lalo Garcia. He says the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a good example of how faith and culture are intertwined:
“The celebration starts at midnight when the community comes together to give thanks to the Virgin.” He explains these the celebrations – people bringing flowers, dancing, etc. – are part of the culture; they are not directly proscribed by the Church. “But the celebrations are a tradition that strengthens our faith”
Garcia’s own art is informed by his culture, his Catholic faith and the hardship that he experienced growing up in rural Mexico. His faith came from his mother, a devout woman who was largely responsible for keeping the family together.
“My father worked in the United States under the Bracero Program,” he said. “He could only come home for a few weeks every two years.” The arrangement left his mother virtually alone to raise four children. “That takes a lot of strength. When there were difficulties, she prayed to the Virgin to help see her through.”
He looks to his own mother’s example when depicting the Virgin. While his style is contemporary, he keeps much of the traditional symbolism of the Virgin of Guadalupe (the moon, the stars and rays, etc.)
In painting the Virgin, he attempts to be fresh and relevant. “I would never wish to replace the traditional image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. My intention is to help people look at her in a different way while still keeping her essence.”
Garcia says that’s the role of the artist: to help people look at things with fresh eyes, to build bridges between people, and break down barriers of gender, race and culture.
A lot of research goes into each new project. For example, he has one full shelf of art and religious books on the Virgin of Guadalupe.
When his research is done and his intellect satisfied, he follows the advise of his 82-year-old mentor, artist Frank Martinez, who told him to surrender to his dreams: “I begin to paint in my sleep. That’s when the images really start to come.”
Seeking simplicity, Garcia limits his palette to four monochromatic colors.
For his “Pieta”, Garcia looked for ways to express the myriad of emotions – fear, awe, sadness – that he believes Mary would have felt at her son’s death.
“Most paintings of the Pieta done by artists have Mary looking down at the lifeless body of Jesus,” Garcia explains. “I decided to portray Mary looking up as a sign of acceptance of Jesus’ life on earth, and of Mary offering her only Son to his father. I see this as an example of reaching the point of letting go, at the loss of a love one.
Garcia’s artistic process has forces him to delve deeply inside himself. He would like his paintings to do the same for others:
I hope my work will encourage people to do their own research and meditation, to help them renew their faith.