Tag Archives: virgin of guadalupe

The Virgin Had This Homeboy’s Back (Fabian Debora)


"Mi Madre de Los Angeles" Fabian Debora

by Lydia Breen

Fabian Debora grew up in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles.  He survived gang violence, drug addiction and prison.  Now he works as a substance abuse counselor at Homeboy Industries, helping at-risk and formerly gang-involved youth.  Debora’s  art, which is largely based on his life experiences, has opened up new worlds for him.  It is also inspiring the  young people he works with to pursue their own dreams.

Debora’s paintings are  on display at “Canvassing Peace” , an exhibit sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee ( on view now through Augstu 12, 2010 at AFSC’s regional headquarters in Los Angeles, 3rd floor, 634 South Spring Street).


Artist Fabian Debora calls Los Angeles a territorial place.  “There are guidelines you have to follow, places you can’t go,” he says.

Growing up, the walk from home to school felt like it was littered with landmines.  “There were eight gangs in my neighborhood,” he says. “It was like it was infested. “

He wasn’t looking for trouble. All he wanted to do was his art. He explains:  “When I left the projects where I lived, they would ask where I was from.  I’d say, ‘I don’t bang.’”

It didn’t help.

“The place I lived, the way I dressed that automatically placed me in a gang,” he said during a recent interview in his office at Homeboy Industries.   “Once I walked out of the projects, it was basically like a free-for- all.”

Boyle Heights bridge credit: static.guim.com

The river was his refuge.  He used to ditch school and spend hours there.  The cement walls were his canvass, a place to experiment with graffiti and mural art.  He made friends with homeless people who lived under the bridge.  They gave him advice (get an education) and he gave them his bag lunches.

On the way home he got hassled all over again.  “I was trying to stay out of trouble, but it was hard,” he said. “My dad was a heroin addict who was in an out of jail.   I couldn’t look to him for protection.  And my mom had to work two jobs.”

Eventually, he gave in to the pressure and joined a gang.  But he kept on doing his art, adding tattooing to his repertoire.

Home life was tense.   “My mother would tell me: ‘You have a problem.’  I told her she didn’t understand.  I was very rebellious and had a lot of anger. We were first generation Mexicans,” he says.  “I wondered why I was suffering so much, why my father was an addict.  I took it out on my mother and continued to blame her.  I told her she should never have had me. I even tried to commit death.”

His grandmother was “the spine of the family.”  An ardent devotee of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Debora recalls:  “She told me the Virgin would always watch over me. This was my first teaching.”

Artist Fabian Debora says gang members are more than the sum of their mistakes.

Tattoos and T-shirts with the Virgin’s image have been criticized as “gang-related apparel that has been banned at some schools.   Debora says that misses the point: “ Outsiders who see all these cholos with tattoos of the Virgin Mary – that’s not a gang thing.  A homeboy wears the Virgin for protection due to the mess he is in.   It’s like he is saying: ‘I’m out here in the street.  I am out here crying.”  (See video, below, of Debora applying a tatoo of the Virgin of Guadalupe.)

“Just because we are in a gang, that doesn’t me we have no morals,” he says. “The Virgin holds a lot of respect because of what we were taught by our mothers and grandmothers.”

He says gang members are more than the sum of their mistakes:  “We wind up getting judged by the wrong decisions we make. It doesn’t mean we don’t have morals.   It doesn’t mean we have the absence of hope, or that we don’t want to be protected.”

He concedes that a homeboy wearing the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe doesn’t always send the right message:  “You have guys who glamorize it in a way that can cause harm.  The minute you disrespect the Virgin Mary,  you are going against everything she believes.”

By 1994 he began to remove himself from gang life.  Then he spent five years doing Methamphetamine.  “I was hurting everyone,” he says.

Looking back, he sees how his past life – the violence,  Meth addiction, stints in prison and suicide attempts – were especially hard on his mother:  “I realize now what I put her through.”

A failed attempt to kill himself was the turning point:  “I was smoked out, loosing my mind, loosing my pride, my dignity.  I told myself I didn’t want to live anymore.”

High on Meth, paranoid that the police were after him, he ran out of his mother’s house, and kept on running,  through the projects to a park, where even a lake didn’t stop him.

“I ran into the water, got covered with seaweed and kept on going.  I jumped over the freeway wall  to the other side.” When he landed he bit his tongue – hard.  Bleeding profusely, he ran on to the highway, into the path of an on-coming suburban vehicle.

“I said to myself:  ‘This is it.’ ” His sense of reality altered, he heard a whirring noise: “ It was like I was in slow motion. I was ready to feel the impact of the truck.  Then I remembered:  ‘My kids!’”

The vehicle missed and Debora kept on running.  He reached the median strip and collapsed in a heap.  As the vehicle disappeared in the distance, he sensed his life was about to change:

“I felt like the truck took all that disease away.  The sounds returned, the sound of birds and the wind.  Then the police came. They tried to call me to come to them, but I ran away back to the projects.”

Debora wound up at Dolores Mission, the school and church where he grew up.  But he was not supposed to be there, it wasn’t safe for him.

“I called my mother to come pick me up,” he said.  “She started yelling at me for being where I was.  I told her:  ‘Mom, I almost got killed today.’  She got very quiet. ”

Debora: "I looked like a zombie, a calavera"

Debora sets the next scene as if he was considering it for a future painting:  “Can you image a mother rolling up in her car, seeing her son nearly half-dead?   It was like the Virgin when she came to help her own son.  My tongue was hanging out from where I bit it.  I was full of blood. I was wet from the lake. I looked like a zombie, like a calavera.”

Before driving away, his mother gave him an ultimatum:  he had three days. After that, he’d have to go to rehab.

Fabain Debora spent the next six months in rehab. When he got out, Father Gregory Boyle, a priest he knew from Dolores Mission who now heads Homeboy Industries, gave him a job.  It’s been three years now that he has worked  as a trained substance abuse counselor and art instructor.

Debora’s brush with death on the highway had a lasting effect.  “I became very spiritual,” he says. “I believe it happened for a reason.”

He gives a lot of credit for his recovery to his mother.  “All that time my mother never gave up on me.  She always tried to guide me.  I have been sober now for approximately three years.”

The Virigin as Homegirl: "My Virgin of Mary in relation to Tonantzin" Fabian Debora

In his 2008 painting My Virgin of Mary in Relation to Tonantzin,  Debora connects his old life with his new one.  The top-left corner of the painting appears in black and white to symbolize the past.  Also in the past, the cement under the Boyle Heights bridge, tagged with the names of friends who died in gang violence. (One his friends was shot in the head).

The corn in the painting represents the maize that used to be grown along the river by Indians before the area fell into the hands of Spanish colonialists.  Debora added a totem-like statue of the Aztec earth goddess Tonantzin,  an image that Spanish missionaries conflated  with the Virgin of Guadalupe.  (See Café Libre: “The Virgin as Spin-Mistress.”)

St. Juan Deigo with image of Virgin of Guadalupe

Debora explains:  “The Catholics had to enslave the Aztec people to make them believe.

Feast Day of Virgin of Guadalupe, L.A. 2009

Debora says the fact that the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared before Don Juan, an impoverished Indian peasant, shows that she cares for and represents the people.  “She is ‘the  mother of Mexico’  a powerful icon for the Mexican people, a symbol of hope and strength. She ties in all the aspects of my beliefs.”

He says he likes using cultural images like the Virgin, the corn and the bridge in Boyle Heights because:  “ They connect me; they help me stay focused. They help me be creative.”

Before it was put on display at the  “Canvassing Peace” exhibit, The Virgin of Mary in relation to Tonantzin” was on view at Homegirl Café, where Debora used the painting as a way to talk to homegirls about “their power and beauty and their capacity for caring.”

He believes his art can help give young people confidence.  By painting the Virgin as a homegirl, he was sending a message:   “When a homegirl said to me that she liked that painting, I told her:  ‘That can be you!’”

Preparing food at the Homegirl Cafe credit: latimes blog

“A lot of the homegirls have suffered from domestic violence.  They’ve been demoralized by their man.  Some of them loose their kids.  Gangs use them as scouts to go into other neighborhoods…[They] don’t value them.  I hope I can pave a path for [homegirls], tell them that education is powerful.”

“My art can have an impact on others.  If it helps people see they aren’t alone, that’s a good thing. But it is first of all for me.  When I paint, it’s therapy. I am trying to heal.”

Debora’s most recent work, Madre Frida, is a vibrant portrait of Frida Kahlo as the Virgin of Guadalupe.   “ A lot of people respect both women,” he explains.  “Both had a lot of pain. But at the same time, both were powerful. “

"Madre Frida" Fabian Debora

Throughout  his difficulties, he says he always held on to his art:  “It has been a life saver. Art gives me a sense of freedom. There are no boundaries.  I can be myself. It has help me find a new form of identity”

Considering all the up’s and down’s he has been through, it is not surprising that an element of fatalism creeps into his thoughts:

“Now I’m focused, but that’s also where the fear comes.  You expect tragedy to hit.  I worry that something will happen that won’t allow me to succeed.”

But his vitality and his life story suggests that he has strong survival instincts and a capacity to use his art to heal.

He wants to go back to art school “for sustainability” and to learn new techniques.  His dream is to become an animator and mark the events of his life in pictures.

In his life-sized 2009 piece Falling Star, Debora paints himself and his 18-month old daughter. (The 33-year old artist has five children:  three boys, aged 10, 6 and 4 and two girls, aged 3 and 18 months.)

“In the painting I put her before me.”  He says sometimes he looks into his daughter’s bright eyes and, thinking about all his own struggles, he worries about what lies ahead for her.

“She’s holding my heart in her hands. It’s hers.”

"Falling Star" portrait of the artist and his daughter


Chasing Virgins (artists Kathy Gallegos, Johnny Nicoloro and others)


"Ralphy' s Pain", Kathy Gallegos, 1997

  December marks the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, one of the most recognizable religious figures in the world.  Her image has been used to help comfort people suffering from hardships and has given others a sense of identity and place.   Judging from the works on display around Los Angeles, artists still get inspiration from this nearly 500-year-old Catholic icon.    Continue reading

Virgin with a Rebel Vibe (artist George Yepes)

Virgen de Guadalupe, George Yepes, 2009

The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe has been used to give hope to marginalized people, instill a sense of  cultural identity in others and encourage communities to fight for their human rights.  December marked the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  Judging from the works on display around Los Angeles, artists are still get inspired from this nearly 500-year-old Catholic icon. Continue reading

Virgin As Muse (artist Lalo Garcia)

Lalo Garcia: “Growing up, I learned that women are strong.”


 “In Mexico, Our Lady of Guadalupe is the boss, ” says Lalo Garcia, a Los Angeles-based     

Credit: Tidings Magazine

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.     

Garcia's "Apparitions of the Virgin"

  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.        

At the Cathedral of Our Lady of  the Angeles,  a cast of 100 re-enacted the apparition  in “La Virgen de Guadalupe, Dios Inantzin,”  (click here for related story. )     

After the performance, some members of the audience ventured outside to say a prayer at   

Garcia’s Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe

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 mother

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.”      

Lalo Garcia: "Nativity"

  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.            

Lalo Garcia's "Pieta"

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.          

the artist's studio



Virgin As Spin-Mistress (artist Colette Crutcher)

Colette Crutcher’s mixed media mural, “Tonantsin Renance”is located at 16th and Sanchez in San Francisco, CA.

When theologian Mary Daly published Beyond God, the Father in 1973, the book sent shock waves around Boston College, the Jesuit school where Daly taught.   Daly’s goal was to explain how men had shaped Western religion to the exclusion and detriment of women.  Women’s sense of the divine –  with its emphasis on nature and nurturing – needed to be put back in the picture, she said.  She challenged women to re-claim their “primal powers” as creators and “spin” a new world.      

 In retrospect, it is difficult to understand the importance of Daly’s views.  They came at a time when many women still accepted  that they needed to sacrifice their interests and talents to those of their fathers, brothers,  husbands.  Daly and other radical feminists called on women to say “Goodbye to All That”   

 In an interview with The Washington Post,   feminist author Robin Morgan called Daly: “the first feminist philosopher”:   

“She really pushed the boundaries, and that drove some people bananas…But that kind of intellectual courage is, in fact, what usually moves the species forward…”  

For budding feminists who felt alientated from heavily male-dominated relgious institutions, Daly helped make religion interesting, even meaningful.   

The women’s movment  went on to make mistakes: with simplistic analysis, at times, and more importantly, a failure to adequately address issues of race and class.  But the world is a better place for “uppity”  feminists like Mary Daly who  helped us see that women have power, talent and rights. 

Mary Daily died on January 3, 2010.  Drawing on her words,  this article is in part a tribute to her.  It is also a tribute to the creative talents of  San Francisco artist Colette Crutcher, a  “Spin-Mistress” in her own right.     


See also:  Susan Brooks Thistlewaite’s remembrance of Daly in the Washington Post’s blog “On Faith.”  

Crutcher painted her original mural in 1991. She replaced it with this mixed-media mural in 1998.

-by Lydia Breen    (quotes in bold italics by Mary Daly)     

Colette Crutcher had just given birth to her second son in 1991 when she started work on a mixed media mural of  Tonantzin, the Aztec goddess of Mother Earth.  As she painted Crutcher’s thoughts were about creativity, particularly the creative power of women to bring new life into the world.      

“God empowers women in their humanity to uncover their primordial power and make this world rich…It is a time of reverie in the limitless life now felt and made unfolding. ”  – Mary Daly     

Detail of birds, water, fire

Crutcher says that her image for Tonantzin came largely from her imagination:  “I didn’t do research for the piece-except for the symbols [directly on] her body – the idea came from my head.  

Detail of serpents


 She is surrounded by the four elements:  the snakes  represent the earth, the birds symbolize the air. Water is under one arm, fire above it. Later, I did do some research and found that a lot of the symbols I put in the mural were all correct.”       

“Women themselves must create new spaces, new galaxies and new times… To be a  Spinmaster is to create new landscapes of being and meaning.”     

 “Tonantzin” is thought by some to be a generic term for any Aztec goddesses.  Others think the word refers to one goddess who has many aspects, each with a different name.  (For example, the goddess of childbirth, of war, of corn, etc.)     

The image of the brown-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe is thought to be a synchronized version of Tonantzin and the Virgin Mary, used by early 16th century missionaries to convert  the indigenous people to Catholicism.  There is some debate about the missionaries’ motivation:  did they want to destroy the notion of the female diety or were they willing  to co-exist with it?       

In this 16th century image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, she is appears without her child, a being in her own right.

 While we may not know their intention, we can see that the image they used of the Virgin of Guadalupe ( Catholic teaching say it was revealed by God) is one of a gentle, compassionate, self-sacrificing woman.   

Artist Lalo Garcia  (link to article) says it is significant that the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared in Mexico without her infant son. Unlike European depictions of the Virgin Mary, she appears as a being in her own right. 

“When you look at the scripture,” Garcia says,  “Mary vanished until the crucifixion. Mary of Nazareth is a nobody. In the Americas, she is the boss.  Anyting related to Christianity you’ll wind up with her.” 

 Yet there is still considerable difference in imagery between the Mexican Virgin and Aztec goddeses.  See for example,  the stone statue of  Cihuacoatl, seen encompassed by the mouth of a serpent and holding an ear of maize:   

Cihuacoatl the Aztec goddess of motherhood and fertility, her head encompassed by a snake. Photo credit: Museo Nacional Antropologia, Mexico

In this Aztec stone statue of Tonantzin, she looks up to the heavens

 By contrast, renditions of the Virgin Mary by European artists portray her as an almost-characterless figure (“an empty vessel”) who bows in submision to her own son.      

Adoration. Eyes cast down, Mary bows in reverence to her son

 Crutcher turns that notion on its head.  Her Tonantzin stands front and center, a powerful diety making no apologies for who she is.  She looks like she woke up from a 500-year nap and, disliking what she saw, is ready to set things straight:     

Crutcher dedicated her mural to "all those who work to preserve the cultural heritage of Latin America"

   “There is no possibility of redemption within a system which is founded upon the degradation of the human species and its environment.”      

A watchful third eye

Crutcher puts  the Virgin of Guadalupe in the middle of Tonantzin’s forehead.  The Virgin stands like a watchful third eye in the spiritual center of the goddesses’ body.  

One might see this as an analogy:   just as Jesus is God – or an apsect of Him in Christian theology – the Virgin is the Goddess, or an aspect of Her.  One icon sits at God’s right hand, and another  in the Goddess’  forehead.     

 “Women themselves must become the incarnation of God.”      

Crutcher says her inspiration for the mural came from a favorite song.  She sings it with Choro Hispano, a choral group she has been associated with for more than 30 years. Dios Itlaçonantzine  was composed in the early 16th century by Don Hernando Franco, an Aztec Christian convert.       

Sung in the native Aztec language of Nahuatl (Nahua), the song is a prayer to the Virgin to intercede on behalf of  indigenous people. Crutcher says the lyrics refers to the Virgin as “Dios Itlaçonantzine,” one of the names for Tonantzin.     

At a time when  indigenous people of Mexico were suffering from brutal treatment by Spanish occupiers,  the song to the Virgin by a native might have been a prayer of intercession for a more caring, compassionate world.


"Quetzalcoatl" Colette Crutcher and Mark Roller made this mosaic tile structure at a playground on 24th Street in San Francisco's Mission District.

For other examples of Colette Crutcher’s work, see this link to the 16th Ave. Tiled Steps Project.  See also pictures of the exquisite serpent Quetzalcoatl  that Crutcher and Mark Roller, Crutcher’s husband, made in a public playground on 24th Street in San Francisco’s Mission District.     


Lydia Breen  in a freelance writer and filmmaker who began her career in the 1970’s, while a member of a feminist media collective  in Tucson, Arizona.  In 1989 she worked with Irene Kahn  (recently retired as Secretary General of Amnesty International) and others at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland to formulate a policy, then make a film about how rape is used as a weapon of war.    

UNHCR’s groundbreaking work in this area helped motivate other international organizations – the International Red Cross, the World Council of Churches, UNICEF and many others- to take a stand.  

 Ten years later,  the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda  declared that rape, when used as a weapon of war, is an act of “genocide”.  In 2007, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other female world leaders pushed the U.N. Security Council  to resolve that the systematic  use of rape is a “weapon of war.” 

  In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered $17 million in funds as well as technical assitance to address the terrible cost of  rape in  Africa.   

…Baby steps.  Twenty years of them.  But each one required an uphill battle.   How much more time would it have taken without “uppity women” like Mary Daly as role models?  

See Nicholas Kristoff’s colum and excellent video on rape used as a weapon of war against women in the Congo and one courageous doctors’ efforts to help.

The systematic use of rape of as a weapon of war has been used throughout history against women and girls (and sometimes men) in all regions of the world.