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“Sometimes, there’s not even an explanation for how much reverence I have, how much love I have for Our Blessed Mother,” says local police chaplain José Villegas.
Alexa Schirtzinger

Let It Be

Lessons from SFR’s Virgin of Guadalupe controversy

July 9, 2013, 12:00 am
Nearly a month ago, SFR published its most controversial story during my tenure as editor.

The story itself, our June 12 Summer Guide (featuring 93 local activities for summer’s 93 days), wasn’t controversial. And it wasn’t until two weeks later—long after the issue had disappeared from newsstands—that its cover became the subject of regional, national and ultimately international news.

The cover featured a woman wearing a yellow bikini, drinking a margarita. Draped over her head was a blue beach towel, and rays of sunlight shone behind her as she posed on a blue crescent moon. In short, she looked a lot like the Virgin of Guadalupe.

According to tradition, “la Guadalupana” represents an apparition of the Virgin Mary in Mexico. As the story goes, Mary was pregnant with the infant Jesus when she appeared to the peasant Juan Diego in December 1531. Anxious to prove to a bishop that she had indeed appeared, Juan Diego gathered roses in his tilma, or cloak. When he opened the cloak to show the bishop, the image of the Virgin appeared there—painted, many Catholics believe, by the hand of God.

“Our Lady of Guadalupe, to the Latino community, is sacred,” explains Anthony Trujillo, a deacon at San Isidro Catholic Church in Santa Fe. “We don’t put her on the same level as God, but we do have devotion, and there is a huge following.”

According to the Very Rev. Adam Ortega y Ortiz, the rector of downtown Santa Fe’s Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, “Our Lady has always been an image of support for the downtrodden…for those pushed aside, for those lacking justice.” Truijllo adds that every element of her image is symbolic—no matter whether it appears on a candle, a T-shirt, a tattoo or a lowrider.  

“Everything in here, there is a message. Everything you see in here is not just pretty, but it tells a story,” Trujillo says. Which is exactly why he says creating a similar image of a woman in a bikini was so controversial. “When you change the image,” Trujillo says, “you change the message.”

On June 19, SFR published the only two letters we’d received about the Summer Guide cover.

“Picturing a bikini-clad, margarita-drinking sun worshiper within the same images that Our Lady of Guadalupe is usually pictured is an affront to the local families who have worshipped in this City of Faith for the past 400 years,” wrote Paula Miera Dougherty of Ribera, N.M. Another writer,  “Francie F,” called it “just wrong.”

A week later, the trickle became a flood. Letters, emails, Facebook comments and tweets poured in; local and national TV stations began calling. To date, we’ve received more than 170 emails and innumerable phone calls.

At first, issuing an apology seemed inappropriate. We hadn’t intended to hurt anyone; we merely wanted to depict an image of good, clean summer fun (what’s wrong with swimming and drinking what one coworker cleverly dubbed a “Virgin margarita”?) using ubiquitous cultural imagery.

But many readers—and many people who’d never read or even seen our paper—vehemently objected, and the feedback ranged from indignant to downright threatening. People called us names: “instrument of Lucifer and cohort to the demons,” “chickenshits,” “pieces of human filth,” “spawns of Satan.” A woman named Kathleen Boldrick proposed “a public flogging, preferably in the main plaza on a hot day, followed by a year’s wearing of sackcloth and ashes.” “May this bring the wrath of God upon you!” wrote James Brintnall. One woman, speaking to a Mexican TV station, called for our deaths.

Not everyone was angry, though. Some readers offered support, while others accused the Catholic church of hypocrisy for expressing righteous indignation about a woman in a bikini while turning a blind eye to a legacy of sexual abuse.

But it was from locals like the Trujillos that we began to understand the real origins of the controversy.

According to tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared to the Mexican peasant Juan Diego in December 1531.
Alexa Schirtzinger

First, it has to do with what the Virgin of Guadalupe symbolizes.

“It’s kind of like, the image of the one we seek intercession and help from in the times of injustice—now an injustice has been done to her,” Ortega says. “I think that’s where it was so shocking.”

And to many, she’s much more than a symbol.

“A lot of people look at her as a mom,” says Trujillo’s wife, Mardell. During her two sons’ service in the Air Force, “I’ve always asked her to wrap her mantle around my children and protect them—as a mom would, you know?” she says, tearing up.

“When I saw this image on the Reporter, I thought it was making fun,” she continues. “I’m not trying to deny anybody their freedom or their right to express what they’d like. But when it feels like you’re being mocked in a public way, that’s what’s hurtful.”

In Santa Fe, there’s also the problem of history. The Trujillos were active in a previous—and highly contentious—controversy in 2001, over a digital collage by Chicana artist Alma López that depicted a woman, wearing a modest two-piece swimsuit made of roses, with the imagery of the Guadalupana. The piece—part of a four-artist exhibit titled Cyber Arte: Where Technology Meets Tradition—hung in the Museum of International Folk Art for eight months [Arts Valve, July 3: “Shame As It Ever Was”].

“The exhibit had a big message, and it was really timely, and it was so much bigger than Alma’s piece,” says Tey Marianna Nunn, the exhibit’s curator (now the program director and chief curator  of the art museum and visual arts program at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque). But furor ensued, chiefly over López’ piece.

“It was a flashpoint for the community,” Nunn recalls. “It was about place, and identity, and Hispanic identity, and the idea of being Santa Fean and New Mexican and being displaced, and all those types of things that were happening in Santa Fe.”

Trujillo and José Villegas, a local police chaplain, pushed for López’ piece to be removed from the exhibit. By all accounts, it was acrimonious—Nunn and López got death threats; Trujillo and Villegas say they endured personal insults and felt silenced in their own community.

The controversy dragged on for years, with protesters appearing at showings of López’ work as recently as 2011. In 2008, the Trujillos and Villegas—along with many others—journeyed to Mexico City to commission the statue that now stands before the Guadalupe Church (above).

Mardell calls the episode “a learning experience for all of us.” Nunn seems to agree.

“There’s such a connection to identity and place and faith in Santa Fe that it’s almost hard to disconnect—or at least separate—all three of those things,” Nunn says. “I’m very proud of being New Mexican, and it is definitely part of my identity,” she adds. “It’s an intellectual concept, on one hand, and it’s also a very emotional concept on the other hand. And it’s a real sense of pride…feeling like you’re from someplace and being part of someplace is a big deal in this crazy, changing world.”

Anthony Trujillo and others say that’s especially important now, as Santa Fe struggles with drugs, crime, high dropout rates and other challenges. In addition to being a deacon, he’s also a chaplain for local police and incarcerated youth, and the chairman of the Regional Juvenile Justice Committee.

“Our kids are going through some terrible times right now, and so are families in general,” he says. “And the less that we respect each other, the easier it is for these kinds of problems to enter into society—and then people don’t have respect for anything.”

But the call for respect goes both ways.

Maurus Chino, who was born and raised in Acoma before moving to Santa Fe, argues that indignation over the Virgin symbol pales in comparison with Santa Fe’s more serious historical issues. Specifically, he objects to a letter Ortega wrote to SFR noting that the Summer Guide was published during the same week as the Novena de la Conquistadora, nine days of masses and prayer dedicated to a statue of the Virgin dating back to the Spanish reoccupation of Santa Fe in 1692. For Chino—an artist who’s spent years advocating against monuments to the conquistadors—it amounted to “glorification of a savage and violent past.”

At the hands of the Spanish conquerors, he says, Native people were brutally murdered, forced into Christianity, and made to suffer extreme hardship. Every time Santa Fe celebrates a conquistador, he says, it deepens historical divisions.

“There’s this insidious hypocrisy that continues and continues,” Chino says. “I mean: ‘We’ll put up these statues [of conquistadors], and they may be offensive to you, but this is our culture. In the meantime, let’s try to get along; let’s let bygones be bygones!’”

He recounts a friend’s story of watching her child perform at a local church with a “Conquistador Chapel.”
“That’s what’s wrong,” he says. “And I place the blame squarely on the Catholic Church, because they are in a position to help change perceptions, and yet they’re part of the problem…they have never owned up to the misery that has been caused.”

The result, Chino says, is a divided community.

“There’s a façade of tolerance and the melding of the cultures [in Santa Fe],” he says, “but it’s not like that, and it has never been.”

On June 28, SFR apologized. “It was short-sighted of us not to realize how sensitive an issue the Virgin would be, and how important she is in many local people’s lives,” the apology reads. “We are truly sorry.”

“Our rights come from a respecting of people, and part of that respect is acknowledging when we fail and being able to apologize to those we hurt,” Ortega says. “I think that’s what even safeguards the right to free speech…and I think that took place, and I think that helped the community. There will always be those on the fringe who won’t let it go, but we’ve got to move forward.”

In the end, perhaps, the controversy is a testament to the power of Nunn’s three elements of local culture—identity, place and faith—as well as to the Virgin herself.

“The interesting thing about her and her image is that she creates such powerful responses and emotion,” Nunn says. “It’s probably a greater indicator of other issues going on in the community…Our Lady always sort of leads the way toward other things that are going on and need to be addressed.”

Both Villegas and Chino see opportunities for dialogue and growth.

“I’ve thought about it a lot, because as I get older, I want to leave a better place for younger people,” Chino says. “And I believe that somehow—in spite of ourselves—something will happen for the better.”
Villegas seems to agree. “We need to continue bridging gaps and making the bridge strong, foundation-wise,” he says.

As Ortega put it recently, “It adds to the story.”

He was talking about the Virgin of Guadalupe’s story, but the same could be said of Santa Fe’s own story.

Additional thanks to Dean Leh, Carolyn Lopez, Gilbert Pino, Peter Quichocho, Henry Shukman and Carlos Vasquez.


07.10.2013 at 10:58 | Reply |

Alexa, The image was one thing, the refusal to apologize another, and now this bit of writing and the tactics you employ are yet another insult to the community.

You purposely play down the decision by the SFR to depict the Virgin of Guadalupe; "she looked a lot like the Virgin of Guadalupe." You draw attention to the extreme and outlandish criticism the SFR received, "spawns of Satan" to create a perception of unfairness the SFR has gine through. Then, you switch topics and discuss at length a controversy from 2001 to get the spotlight off of the SFR contoroversy.

Alexa, you're an editor. Think and act and write like one. Be responsible. Be accountable. You chose to let the image be printed. You chose not to apologize, and you choose now to write and publish this dreck about a controvery the SFR began.

You, "call for respect both ways", yet don't give any. You point out the " more serious historical issues" of the town and Church. Please listen carefully Alexa, both the town and the Church know their histories and members in both are working very hard not to let those awful legacies be the future. That is not to say those legacies get a pass, they never will, those individuals fully recognize the atrocities, but it's time, as an editor, to dig a bit deeper than, as you put it, "clever" remarks like, "Virgin margarita" and run with it.

Your attempt at hip cleverness failed. Accept that fully. As editor you OK'd the image, did not apologize, "feeling one would be inappropriate." How would fully realising your choice to depict the Virgin Mary in a bikini and drinking was in poor taste be inapproproate? I feel that if you did that honesty that the community would be ready to, as you write, "Let it Be." As evidenced by your piece and title, which insinuates that the community should let this controversy go, you clearly don't attempt to be honest about your actions as editor. That's a shame.


07.10.2013 at 11:49

I can't even believe the lengths this newspaper will go these days to avoid any responsibility of journalism. I mean, I used to tease the paper for being childish, like a high school newspaper, but we all know this isn't the New York Times, right? Even as your writing and choices of subject have become more and more problematic, you choose to apologize as a child would. No one wants a half asses apology. No one cares about your victim complex, SFR. I'm not even pro-Guadalupe but have some respect for your readership! Do you think we can't see through your veiled "momma made me" attitude? This dissent you cause in the community, this shock-value thing your going for...? It makes you seem like an annoying class bully everyone will soon learn to ignore. I wouldn't wipe my ass with that rag of a periodical you put out these days. Time for a staff overhaul.


07.10.2013 at 12:41

With a long family history in Santa Fe and with a background and career in multi-cultural studies, I attempted to inform Enrique Limon, "It's beyond religion we're talking here."  It's about the peole who have worked hard to create this community.  His response:  "Ding, ding, ding! As expected."  But I was trying to be helpful because I feel he/you are making many assumptions about who sees your paper: Children, the elderly.  

This is a very complex topic.  The image you approved and used is an example of the hijacking of our community for personal gain--this is not only a Guadalupana or religious assault.   I think Santa Feans have been quite tolerant and patient for quite some time, seing the negative things that are happening.  You're viewing here a strong frustration many of us have had for a long time.  You come with great educations and experiences from or living in other cultures.  But you have to go much deeper to truely know a people, a community.  Please understand the community to which you have moved.   Please respect "Santa Fe".....You use it's name to aquire advertizing to promote your paper.  Please.  Enough!


07.10.2013 at 12:54 | Reply |

A point worth asking, perhaps. How would anyone propose this? Is there a specific manner in which the Reporter *could* humble itself and utterly apologize, and be allowed to move on? Is it possible at all? Please specify terms of surrender.


07.10.2013 at 02:51

I don't have suggestions of what you can do for the Reporter at this point. Perhaps someone else does.  Anything you do or say will still get some negative reaction because people are more than mad, they are hurt.

In my opinion, it is more about what you do as individuals to grow from's not a matter of "moving on," it's a matter of learning.  You don't have to prove or state that to anyone else other than to yourself.

Because I'm so closely connected to Santa Fe's history and involved in several local committees, I had suggested to Enrique that he read 20 of the 250 biographies of the Santa Fe's Living Treasures...those who helped in a positive way to make Santa Fe the beautiful town that it is.  I still would recommend this to those at the Reporter who have been here for less than about 10 years.  It will give you a better definition of where we've been and who we are.

As one of the Treasures said in her bio, "We have to look at the big picture and care about things that are larger than ourselves." (Adelina Ortiz y Hill).

If you care to go a step further, go visit a recent Treasure, Connie Hernandez, and have her tell you of her amazing life story.  She's had the little Milagro store on Old Santa Fe Trail for about 50 years.  She's smart, informative, and loves people from all backgrounds.

More? Go visit our villages in northern NM.  In more ways than you may know, the people will tell you are history.

Bueno! That's my perspective.



07.10.2013 at 03:14 | Reply |

Thank you for summarizing this important controversy. I suppose that one person's cultural symbol is another person's spiritual livelihood. I have very little feeling associated with the Virgin Mary, so the cartoon image didn't affect me at all. I think, though, if there were a symbol I felt was very important to my life, then I would understand that the importance I place on it is subjective. Other people can interpret and play and do what they will with my symbols without it hurting me. I appreciate your being compelled to apologize to the Santa Fe community to whom you report important information.


07.10.2013 at 04:49 | Reply |

I thought it was a great cover. 

Religious indignance is ignorance, anger and hatred. The threats of violence speak volumes about the culture behind those who are complaining. Look at all the death and destruction caused by organized religion.

Let the artists paint what they like. No laws were broken.

Religion is by far the most divisive and destructive force on the planet.


07.10.2013 at 05:32 | Reply |

Newspapers are powerful and are quick to point out and condemn what they determine to be bad behavior.  Many a politician or other public official has been skewered by not only what a newspaper writes, but how often they write about it and its placement and prominence within the publication.  Newspapers are free to report or editorialize on just about anything within the legal constraints of libel laws.  After all, it attracts readers, which attracts advertisers, which pays the bills.  But, the public also is free to respond to irresponsible journalism by writing letters, by shunning the publication and by boycotting the newspaper’s advertisers.  And advertisers also can respond by cancelling advertising.   That is what is happening to SFR as a result of your reckless cover and tepid apology.  SFR crossed the line and is paying the price.    You let down the community in which you have chosen to live.   There is no doubt that SFR politically is left, and that is fine. But SFR also has an arrogance that many times does not sit well with the locals.   This is not New York.  This is Santa Fe and SFR just doesn’t get it.


07.11.2013 at 03:20
In response to Lily White. What is she implying in her statement about "the threats of violence speak volumes about the culture behind those who are complaining?" I am wondering on whose culture is she referring to anyways? Is she referring to the death and destruction that has been caused by organized religion outside of this nation or what? Regardless of her statement, she needs to open her eye balls and understand that in New Mexico, especially in Northern NM, this "let the artists paint what they like, no laws were broken" perception does not the fit the community decency and standards of this region, period! On the same note, the Santa Fe Reporter's effort to reach out to the "local" community leaders and interviewing them for a positive perspective on the issue was correct in nature. Please continue to allow the "local" input be part of the Santa Fe Reporter's mission statement to include in all future stories and contribution to Santa Fe's beautiful history (i.e., music, culture, food, dances, religion, etc.). And no, I do not believe Santa Fe is part of the "religion is by far the most divisive and destructive force on the planet." Clearly, it appears that this "Chino and Villegas" community leaders contribution to this story are at least trying to eliminate the rhetoric of division and separation that exists among ignorance and arrogant of specific group of people in this community. Good for them. We need more positive role-models in this place.