Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe is a three-part series, a post-modern triptych by Yolanda López in which she casts herself, her mother, and her grand-mother as the iconic Mary. I return to the work repeatedly, each time tumbling through its surface and back like a latter-day Alice searching for the sides of a round mushroom, remembering the Caterpillar’s question and Alice’s response.
“‘Who are you?’” he asks.
“‘I can’t explain myself,’” she tells him, “‘because I’m not myself, you see.’”
López offers us the question of identity in a manner as insistent and paradoxical as the Caterpillar. Each panel of her work is an image of the Virgin. Each panel is also an image of a working-class woman who carries the weight of the world on her shoulders; whose work and sacrifice gives birth to the possibility of redemption.
There, in the space between the iconic (the Virgin Mother of Christ) and the everyday (Mary, the girl who found herself pregnant and alone), López reveals to us the problem of every story-teller who finds herself situated on a cultural margin:
What is the relationship between aesthetic form and identity?
What is the relationship between history and self?
That, after all, is what artists do, whatever their chosen medium:
They turn the world on its head and ask, demand that we look again and consider our tacit complicity in the suffering of others. They tilt at windmills. They insist the right-side up of this world is all too often neither up nor right; that invisible people and their incoherent lives really do matter.
López shatters the icon in order to reveal the living form underneath: the untold stories and unquestioned we have been complicit in forgetting. Then she picks up the pieces and recasts the sacred in achingly personal terms, offering us an image specific to Chicana and Latina identity. This Virgin belongs to López–not the Church, not the members of the upper-crust preening in the front pew. She is not an image of feminine purity and passivity, a primer to all the “darker” people of this earth about the value of self-restraint, of silence and humility. This is the portrait of a woman who has borne circumstances she could not change. She has clay feet. She has made life-altering mistakes and suffered devastating losses.
López’s image of the seamstress as Virgin Mother is especially resonant for me. My mother was a seamstress from the age of 15 to her reluctant retirement at age 80. Born in 1930 in Remedios, Cuba, my mother grew up in (one phase of) the political and social convulsions set in motion by US colonialism. For the first 29 years of her life, my mother witnessed more insurrection, torture, killing, and economic and social instability than the average citizen of the US does in a lifetime. But that’s history–which is to say, in the idiom of American English, who cares?
How many US citizens, well-educated and well-fed, know this story of a migration northward triggered by US intervention? Who can tell this story above the roar and pull of another story, the one about American exceptionalism?
I fall once again through the surface of “Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe.” In exile, my mother held our family together with the power of her work ethic and faith, so much so that work seems like a form of prayer to me. My father, too, had an extraordinary work ethic. I don’t remember him ever having fewer than two jobs. Crushed by the weight of his losses, of a life and a place and time he loved, he sought his escape in a bottle. My mother, though–she sat down at her sewing machine, every burst of stitches like a bead in a rosary. My parents were/are invisible. Their stories don’t exist beyond the seat of my own heart.
History, once distilled into stone, bronze, canvas becomes monumental, which is why, in Argentina, the mothers of the disappeared (a collective Piéta) have refused monuments to their lost sons and daughters. Story concretized becomes mirror-like–a warming fantasy of order about a shining city on the hill. López points to a fragile tale told never or infrequently about economic policies meant to disenfranchise people and then criminalize their movement northward, evicting their children, born here, from an ancient ground once theirs. The story rises, chafes against pristine, white marble surfaces; it rises again and again, promising a shift in consciousness and a deepening sense of moral agency.
And I find hope in that gift López offers us, as writers–whatever our ethnic and racial identify, whatever our creed or distance between ourselves and the story of our migration to the US. She demands that we find the sides of a deceptively smooth, round narrative surface because we have an obligation to connect our stories to a flesh and blood history, both social and political.
“Who am I?” López asks. “I am myself, you see.”
What visual images inspire your writing? How does your writing challenge standard stories about the world around us?