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Our Lady of Controversy

Our Lady of Controversy
Alma López's "Irreverent Apparition"

An anthology of vibrant responses to Alma López's controversial print Our Lady, exploring critical issues of censorship, religion, and the female body.

Series: Chicana Matters Series

April 2011
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344 pages | 6 x 9 | 12 color and 34 b&w illus., DVD |

Months before Alma López's digital collage Our Lady was shown at the Museum of International Folk Art in 2001, the museum began receiving angry phone calls from community activists and Catholic leaders who demanded that the image not be displayed. Protest rallies, prayer vigils, and death threats ensued, but the provocative image of la Virgen de Guadalupe (hands on hips, clad only in roses, and exalted by a bare-breasted butterfly angel) remained on exhibition.

Highlighting many of the pivotal questions that have haunted the art world since the NEA debacle of 1988, the contributors to Our Lady of Controversy present diverse perspectives, ranging from definitions of art to the artist's intention, feminism, queer theory, colonialism, and Chicano nationalism. Contributors include the exhibition curator, Tey Marianna Nunn; award-winning novelist and Chicana historian Emma Pérez; and Deena González (recognized as one of the fifty most important living women historians in America).

Accompanied by a bonus DVD of Alma López's I Love Lupe video that looks at the Chicana artistic tradition of reimagining la Virgen de Guadalupe, featuring a historic conversation between Yolanda López, Ester Hernández, and Alma López, Our Lady of Controversy promises to ignite important new dialogues.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Our Lady of Controversy: A Subject That Needs No Introduction (Alicia Gaspar de Alba)
  • 1. The Artist of Our Lady (April 2, 2001) (Alma López)
  • 2. It's Not about the Art in the Folk, It's about the Folks in the Art: A Curator's Tale (Tey Marianna Nunn)
  • 3. The War of the Roses: Guadalupe, Alma López, and Santa Fe (Kathleen FitzCallaghan Jones)
  • 4. Making Privates Public: It's Not about La Virgen of the Conquest, but about the Conquest of La Virgen (Deena J. González)
  • 5. Art Comes for the Archbishop: The Semiotics of Contemporary Chicana Feminism and the Work of Alma López (Luz Calvo)
  • 6. Queering the Sacred: Love as Oppositional Consciousness in Alma López's Visual Art (Clara Román-Odio)
  • 7. The Decolonial Virgin in a Colonial Site: It's Not about the Gender in My Nation, It's about the Nation in My Gender (Emma Pérez)
  • 8. It's Not about the Virgins in My Life, It's about the Life in My Virgins (Cristina Serna)
  • 9. Do U Think I'm a Nasty Girl? (Catrióna Rueda Esquibel)
  • 10. Devil in a Rose Bikini: The Second Coming of Our Lady in Santa Fe (Alicia Gaspar de Alba)
  • 11. It's Not about the Santa in My Fe, but about the Santa Fe in My Santa (Alma López)
  • Appendix: Selected Viewer Comments
  • About the Contributors
  • Index

Alicia Gaspar de Alba is a Professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies, English, and Women's Studies at UCLA. Her nine previous books encompass historical novels, poetry, short stories, and a cultural study of Chicano art.

Alma López is an artist, activist, and visual storyteller originally from Los Mochis, Sinaloa, Mexico.


In the beginning of a new millennium, Our Lady appeared in Santa Fe during Holy Week. Her appearance caused passionate discussions throughout the Americas. Hundreds met in a geographic space called Holy Faith to discuss and debate her contemporary apparition to a Chicana artist named Alma, a resident in the City of Angels.


So begins Alma López’s "respuesta" to her twenty-first-century inquisitors in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who racked and pinioned her constitutional rights as an artist, her identity as a Mexico-born Chicana, and her integrity as a woman. Like Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz three centuries earlier, who in her own "Respuesta a Sor Filotea" had to defend her rights as a writer and a woman to a persecuting archbishop, bishop, and father confessor, Alma López had to take a stand against another trinity of church fathers—an archbishop, a deacon, and a chaplain—who were all beset with the notion that a 14" x 17.5" digital collage in a museum had magically transformed itself into an irreverent apparition of La Virgen de Guadalupe.


On February 25, 2001, the Cyber Arte: Tradition Meets Technology exhibition opened at the Museum of International Folk Art (MOIFA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. One of the pieces in the show was Alma López's Our Lady, a digital collage representing the artist's interpretation of the Virgin of Guadalupe wreathed in roses, held on high by a bare-breasted butterfly angel, and draped with a cloak engraved with symbols of the Aztec moon goddess, Coyolxauhqui. The exhibition showcased the work of four Chicana/Hispana/Latina artists who combine folk iconography with computer technology in the creation of their digital-media artworks.


In September of 2000, in response to a brochure sent out by MOIFA to announce the exhibition several months before the show opened, the museum started receiving calls from community activists and representatives of the Catholic Church protesting the image and demanding that it be removed from the exhibition. For months after the opening, protest rallies and prayer vigils were organized outside the museum, spearheaded by a community activist cum volunteer chaplain for the city's police department, a deacon of Guadalupe Parish, and the archbishop of the Santa Fe Archdiocese. The three men agitated and inflamed the protestors, who grew more and more belligerent at what they saw as the museum's patent disregard of New Mexico's religious beliefs and, in particular, as Alma López's "blasphemy" of their holy symbol, which the newspapers had labeled the "bikini Virgin."


Not only did the protestors demand the removal of Our Lady from the Cyber Arte exhibition but they also demanded a public apology from the Museum of New Mexico and the immediate resignations of the exhibition curator, Tey Marianna Nunn; MOIFA director, Joyce Ice; and the director of the Museum of New Mexico, Tom Wilson. And they called for the return of all "sacred" Catholic art to the custody of the church.


In a blatant display of the alignment between church and state, even lawmakers were on the side of the protestors. Calling the work an "outrageous desecration," all but two members of New Mexico legislature (all Democrats, by the way) demanded that the piece be immediately removed from the exhibition or the museum would risk losing funding. This position drew the scorn of then-governor Gary Johnson, a Republican, who said he did not believe Our Lady violated community standards and that legislators should not be in the business of telling art museums what to show and what not to show. The governor asked an important question: "If you take it down, then where do you draw the line on the next piece of art?" The museum's Committee on Sensitive Materials was summoned to evaluate the sensitivity quotient of the work, and after weeks of deliberation, community forums, and a media blitz that had the unintended effect of making Alma López world famous, the committee determined that Our Lady was not a religious object and that there was nothing culturally denigrating in the image, and concurred that all of the artwork of the Cyber Arte exhibit should remain on display. Nor did the curator and museum director lose their jobs.


Apart from the protests, "[m]useum staff logged an enormous volume of comments, letters, emails, and phone calls from all over the state, and nearly 24,000 preprinted postcards from across the United States, demanding that the work be removed." One particular phone call inventoried in the museum's phone log on the morning of July 6, 2001, was especially chilling. Identifying himself as a friend of Timothy McVeigh's, who had been executed a few weeks earlier for bombing a building in Oklahoma City and killing 168 people—considered to be "the deadliest act of terrorism in the United States prior to 9/11"7—the caller made his position on Our Lady known loud and clear: "Did you know who Timothy McVeigh was? . . . Did you know he was Catholic and had a special relationship with the Virgin? . . . Just listen to me a minute, I knew him see, and the last thing he said to me was for me to see if the painting/collage of the Blessed Virgin was still up, and if it was for me to flatten the building. I knew him and I helped him blow up that building. I'm gonna call next week and if that thing is still there, I will blow up your building. You got that!!! Dial tone."


Alma López and Tey Marianna Nunn also received e-mail and phone threats. Cathryn Keller, writing in Museum News, called the artist and the curator "trauma survivors" and detailed their shock and confusion at being accosted by men both before and after the April 4 meeting. Tey Marianna Nunn described the experience: "We were suddenly surrounded by eight or ten men saying 'crucify her' and calling us 'fea' [ugly] as we left . . . I was very shocked and upset that what I consider my culture would do this to me."


For Joyce Ice the controversy became "'a metaphor for issues of difference and diversity; the economic divide in Santa Fe, the sense of art being for the elite and not the common people.'"


The Santa Fe Reporter dubbed the controversy "the best local scandal," but it was not limited to a local audience. News of the scandal spread nationally and was covered in dailies across the country: South Florida's Sun Sentinel, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Reno Gazette Journal, and even Reforma, one of the main newspapers of Mexico City, among many others. Online coverage multiplied exponentially, and national arts journals like Museum News and Art in America also weighed in.


Regardless of the Committee on Sensitive Materials' eventual decision not to censor Our Lady, the very fact that the controversy went on as long and as far as it did attests to the power that was wielded by the alignment of church, state, and community against a twenty-first-century Malinche, or "traitor" to her race, culture, and gender. To the Guadalupanos, Alma López was a traitor to their faith. To Chicano and Mexican nationalists, she was a traitor to their race and culture. To Hispanos she was a Californicated outsider in New Mexico.


This book is about the controversy over Our Lady, or as she was called in the newspapers, "Our Lady of Preposterous Assumptions," "Our Lady of I Should Look So Good," "Our Lady of All This Fuss," and "Our Lady of Eternal Conflict." The ten scholars who have trained their attention on a subject that needs no introduction all approach Our Lady from a feminist standpoint, critical of the persecution that Alma López and Tey Marianna Nunn received from the media, the fundamentalist Catholic community of Santa Fe, New Mexico's legislators, the museum's Board of Regents, and the nameless, countless others who added their match to this modern-day witch burning.


Located in the fields of art history, Chicana history, Chicana/o cultural studies, literary studies, queer studies, religious studies, and women's studies, the essays gathered in this collection offer us different ways to approach the subject of the controversy and the controversy of the subject that is Our Lady. The controversy took place in 2001, but the issues that it raised have been part of a much larger national struggle in the art world since the 1980s, and they are still current—censorship in the arts, accountability, the role of the artist, community representation and the public museum, First Amendment rights of artists, and the right-wing reactionary appropriation of the discourse of social justice and civic action. By focusing on one controversial piece of art in one small exhibition in Santa Fe, the chapters show the complex intersectionality of cultural politics, historical memory, and gender dynamics that informs exhibition practices and public reception, whether in New York or New Mexico. They also use Our Lady as a case study for examining the different chiasmi—or opposing ideas—that took center stage in the controversy.


A chiasmus, explains Richard Nordquist, is "a verbal pattern (often a type of antithesis) in which the second half of an expression is balanced against the first but with the parts reversed . . . From the Greek, 'to invert' or 'to mark with the letter X.'" An antithesis is "a juxtaposition of opposing ideas in balanced phrases." By inverting a phrase, that is, by applying a crisscrossed structure to the phrase in which the first part is reversed in the second, we get a new reading of the same idea. Mae West's famous line—"It's not about the men in my life, but about the life in my men"—demonstrates how using the chiastic structure can dramatically alter an interpretation. The first phrase is meant as a judgment of a woman who is accused of having too many men in her life. By inverting the phrase, the speaker turns the judgment on its head; rather than defend herself against the accusation, the speaker acknowledges the presence of all those men in her life but makes the point be about the quality of those men not the quantity. In the same way, the chapters in this book reverse the readings and interpretations of Alma López's Our Lady that were given by the religious "right." Feeling wronged by the artist, the protestors proceeded to wrong the artist's constitutional rights.


In this collection, the opposing ideas that are turned inside/out and upside/down are many; they include private/public, insider/outsider, body/faith, church/state, colonial/decolonial, secular/sacred, identity/representation, community/museum, freedom of speech/freedom of religion, Anglo/Hispanic, virgin/whore, masculine/feminine, and male/female. Thus, some of the titles in the collection employ a ludic or playful tone to underscore the antithetical ideas under scrutiny, such as Tey Marianna Nunn's "It's Not about the Art in the Folk, It's about the Folks in the Art: A Curator's Tale," which shows that the controversy was unleashed not because of the art on display in the Cyber Arte exhibition at the Museum of International Folk Art but because some community members, aided and abetted by the media, misperceived and misrepresented the work in the show and the curator's intentions for the exhibit. Deena González's "Making Privates Public: It's Not about La Virgen of the Conquest, but about the Conquest of La Virgen" sees the controversy as a consequence of New Mexico's long struggle for economic survival in the face of continued colonization and looks at the history of Virgen worship in Santa Fe and the competition that exists between the older Virgin of the Conquest, La Conquistadora, and the younger Virgin of Guadalupe. Emma Pérez's "The Decolonial Virgin in a Colonial Site: It's Not about the Gender in My Nation, It's about the Nation in My Gender" extends the analysis of colonialism and concerns over the nation in Santa Fe by analyzing the gendered discourse created by the e-mail correspondence that Alma López received and collected on her website, taking to task the Chicano nationalist attacks against Our Lady and their critiques of what they saw as Alma López's betrayal of Aztlán as yet one more manifestation of the male colonized mind. Cristina Serna pays homage to Mae West with her title, "It's Not about the Virgins in My Life, It's about the Life in My Virgins," as she discusses the different representations of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Alma López's work and the work of other Chicana artists, as well as in the work of a Mexican artist, Rolando de la Rosa, who was similarly ostracized in Mexico City for his depictions of the Virgin of Guadalupe with the face of Marilyn Monroe. Alma López herself participates in the chiastic language game with her closing piece, "It's Not about the Santa in My Fe, But about the Santa Fe in My Santa," which, in the tradition of the Nican Mopohua, tells her own version of the Virgin of Guadalupe apparition and deconstructs the "codex" represented by the different symbols that appear on the original image of La Virgen. It is also the story of the evolution of her work as a digital artist and of how Our Lady came into being. In reading the story of Our Lady from the artist's perspective, and learning about the personal meaning and history of each detail in the piece, we understand how mistaken were the interpretations of the protestors, and how hypocritical was their righteous trampling of an artist's First Amendment rights in the name of the "true" and all-embracing Mother of God.


The other five pieces, though they do not employ the chiastic structure in their titles, nonetheless examine, juxtapose, and invert other conflicting and paradoxical issues that emerged in the controversy. Kathleen FitzCallaghan Jones's "The War of the Roses: Alma López, Guadalupe, and Santa Fe," based on her 2002 art history Master's thesis, was written in the immediate aftermath of the conflict. Drawing on personal interviews with the major players in the drama—Alma López, José Villegas, Tey Marianna Nunn, and Frank Ortiz—Jones's chapter sheds light on the more emotional aspects of the controversy that created a civil war of power and allegiance in Santa Fe. Luz Calvo's "Art Comes for the Archbishiop: The Semiotics of Contemporary Chicana Feminism and the Work of Alma López," originally published in Meridians in 2004, playfully alludes to Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop, about the pervasive power of the Catholic religion in New Mexico. In Calvo's work, Our Lady is the pervasive force that visits the archbishop. Calvo argues that the controversy brought to light the multitude of desires embedded in the Virgin of Guadalupe, from the nationalist desire to return to the motherland to the queer desire to love your own kind. In a new Afterword to her piece, Calvo discusses how Alma López tropes or twists the icon of La Virgen to signify new directions for radical cultural workers.


Puerto Rican scholar Clara Román-Odio's piece, "Queering the Sacred: Love as Oppositional Consciousness in Alma López's Visual Art," argues that Our Lady, as one of a series of works that pay homage to and yet deconstruct the mythological trappings of the Virgin of Guadalupe narrative, is an example of both Chicana spirituality and the oppositional consciousness of "love," which for Chela Sandoval constitutes part of the "methodology of the oppressed." Catrióna Rueda Esquibel's "Do U Think I'm a Nasty Girl?" is written from the femme lesbian spectator's position to show the author's identification with Our Lady. What is reflected back for the critic is not only the beauty of the brown women's bodies that are the central focus of the image but the contours of the author's own desire. My "Devil in a Rose Bikini: The Second Coming of Our Lady in Santa Fe" offers an in-depth analysis of the protest by comparing the different audience responses to the work as seen in the comment book of the museum, the media coverage, and especially the performance art of the protest, the staged processions and pilgrimages that simultaneously decried and created an irreverent apparition.


The idea of using chiasmus as an organizing principle for the book originated in a colorful kitchen in Oakland, California, in October 2007. Alma and I had come to the Bay Area to see an excerpt of the opera that Carla Lucero had written based on my novel, Sor Juana's Second Dream (another story altogether), and Catrióna and Luz had invited us to stay at their home. We were sipping juice from fresh coconuts hewn in the backyard by a machete-wielding Luz and nibbling on Catrióna's freshly baked blueberry scones as we worked at conceptualizing the roundtable that we wanted to propose at the 2008 meeting of the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies, which was to take place the following March in Austin, Texas. For this roundtable, we wanted to gather some of the scholars who had written on or had something to say about Our Lady, as a kind of retrospective look at the controversy from a vantage point seven years later. Luz, Alma, Cristina Serna (also in this volume), and I ended up presenting on the panel, which was moderated by Antonia Castañeda, a longtime advocate of Our Lady, who for years had actually been encouraging Alma and Tey Marianna Nunn to put together a book about the controversy. The roundtable, "Irreverent Apparitions: Chiasmatic Interpretations of Alma López's Our Lady," filled the venue, and we saw how contemporary and captivating the topic of Our Lady continued to be for that group of Chicana and Chicano studies scholars. Luz broke it down for us in her presentation: "Chiasmus, by reversing the original, allows us to see reality in a new light—we create a new way of seeing and hopefully a new way of being in the world. This particular trope provides the rhetorical ground for us to make new political claims on the social world. Perhaps, chiasmus is the perfect trope for radical activists, artists, and critics—for it reverses the order of things."


It is our hope that this collection helps us "make new political claims" about the contradictory issues that were at the heart of the controversy and that it "allows us to see [Our Lady] in a new light," as indeed Alma López has already done in her painting on the cover, where Our Lady's acrylic metarepresentation stands taller and meaner than the original, which caused "all this fuss." Like Ester Hernández's karate-kicking La Virgen de Guadalupe Defendiendo los Derechos de los Xicanos, like the women warriors of the boxing ring that Delilah Montoya has captured in her book on women boxers, Our Lady of Controversy is more "malcriada" than ever. Says Delilah Montoya: "A malcriada is a woman who will not behave and is determined to do what she wants, regardless of what society rules or even good sense dictates. When a family is confronted with this sort of unseemly member, they struggle to change her. Welcoming the uphill battle, the malcriada remains unchanged; in the end, the family learns to accept her and even become proud of her accomplishments."


What also remains unchanged is the zealous homophobia of the Chicano nationalist hate group La Voz de Aztlán. In August 2004, Ernesto Cienfuegos, La Voz de Aztlán's head honcho, "attacked Fullerton Museum Center Director Joe Felz for including 'decadent lesbian artist' Alma López in an exhibition titled 'The Virgin of Guadalupe: Interpreting Devotion,'" whose Our Lady, he went on to say in his e-mail (which he copied to the Fullerton mayor and other city officials) "'denigrate[s] the values of [Mexicans] in collusion with those in the homosexual and lesbian lifestyles and of those others who have a deep hate against us.'"18 Although the piece Alma had agreed to display in the Fullerton exhibition was not Our Lady, just the mention of her name paired with a Virgen de Guadalupe exhibition was enough to rekindle the group’s hateful torch.


Then, in April 2010, nine years after the Our Lady controversy in Santa Fe, La Voz de Aztlán again went after Alma López as well as Cherríe Moraga this time, who were guest speakers at a Chicana feminist conference organized by the student group Conciencia Femenil at California State University, Long Beach. According to La Voz de Aztlán, or "La Voz de Pendejos," as Gustavo Arellano calls the organization in his OC Weekly blog, "feminism is a Jewish conspiracy to 'emasculate' Mexican men, and . . . Jews also promote homosexuality 'in order to destroy our culture.'"


But La Voz de Aztlán is not alone. Even among college students in the twenty-first century, these same reactionary attitudes persist, as we can see by reading the cyber comments in response to an article in the Cal State, Long Beach Daily 49er announcing the Chicana feminist conference organized by Conciencia Femenil:



The name Conciencia Femenil should be changed to Conciencia Maricona because the organizers and participants of this conference are a bunch of lesbians hiding under the guise of feminism. Worst, Alma López is a decadent artist who has painted sacrilegious images of Mexico's most revered religious icons, the Virgen de Guadalupe. She has depicted La Virgen in a bikini and with obvious erotic sapphic symbolisms. This "mariflora" is a sick pervert.


The comments that follow this one get progressively more intolerant and hateful, culminating in "La Ley Azteca," some mythical Aztec law which supposedly calls for hanging sodomites, impaling the active party in a homosexual relationship and disemboweling the passive party, and the use of a big stick to kill lesbians. It is because this vicious ignorance persists in our community that a book such as Our Lady of Controversy hits home. TKO.



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