Liz Alarcón: Today’s story begins with
Alma Lopez: Alma Lopez and thank you very much for inviting me.
Liz Alarcón: Today Alma is nothing less than an icon in the art world. She’s a queer feminist artist, based in Santa Fe New Mexico. Before moving to New Mexico she came from
Alma Lopez: Sineloa Mexico and brought to the U S when I was about four years old.
Liz Alarcón: And her family settled in Los Angeles where she grew up
Alma Lopez: I think like most, you know, Mexican born Chicanas, we grew up Catholic, with the church, just down the street from our home.
Liz Alarcón: Like in many Catholic families, a feature of Alma’s home was a prominent Santa Biblia
Alma Lopez: The Holy Bible. The biggest book that we had other than the yellow pages.
Liz Alarcón: So as a little girl, Alma sat in her living room with that big santa biblia. When she opened it she, found something she didn’t expect
Alma Lopez: I started in the very beginning reading the story of Adam and Eve. And I identified with the female protagonist in the story who was Eve I thought, Oh, This is not going well for her. So early on, I realized that the religion was set up different for girls and boys.
Liz Alarcón: And the more Alma read and discovered about religion , the more questions she had about how women were treated within the faith.
Alma Lopez: St. Lucy, St. Agatha, all these other saints, right? All of these were, very young girls or women. They were really good.
Liz Alarcón: By Biblical standards, that is.
Alma Lopez: They were virgins and, they really held on to their faith and they suffered because of their faith. And I remember thinking. Oh my God, who would want to believe in anything that sets them up to be tortured and killed in such a way. And so, as a little kid, I remember thinking I don’t think that’s for me.
Liz Alarcón: As much as some things turned her away, others brought her closer. She found a special connection with the feminine aspects of the faith, specifically
Alma Lopez: the Virgin de Guadalupe.
Liz Alarcón: La Virgin De Guadalupe. A beacon of hope for Mexican Catholics. As the story goes, in 1531 in Mexico, an indigenous shepherd named Juan Diego saw a vision of a tan Virgin Mary in Aztec garb. The vision asked him (in his native Nahuatl) to build a temple in her honor. He did, and today the Basílica de Guadalupe receives 20 million visitors yearly. And her likeness has become a cultural symbol for Mexican Americans across our country.
Alma Lopez: She is such a prominent female figure who is also Mexicana, right? I always kid around and I say that Virgin De Guadelupe and I were practically homegirls. But I definitely have completely different perspectives, on her than other people who are religiously Catholic, not necessarily culturally Catholic, like myself, right? Maybe it’s because I’m an artist, right, that I see things differently.
Liz Alarcón: And that interpretation is the through line of your work, right? And you reclaiming stories so many of the women in the faith, including The Virgin de Guadalupe to portray a different perspective, right?
Alma Lopez: And that is often what has gotten me in a little bit of trouble.
Liz Alarcón: Good trouble. Good trouble.
Alma Lopez: Good trouble. That’s right. Like, yeah, like John Lewis. It’s all good trouble.
Liz Alarcón: She didn’t know it yet, but her own explorations with religion and La Virgin was about to bring her on a collision course with the church.
Alma Lopez: I started wanting to look at work and with who I am. There was an essay titled Guadalupe the sex goddess by Sandra Cisneros. She was asking, you know what would The Virgin de Guadelupe look like if she undressed, right. And it wasn’t that she was being a total whatever weirdo. It’s just that the Virgin De Guadalupe has so many clothes. Right. And so she really wants to feel connected, right, to this cultural image that we grew up with. And so for me, my response to her essay was what she would be wearing roses, right. Because roses are the signature and the proof of her apparition. And so then that’s why I addressed the image in roses.
Liz Alarcón: Alma photographed a model and created a mock up in photoshop of this new version of la Virgen de Guadalupe. A defiant looking woman, hands on hips, wearing only roses. But when she debut her work at the Museum of international folk art in Santa Fe, it didn’t go like she expected.
Alma Lopez: People for some reason, took off the roses. You know, they saw her as being naked in their mind I’m saying, you know, cause people would tell me, well, “porque la desnudaste?” Why did you take off all her clothes? And I was like, I didn’t take over her clothes. I dressed her in roses.
Liz Alarcón: And from Alma’s art piece, controversy was born and spread like wildfire. Outraged Catholics from across northern New Mexico protested, wrote letters to the governor, and delivered a toilet and dead fish to the museum to express their disgust at Alma’s piece. There was even an all-day public forum where about 750 people attended, the majority demanding the museum remove what they consider a desecration of their cherished icon.
Alma Lopez: I really had to think, why are people so upset? I’ve had security actually hired for me at the museum of international folk art and also in Oakland, in other spaces when I’ve gone and talked about the image because of real threats to, you know, to that institution and to myself. There was a whole group from Philadelphia, who organized a protest against the Oakland museum to take down the work. And also the Bishop of Oakland asked the museum director to remove the work.
Liz Alarcón: Even the archbishop of Santa Fe publicly denounced the work, accusing Alma of turning the virgin into a prostitute. Almas response…
Alma Lopez: How can this, Archbishop who is like a father figure in the church, look at a body of any woman, even if she was nude and immediately go in terms of like thinking that this is a sexual image. And I think that that if anything, points to the issues that , we always have where women are blamed, you know, for what they’re wearing or not wearing. Uh, and it’s really other people in their mind are looking at women. That’s if they’re naked, you know, assuming that they’re sexual objects
Liz Alarcón: Today our Lady lives in the Santa Fe Museum of International Art. Harriet Baskas, who writes on tourism and museums, wrote a book about what museums will never show you. And when she went to the Museum of International Folk Art, she asked them, what work will you never show again? they, of course, showed her la virgen.
Alma Lopez: So our lady is there in a, basically in their archives and never to be shown again.
Liz Alarcón: While the original piece may never be shown again, the conversation started by this controversy will continue.
Alma Lopez: There’s a lot of really important discussion still to be had about, women, women’s bodies, patriarchy, the way that we’re socialized in terms of our gender. We think that we’ve gone so beyond because it’s like 2021. Right. But I think that there is still so much violence towards women just for being women. I realized that the real power of the Virgin De Guadalupe is because how much of a revolutionary she truly is throughout time. She was a figure where, individuals could organize around when there were injustices, when there was the unfairness, when people needed revolutions. This is part of my activism and my responsibility to talk about images like the Virgin De Guadalupe and like our lady and all the issues that have to do with gendered violence.
Liz Alarcón: You can find out more about la Virgen’s history with activism in Alma’s book, Our Lady of Controversy. That person you hear praying in the background is my famous on my Instagram abuela Dora. She prays a rosary every day for all of us. Prayer is one of her love languages. Like Alma and so many other Latinos, I was raised Catholic, my mother went to a Jesuit university, and I even had my own stint as a church kid. I went on trips with my youth group and sang in the choir, was an usher during Sunday mass, and even wore a chastity ring. But that’s a story for another episode… As I got older, though, I and to see the hypocrisy and abuse within Catholicism. So I distanced myself from the church. As my interests in democracy promotion, equity and social justice deepened, organized religion felt less and less compatible with my values. And then, like my mom, I went to a Jesuit university. This rekindled my connection with Catholicism because I found a space where I could both worship and critique, where being a person for others was at the center how you practiced your faith. So, needless to say my relationship with the Catholic church is…complicated. In this episode we hear from 3 latina authors on their own journeys to reconcile the relationship between their faith and their values. We’re exploring how faith can lead to acitivism, whether women can be leaders in the church, or if we even need a church to hold a spiritual practice. Many of our ancestors didn’t. But I may be getting ahead of myself. Let’s first dive deeper with our next guest.
Denise Padín Collazo: I was attending a church in Florida that, you know, one time I drove into the parking lot and I found like a confederate flag on somebody’s car. And I just thought like, I can’t do this. Faith is about love and transformation and any faith that proclaims to be something different to that. I am suspect of.
Liz Alarcón: This is Denise Padín Collazo. Denise is Director of Institutional Advancement of FAITH IN ACTION an organization that works with religious leaders from different faiths all over the world to fight economic oppression, racism, and any other form of discrimination that keeps people from living in a safe and healthy environment. I met Denise several years ago and through her work she’s reminding us that religion and social justice actually go hand in hand. Still, Denise is aware of the real problems within the church, and she’s working to overcome them.
Denise Padín Collazo: We’re bringing in people who have left the church or feel disappointed or disgruntled the church. And in some ways this becomes a place for them to reconnect with their spirituality. I was thinking about a young organizer from Ferguson. He said, know, when Ferguson happened, all the pastors came out and they wanted to support us. But the fact is those pastors are the same people who had just left me out in the street for my entire life. They never came to where I was. I wasn’t welcome where they were. Every institution has to be wrestling with this challenge.
Liz Alarcón: Faith in Action organizes locally like other activist groups. Their mission is to dismantle systems of injustice that are fueled by hatred and racism and they do this with the help of local churches and clergy.
Denise Padín Collazo: We had a man who was being deported. His name was, uh, Catalino Morales. An elderly gentleman. He has diabetes. He had been doing all the things he’d been asked to do. And ICE called him in for a check-in or whatever they call it and they were going to deport him. And so our organizers brought together 50 religious leaders, including the Archbishop. And they did a press conference right outside the ICE detention center. The Archbishop walked Catalino straight up to the door then they were waiting for him when he came out. I mean, that is what, know, that’s where we need to be in community.
Liz Alarcón: And not only does this activism incorporate leaders from the church, but it uses religion and spiritualty as a way to give organizers the strength they need to fight for justice ….
Denise Padín Collazo: I think in some ways my work become a place where I can exercise my values and my faith. We as organizers, we faced trauma on the daily. People getting deported are children being shot at, people being hungry, no people not working, COVID. I mean it’s and so it is a place it’s a place in a way to refresh your spirit, and reconnect yourself with why you’re doing it.
Liz Alarcón: Before Faith In Action, Denise worked in DC as a consultant, lobbying for the National Puerto Rican Coalition. As a Puerto Rican herself, and as a person who wanted to use her privileges and access in the nations capital to help her people, she was called to this work to enhance the social, political and economic well being of Puerto Ricans across the US. Eventually, though, she realized this wasn’t how she wanted to make change, she wanted to work with people on the ground.
Denise Padín Collazo: I remember thinking to myself, you know, I’m up here on Capitol Hill and I’m talking for 3 million Puerto Ricans but none of them really know I’m even here. And it just felt off. It felt like there’s something off here. that was what caused me to really pursue working directly with people , you know, I’ve been working on issues like affordable housing, healthcare, making sure that our families get what they need in order to be not just to survive, but to thrive.
Liz Alarcón: And in this struggle, Denise sees one group in particluar stepping up to be the future of faith and activism.
Denise Padín Collazo: We handed the tools to Black and Brown women and said, go do it the way, you know how to do it. Don’t listen to some consultant from Washington, DC. You’re going to tell you how to do this. You do it. You already know how to organize your community. You’ve been doing it forever. The women in our communities are the bones that hold together, the blood and the flesh of our families, our churches, and our are our most institutions.
Liz Alarcón: Denise has seen a lot. Years of activism across the country, working with local communtities and people of all different beliefs. After all this work, she’s realized why religion is such a source of strength for Latinos in particular.
Denise Padín Collazo: Really, there’s only one thing that binds us all together as Latinos. We’re all from different countries. We eat different food. Our music sounds different, but we do have one thing. That’s that kind of experience of colonization extraction and oppression. And unfortunately, lot of that was mitigated through the church. So how do we undo that? That’s what we’re here for is to break down the status quo and bring in a real ethic of love and transfer formation that is different than what happened in the 1600s or the 1400s.
Liz Alarcón: Denise makes a good point… but how do we do that? How can we honor our religion and its traditions while acknowledging the oppresive roots it came from? One suggestion is to learn more about the history of how religion came into our lives.
Lara Medina: It’s really important regardless of what religion you choose and belong to, and to really know the history of that religion and be able to reconcile with it.
Liz Alarcón: Lara Medina, a professor in Chicana and Chicano religion and spirituality at California State University, believes it’s possible to do this.
Lara Medina: And then, you know, if you choose to remain in it, from a feminist and liberationist lens, that’s the kind of work that needs to be done.
Liz Alarcón: When she isn’t teaching, Lara is learning about the spirituality practiced by Indigenous and African people before Christianity was brought over by Europeans and became the dominant religion of the Americas. Through her research, as well as her own practices, she’s…
Lara Medina: trying to, um, what we now called decolonizing our spirituality and returning to ancestral practices and the knowledge within them.
Liz Alarcón: Is there space for Christianity in a decolonized world?
Lara Medina: That’s a great question. I want to say yes. I think the leaders of Christianity would really have to do some deep soul searching and look at their history and colonization and be authentic about it. Um, It’s very, very complicated because so much, so much violence Christianity, as you know, was brought with violence thinking that it was their divine, right. That was brought to the Americas.
Liz Alarcón: If we were to embrace this, what would it actually look like for us to go on that path?
Lara Medina: Beautiful question. Um, you have to get in touch with the world around you, the universe, around the natural world, around you. Understand that everything is alive. Plants are alive, the earth is alive, animals are alive. It’s about being in relationship with all of that. And so fundamentally to understand that spirituality isn’t about, um, you know, going off and praying or secluding yourself. It’s about being in relationship all that exists. So, and that’s on different levels. It’s about being in relationship with yourself, but others, not just your family, but while your neighbors, but globally.
Liz Alarcón: We knew we were tackling a loaded topic when we set out to make this episode. And there’s no way we could’ve covered the complexities of Catholicism, or even scratch the surface of every religious practice in Latin America in one conversation. Yet hearing from these three Latinas of different backgrounds from across our country go through a similar reckoning with their religious upbringing showed us that Latinidad is in part how religion historically and culturally bounds us together. It’s, well, complicated. In 2019 Lara release a book called Voices From The Ancestors. The book is a collection of spiritual practices from writers who have returned to ancestral traditions to decolonize their spirits. We asked her if she could read us one of her favorite passages, and she chose one by Tia Naya.
Lara Medina: As you breathe into your sacred center in this radical wholeness ChicanX and LatinX histories are here in their fullness. Spanish/Español, Indigenous/Indigena, African/Africana and other lesser tended routes take their place, in this radical wholeness. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in like you mean it. Breathe out like you mean it like you mean it. Whatever you need to do, like you mean it. Remember who you are.