La Virgen de Guadalupe is a well known and worshiped saint among Mexican religions and communities. There is even a Mexican TV show called “La Rosa de Guadalupe,” in which fictional characters pray to la Virgen for help and her spiritual protection helps them through hardships. To many people, she represents strength, protection and family. My own Mexico-born grandfather buys her a saint candle whenever he is going to have surgery, in hopes that his faith in her will deliver no complications and good news.
La Virgen is celebrated every December 12th with fiestas that include saucy food plates, mariachi bands and extensive prayer shared with friends and family. No expense is too great for la Virgen de Guadalupe. According to my well-versed Catholic grandmother, who grew up in Durango, Mexico until she migrated to the US in in 1975, la Virgen de Guadalupe is the mother of all saints. She is basically the queen of Catholic religion in Mexico. The Spaniards who helped colonize Mexico credited la virgen for their success. La Virgen appeared on a hill in Mexico City in 1531 and until this day, la Basilica de Guadalupe (a church dedicated to Guadalupe) remains the most popular Catholic pilgrimage in the world and is the third most visited sacred site. Guadalupe is an important icon to Mexican culture because she is sometimes considered the “first Mexican” or the “first Mestiza”. When the Spaniards destroyed indigenous religion, the natives needed a way to transition from a polytheistic to a monotheistic faith. La Virgen was a common ground for natives and Spaniards. The saint was a soft blend of both ideas, she was the start of Mestizo or Mexican culture.
While exploring a Maryvale neighborhood where 55% of the residents include immigrants, we discovered that many homes had front-yard shrines dedicated to la Virgen de Guadalupe. These shrines are, in a way, a type of security system. They will not sound an alarm to scare off intruders or silently alarm the police. However, these saint shrine security systems draw on cultural traditions and beliefs that accord them the ability to protect a home. Additionally, homes will sometimes have address plaques with the images of la Virgen, Jesus or other saints along with a short prayer inscribed on it. These plaques carry the same idea as the shrines; they are a tool for safety and protection of a home and family.
Showcasing la Virgen de Guadalupe does a lot of things for a neighborhood; it ties the community together through its shared religious beliefs, shows the extent of the residents’ faith and their ability to display it, and lastly it makes visible Mexican cultural traditions in the streets of Maryvale. As we observed, these shrines can vary from simple to elaborate usually including a small statue of la Virgen and often well-decorated with flowers, candles, and other offerings. They bring colorful vibrancy to front yards, often accompanying the chairs and table of front-yard living rooms that place a value on public interaction of family and community. The low chain link fence that may surround the yard serves as a threshold to exchange and community engagement. This culture of visibility stands in stark contrast to so many Phoenix neighborhoods where outdoor family life is hidden from view in the back yard or behind high block walls of exclusion—ensuring a privatized aesthetic of social life that is often required by Homeowner Association rules and regulations.
Shrines are typically kept up all year around and they are usually well maintained, out of respect to la Virgen. Shrines are not put up to simply to announce one’s faith; to many households, having an outdoor shrine to la Virgen is a plea for her to protect their home and family.