Crossing Borders with the Virgin Mary

December 14, 2011 at 11:29 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

As we continue along the road from the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe to the feast of Mary giving birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, I share a review of another book about the connections between Mary in the US and in Mexico,  American Madonna: Crossing Borders with the Virgin Mary by Deirdre Cornell.

In her first book, A Priceless View, Grail member Deirdre Cornell returns to her childhood home, Newburgh, NY, to share the life of the burgeoning migrant community there. But by the last few pages, she knows that she will leave. And her prediction is fulfilled: in 2004, Deirdre and her husband Kenney and three children move to rural Oaxaca, Mexico, as Maryknoll lay missioners, to deepen their understanding of the migrant cultures surrounding them in upstate New York. In American Madonna, Deirdre welcomes us into that experience.

At the heart of Deirdre’s reflections is Mary, the Mother of God. Here in the U.S., what with women’s liberation and the assimilation of white ethnic Catholics into the American middle class, devotion to the ostensibly sweet, passive Virgin Mary would seem a thing of the past. Yet as Deirdre observes, pilgrimages to sites of Marian apparitions around the world have mushroomed in the modern period, while the Madonna, bearing the marks of her various local inculturations, helps huge numbers of Latin American migrants in their journeys across the border to a new life in the North. Indeed, as Deirdre makes clear, the Virgin Mary is an ideal patroness for our globalized age, crossing borders during her lifetime between Israel and Egypt, and in her Assumption, between earth and heaven, even as she has accompanied travelers, missionaries and migrants across borders over the centuries.

Deirdre organizes American Madonna around three different manifestations of Mary: the Virgin of Solitude, the mourning Mother at the foot of the cross who watches over the capital of the southeastern Mexican province of Oaxaca; Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose apparition to St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin in 1532 marks the beginning of the inculturation of Christianity among the indigenous peoples of Mexico; and my own particular favorite, Our Lady of Juquila, whose diminutive triangular figure has protected hundreds of thousands of pilgrims at her shrine on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca since 1719. In all cases, the Madonna crosses borders with her devotés, whether they are the Spanish missionaries who brought her with them to the Americas, the pilgrims journeying over hazardous terrain to reach her, or the migrants who bear her north and sometimes return home to her motherly embrace.

It would be a pity for you to conclude from this that American Madonna is a theological study of the Virgin Mary, however.  It is that, in part, but it is also much more. Indeed, what makes this book a wonderful read is the deftness with which Deirdre weaves together the multiple strands comprising the reality of the Madonna. The lives of Mexicans encountered on both sides of the border comprise one such strand; the history of the various Marian apparitions and the communities they inhabit is another. A third is the complex figure of the Virgin herself, her ancient history, her sexist appropriations, the protection and liberation she bestows on her followers. Yet another is the anthropology of pilgrimage and community, rendered accessible by clear writing.

And pulling it all together is the lyric voice of the author herself, from the wonderful portrayal, in the first chapter, of her own journey away from and back to Mary, to the traditional benedición with which her Oaxacan neighbors send her and her family back to the US at the conclusion. Indeed, it becomes clear as one drinks in this book that the “American Madonna” of the title is as much the mother who brings her high-risk twins to term in the middle of her time in Mexico as it is the Madonna with whom she crosses and re-crosses borders throughout.  Those of us still inclined to wonder how the Virgin Mary can inspire communities and individuals to resist their oppression have only to read Deirdre’s mesmerizing connection of the bonding process between mother and child–in this case, her own–with the solidarity engendered by devotion to the Virgin Mary in Oaxaca. As she asks, “Can we from the dominant culture catch new glimpses of our mother–even when she does not look like us–in images that originated beyond our borders?

(This review appeared originally in Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the USA.)

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