Alma López: Our Lady and Other Queer Santas

University College Cork

The conference Transitions and Continuities in Contemporary Chicano/a Culture, organized by UCC’s Centre for Mexican Studies, was accompanied by an exhibition of Chicana artwork. On display was Alma López’s Our Lady and Other Queer Santas. While most of the pre-event publicity was overtaken by the protest of fundamentalist Catholic groups against some of the images in López’s body of work, both the exhibition and the conference managed to present a complex network of artistic, literary, political and religious discourses and allusions that reaches far beyond such polemic and controversy.
López’s eponymous Our Lady is a reinterpretation of the Holy Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s most venerated and probably also most reproduced religious image. The cult of the Virgen de Guadalupe dates back to the 1531 apparition of a young woman to an indigenous peasant near what is now Mexico City. The woman demanded that a church should be built on the site of her apparition and produced roses in the middle of winter to prove her supernatural powers. Her image was miraculously imprinted on the visionary’s poncho and is still revered by millions in the Cathedral of Guadalupe.
In López’s photo-collage the demure, downward-gazing praying maiden of the original has been turned into a grown woman with a confident attitude and a gaze that directly confronts the spectator. She is still placed in a halo-like frame, which is held up by an angel, but instead of the traditional robes she wears a ‘bikini’ of roses and the angel is a bare-breasted Latino woman. The picture’s feminist message is perhaps its most obvious: López celebrates women and the female body. In this respect Our Lady stands in the tradition of Esther Hernández’s La Virgen de Guadalupe Defendiandos los Derechos de los Xicanos (1976), an etching of a kick-boxing Madonna, and Yolanda M. López’s high-heels wearing Walking Guadalupe (1978).
However, beneath this ‘obvious’ reading Alma López engages in an intricate play with symbols and signifiers which allows her not only to retell familiar stories but also to create her own pantheon which combines Catholic and indigenous influences as well as political and social concerns. In Our Lady and in much of her other work López dissects cultural icons, not to deconstruct and critique them, but to reassemble the pieces into new, idiosyncratic and surprisingly positive and life-affirming images. This happens on the most basic visual level as, for example, the floral images of the Virgen’s robe are now framing the woman rather than adorning her gown; but López uses the same strategy also on a semiotic level. Alicia Gaspar de Alba, López’s co-editor of the essay collection Lady of Controversy: Alma López’s Irreverent Apparition (2011), referred in her accompanying talk to ‘cultural cross-dressing’, a technique of appropriating cultural signs and symbols and displacing them. This displacement puts into question the ‘natural’ or normative reading of the symbol, just as cross-dressing in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble puts the constructed nature of both gender and sex into stark relief. In other words, López’s Lady is no more or less ‘true’ than the sixteenth-century miraculous image on a piece of cloth or the millions of cheap reproductions of La Virgen on sale in Latin America.
López’s appropriations and reinterpretations also allow her to put the Virgin both visually and ideologically into new contexts that range from ancient legends to contemporary criticism. The cape Our Lady is wearing is covered in Aztec images. Superficially this refers to the element of syncretism already present in the cult of La Virgen (not only is she worshipped on the site of an older pre-Christian temple but she also appeared to the visionary as a brown-skinned local woman rather than a fair western Madonna), but a closer look reveals that López has not chosen an arbitrary Aztec motif. The Virgin wears the pre-Colombian Coyolxauhqui Stone, depicting the dismembered body of the Aztec moon goddess who according to legend rebelled against her half-brother, the God of War, and was terribly punished for her uprising. López links the Aztec and the Christian female deity and thus creates a tradition of strong females who oppose patriarchy and are persecuted for their non-conformity. The ‘bikini’, on the other hand, playfully uses the legend to answer the question that Sandra Cisnero poses in her seminal essay ‘La Guadalupe the Sex Goddess’ about what lies underneath her modest robes: roses, obviously.
This playful and at times almost naive retelling of established narratives is also evident in López’s other work. Her print Mnesic Myths shows a young woman cradling another woman. The image is reminiscent of a pietà, but it is also superimposed on a sentimental mass-produced depiction of one of Mexico’s best known myths: Popocatepetl mourning his beloved Iztaccíhuatl, who has killed herself in the mistaken belief that her lover has died in war. While in the official versions both lovers die and are immortalised as volcanoes, López refuses to follow the well-known narrative of star-crossed lovers. In her painting, as she explained in her talk, Izta is only asleep and the other girl is her true love about to awaken her. Instead of the heterosexual tragedy of the well-known image and tale, López’s collage offers the possibility of a happy queer Chicana future.
The ‘Queer Santas’ in López’s exhibition are another example of her creating new saints out traditional elements and narratives. These strange saints are large acrylics and are inspired by legends of female Christian martyrs. Santa Liberata and Saint Wilgefortis both show a masculine looking woman in a crucified position. López here draws on the peculiar story of Wilgefortis, whose cult reaches back into the 11th century. Wilgefortis, a pious Christian girl, was promised in marriage to a pagan nobleman. When she prayed to God to save her, a beard started to grow on her face thus rendering her unattractive to her lecherous suitor. Wilgefortis’ father, however, was outraged and had her crucified. Depictions of her as a bearded woman on a cross can be found all over Europe. While López acknowledges the suffering of the saint, she focuses on another aspect of the story: Wilgefortis translates into ‘strong virgin’ and she is known as Santa Liberata in Italy as she opposes her father and suitor and eventually overcomes of the fate imposed on her. Similarly, López’s masculine virgins gain liberation by leaving traditional gender roles and feminine appearances behind. It is certainly no coincidence that they resemble the drag kings discussed by Judith Halberstam in Female Masculinity (1998). Halberstam and López show that ‘masculinity’ is not tied to male bodies and but that it can be transposed onto female bodies (just as López transposes and transforms images from various cultural contexts) and thus transcend traditional constraints and limitations.
But López not only reinterprets the Catholic canon of saints, she also shuffles it around to make room for new ones. The canvas Julia Pastrana shows a woman in an elaborate dress, her face covered in hair. Julia Pastrana, born in 1834 in Mexico and suffering from hypertrichosis, was a world-wide sensation as she was touring all over North America and Europe as ‘The Marvellous Hybrid Bear Woman’. When she died at the age of twenty-five after giving birth to a hirsute baby, who also only survived for a couple of days, her husband had her and the child mummified and continued to exhibit them. López sees her as another saint who suffered for being different and thus deserves a place in her queer pantheon.
Alma López’s images appear at times naïve; her layering of images and stories is almost too obvious. Her work is by no means revolutionary in aesthetic terms, yet it displays an astonishing degree of agency, an unwavering political commitment, and a gleeful satisfaction about the individual’s ability to re-tell and change the great narratives of any given culture.
Alma López: Our Lady and Other Queer Santas, was on view alongside Celia Herrera Rodriguez: EnAguas EnTlalocan / Prayer for Mother Waters, both of which accompanied the conference, ‘Transitions and Continuities in Contemporary Chicano/a Culture’, organized by the Centre for Mexican Studies at UCC, 24 – 25 June 2011.