To many Chicanos, seeing the murals of the Virgen de Guadalupe in Boyle Heights and the Eastside is empowering. The works of art tie residents to their Mexican roots, illustrate the everyday struggles of the neighborhood, and serve as a reminder that there is strength to overcome obstacles.
“When I see the Virgencita on the mural, it makes me feel like we’re not losing,” said Adriana Caceres, a 21-year-old student at East Los Angeles College. “Like Boyle Heights versus gentrification, it’s not a losing battle. When I see that, it just makes me feel better.”
The Virgen de Guadalupe is a symbolic icon for people in Boyle Heights. She is seen on walls and shrines across the neighborhood and, over the years, her image has become an important part of the community’s identity. However, when you factor in age, the meaning of the Virgen de Guadalupe varies for different generations.
Among younger people, who may not be particularly religious, the Virgen de Guadalupe is a reminder of the struggles and strengths of their immigrant parents. To older adults, she is someone whose own struggle is relatable and to whom they could hold on to during hard times.
The feast of the Virgen de Guadalupe is celebrated on Dec. 12, when the faithful mark the day she presented herself to Juan Diego, an Indigenous man on Tepeyac Hill in Mexico City. Nevertheless, La Virgen is honored every day through art and activism.
To stand against gentrification, in 2018 Boyle Heights native and artist Nico Avina created a seven and a half-foot-tall Virgen wearing her traditional long green veil and red dress, but holding an eviction notice. He called it “Lupita Was Displaced.” The plywood art piece represented the residents of Boyle Heights who have been displaced by gentrification.
The patron saint of Mexico, the Virgen de Guadalupe is also a symbol for that country ‘s independence from Spain in 1810. Father Miguel Hidalgo’s idea to gather troops under the image of the Virgen Morena, gave Mexicans fighting for their independence the strength they needed to win.
To Marina Hernandez, a teacher at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School, the Virgen de Guadalupe represents power.
“The power to overcome struggle, the power to overcome heartbreak because she saw her son be crucified. … Despite what I’m facing, despite what my family was facing, she gave me power,” Hernandez said.
She said the murals of La Virgen around Boyle Heights represent “the struggle that our community has overcome.”
For Maria Ines Abuede, a Catechism teacher at Assumption Catholic School in Boyle Heights, the Virgen de Guadalupe is an inspiration to young women. Abuede relates to her as a single mother. Her husband was deported in 2003.
“I know that raising two children alone identifies me along with her,” she said. “I identify with her, not because she’s the mother of God, or she’s unreachable. I identify with her as a woman, because she was also a mother raising her child alone.”
But Abuede also recognizes that not everyone can relate to her in the same way because some people may “see her as a goddess, as a perfect human being and they could never attain her perfection.”
To Abuede, that’s a misconstrued understanding of who she was. She said there are generations who love the Virgen de Guadalupe precisely because she was young and brave.
“She surrendered to God, to a higher power, and that’s a sign of humbleness,” Abuede said.
Known as “La Morenita,” the brown-skinned virgin is more than just a religious figure.
To this day, she remains a symbol that represents the fight for immigrant rights, female empowerment, and against gentrification.
Linda Lara, who identifies as a Guadalupana and is devoted to the Virgen de Guadalupe, understands that younger people may not be religiously connected to the virgin.
“I think our youth these days really don’t have that fundamental belief in Our Lady of Guadalupe, unless your parents or your grandparents have that. It’s just not an important part of life these days. I think the kids don’t see it,” said Lara, a Catechism teacher and small business owner in Boyle Heights.
But she also recognizes that being from Boyle Heights and East LA you are born into the culture and beliefs that are influenced by Mexicans.
“You see our Lady of Guadalupe everywhere, on the side of buildings,” Lara said.
In protests for immigrant and worker rights, images of the Virgen de Guadalupe are often seen on banners and signs. La Virgen was present in Mexican flags during the historic 2006 immigration reform protest in downtown Los Angeles.
For Carlos Herrera, an 18-year-old from LA, the Virgen de Guadalupe reminds him of his grandmother, who immigrated to the United States with nothing but her faith. She would tell him that, although she only had white rice and water to eat for almost a year, her faith in La Virgen kept her strong.
“I respect that she believes in it so much. Because nowadays, it’s hard to believe something as much as she does,” he said.
He remembers seeing La Virgencita as the centerpiece of their altar at home, where he would pray to her with his grandmother. Growing up in a household of only women, Herrera thinks of the Virgen de Guadalupe as “a powerful woman figure.” Herrera says he’s not religious but he respects the Catholic faith of his family.
He believes it’s important to always remember where you came from, and La Virgen’s influence on Mexican culture is significant. “It’s part of your culture,” he said.
For Caceres, the East Los Angeles College student, the Virgen de Guadalupe is an important symbol of representation for Boyle Heights’ Latino community. La Virgen, she said, doesn’t just stand for religion. She’s a reminder of her culture and roots.
“Growing up, seeing her being idolized made me feel poderosa, like, ‘I could do that,’” she said. “This woman figure, femme figure makes me feel really empowered as a niñita growing up.”