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Brown paper and a candle


My boyfriend, an attorney, is representing an elderly Yaqui Indian couple in a case involving the Tucson Police Department.

In December 1998 a heavily armed SWAT team in search of drugs tore into Maria and Eduardo Martinez’s home -- oops, wrong home -- and threw a distraction bomb in the living room. Maria was making tortillas at the time. The melee ended with the couple (Eduardo has only one arm) and a daughter-in-law on the floor where Maria was forced to lie, handcuffed. She emerged from the fiasco with a fractured pelvis and wrist.

When Paul first told me the story I did what any Latina Catholic would do, given the gravity of the injustice. I sought out a ceremony.

A friend’s Catholic Indian grandmother, a healer, during her lifetime employed any number of prayer rituals to aid striking workers in Bolivia. Over lunch at the gym recently, my friend instructed me in hushed tones in one such ritual; it involves, in part, inscribing certain names on brown paper and placing it beneath a lighted white candle.

I, of course, am elated by all this.

“I’m doing special prayers for you,” I announce to Paul. I’ve just bought my candle at the corner grocery story that sells goodies such as Mexican cheeses, spices and Our Lady of Guadalupe air freshener cards to hang from a car’s rear view mirror.

In our almost two years together, Paul has grown used to my ways. He thinks I’m a little crazy.

He raises his eyebrows. Whatever. At least he does not object.

Paul specializes in housing and civil rights law. The project he founded 10 years ago, the Southern Arizona People’s Law Center, is in a storefront office wedged between a pizza parlor and a vegetarian restaurant. He makes it paycheck to paycheck. The work is, one might say, his spiritual practice -- although spirituality is a word that makes him squirm.

Paul, an Italian-American, attended Catholic school in Chicago. His experiences with church authorities were not pleasant. He rejected the church at a young age.

But the old Catholic penchant for icons lives on in him. Whereas I have santos distributed throughout my apartment, his house is an altar to Che Guevara. We’re talking posters, T-shirts, a key ring, biographies, you name it. I don’t mind any of it. We all need a messiah, and let’s face it, Che’s got the look.

OK, there is something that bugs me. By my lights, we all need a female messiah, too, just to keep things in perspective.

“What’s not to like about Our Lady of Guadalupe?” I demand, proposing yet again that we hang her picture over his desk.

The Patroness of the Americas: I think of her banner held high in so many New World liberation struggles, from the overthrow of Spanish rule by the Mexicans to Cesar Chavez’s farm worker marches.

Today Guadalupe appears at demonstrations against cop abuse and at candlelight vigils honoring those who die each day crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. And on the artistic front, Guadalupe is setting new trends in religious art as renowned Chicana painters employ her image in powerful spiritual, political and deeply feminist statements.

Guadalupe, that sacred trickster who -- faithful to her Aztec predecessor -- appeared on the hill where Tonantzin, the corn goddess, was worshipped by Nahuatl-speaking people. Guadalupe, the Mother of God who appeared as a brown woman to aid the Indians and their mestizo offspring in our centuries-long struggle to wrest Catholicism from its European roots and to make it our own.

“At least let me buy you a refrigerator magnet,” I sigh.

“I’ll pass,” says Paul.

He’s not going to change anytime soon. I take that back. He’s never going to change. Oh, well. He reached across the cultural chasm on my last birthday with a gift -- a beautiful wooden cross embedded with colored tiles bearing an image of none other than Guadalupe.

“You know,” I tell him. “You might have to call her as a witness.” Eduardo and Maria Martinez, like so many families here, have a shrine to Our Lady in their home.

I’m grateful for Paul. Because he is who he is, I am more who I am. A Chicana who, with other women of color, will exclude nothing our heritage offers in our quest for justice. It’s a whole New World. Will Our Lady appear on the Justice Department’s Web site? Viva Guadalupe, our Mother of Invention!

Demetria Martinez lives in Tucson, Ariz.

National Catholic Reporter, September 8, 2000