A narrow lens

Seeing beyond the religious symbol

Mary Rebecca Read-Wahidi

For the past several years, I’ve been studying devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe in the context of a migrant community in the rural south of the United States. The Virgin of Guadalupe is an icon of Mexican identity. Ten million people visit her basilica annually, and devotion to her continues to grow among Mexicans and non-Mexicans, Catholics and non-Catholics, alike.

According to the story,[note 1]The first official written version was published in 1648 by Miguel Sanchez.
 in December of 1531, the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego, a Mexican native and recent Christian convert, on Mount Tepeyac in Mexico. She twice instructed him to go to the bishop of Mexico and tell him to build a church in her honor on Tepeyac. Juan Diego was turned away both times by the bishop and instructed not to return until he had proof of the apparition. When he encountered the apparition a third time, the Virgin told him to gather the roses that had bloomed on top of the cold, barren mountain and take them to the bishop. When Juan Diego opened his cloak in front of the bishop, the roses tumbled out, and on his cloak was an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Recognizing the miracle, the bishop built a church on Mount Tepeyac. Juan Diego’s cloak remains on display today in the Nacional Basílica de Santa María de Guadalupe in Mexico City.

Perhaps for simplicity’s sake, I often envisioned my research as the study of religious devotion. The deeper I got into my dissertation research, however, the more apparent it became that approaching the Virgin of Guadalupe as a religious symbol was too narrow a lens. Instead, the Virgin is perhaps most aptly analysed by Eric Wolf (1958, 38) as a ‘master symbol’ that ‘links together family, politics, and religion; colonial past and independent present; Indian and Mexican. It reflects the salient social relationships of Mexican life, and embodies the emotions which they generate’.

My dissertation considers the ‘buffering effect’ of devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe in relation to the daily life stressors experienced by Mexican immigrants in Scott County, Mississippi. Migrants to rural areas of the southern United States lack access to the level of housing, education, public health, and social infrastructures commonplace in urban settings, which can quickly compound the already stressful experience of migration. In recent years immigrants to Mississippi have faced increased threats of workplace raids, aggressive attempts to pass strict anti-immigration laws at the state level, and vehicle checkpoints designed to catch unlicensed, and often undocumented, drivers. As they struggle to get by while constantly being reminded of their outsider status, devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe provides her followers with a sense of belonging, comfort, and empowerment. As one member of the Mexican immigrant community explained to me, ‘We relate to her because she was human and had the same pain with Jesus. If you put yourself in her shoes, it makes you see your pain as easy compared to hers’.

I used cultural consensus analysis (Romney 1986) to identify the culturally shared model of Guadalupan devotion within the community. I was particularly interested in how an individual’s cultural consonance (Dressler et al. 2007) with Guadalupan devotion may affect his or her health and well-being. My first step towards exploring this question was to elicit descriptions of people’s perceptions of Guadalupan devotion and devotees within the community. I also collected descriptions of how people are ‘religious’ in the community, as well as the stressful situations that immigrants in the community face. It was when I examined responses to these three categories side by side that I was able to clearly see how Guadalupan devotion was more than simply a way of being religious.

It was striking to see how much richer the descriptions of Guadalupan devotion were than the descriptions of religious devotion. People struggled to elaborate how one might identify a ‘religious’ person in the community, saying that religious devotees go to church a lot and speak about God, or referring to ‘the way they act’ or ‘their language’. When people described Guadalupan devotees, in contrast, their descriptions became much more specific. When asked how someone would identify a Guadalupan in the community, they said things like: ‘they are Mexican’, ‘they are kind and helpful’, ‘they dress humbly and speak humbly’, ‘they put her image on their car or wear it on a necklace’, ‘they celebrate her December feast day’, and ‘they keep her image in their home’.

It was evident that people talked more easily about specific forms of religious devotion than the broad concept of ‘being religious’. But it also became clear that, in the process of describing devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe, people were also describing their experiences as immigrants. When I asked what people petition the Virgin to help them with, they mentioned: finding work and keeping their jobs, not getting deported or arrested, the health of their family back in Mexico and here in the United States, the safety of family members who were making the journey across the border, and their own safe return back home. Immigration stressors, such as fear of deportation, sick family members back in Mexico, and trying to find work – all these emerged in their descriptions of Guadalupan devotion.

Once I shifted away from the idea that I was studying religion I was more able to recognize the flexibility and adaptability of the Guadalupan symbol. Wolf’s labeling the Virgin of Guadalupe as a ‘master symbol’, nearly fifty years ago, still seems to be a most apt description. I also began to see the way in which this symbol takes on a new meaning in the context of immigration. In describing Guadalupan devotion, people weren’t just describing a way of being religious, but were describing their lives, their fears, and their concerns. They were describing those things that are important to them as Mexicans, as immigrants, as residents of Scott County, as members of families, and as Guadalupans.

About the author

Mary Rebecca Read-Wahidi received her PhD in biocultural medical anthropology from The University of Alabama in December 2014. She is currently a Research Fellow and Visiting Scholar at Mississippi State University’s Social Science Research Center, and developing a second line of research in Kuwait where she is presently residing. Her dissertation, entitled ‘A Model Guadalupan: Devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe and Psychosocial Stress among Mexican Immigrants to the Southern United States’, builds upon her previous fieldwork among Hispanic immigrants in the rural southern United States.


Dressler, William, Mauro Balieiro, Rosane Ribeiro, and José Dos Santos. 2007. ‘Cultural Consonance and Psychological Distress: Examining the Associations in Multiple Cultural Domains’. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 31: 195–224.
Romney, A. Kimbell, Susan Weller, and William Batchelder. 1986. ‘Culture as Consensus: A Theory of Culture and Informant Accuracy’. American Anthropologist 88: 313–338.
Sanchez, Miguel. 1648. Imagen de la Virgen María, Madre de Dios de Guadalupe: Milagrosamente Aparecida en la Cuidad de Mexico. Mexico City: Viuda de Bernardo Calderon. Reprinted in Testimonios Historicos Guadalupanos, ed. Ernesto de la Torre Villar and Ramiro Navarro de Anda, 152–267. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1982. 
Wolf, Eric. 1958. ‘The Virgin of Guadalupe: A Mexican National Symbol’.The Journal of American Folklore 71(279): 34–39.