Holy Mother as a Feminist Symbol: The Virgen de Guadalupe in the Modern Women’s Movement

The Chicano movement emerged in the 1960s in the USA as a civil rights movement fighting against the discrimination of Mexican Americans. It aimed to highlight and condemn the discrepancy between American ideals and the actual, real discrimination of minorities. Cultural pride and the valorization of Mexican heritage were central aspects of the Chicano movement. This not only honored the „homeland“ with which many Mexican Americans still felt a strong connection but also created a distinct identity separate from the Anglo-American mainstream culture[1]. In this endeavor, the values and community of Mexican Catholicism became a cultural marker for the Chicanos, set against the „barbaric Anglo-American traits[2]”.  However, the version of Catholicism that the Chicanos brought to the United States contributed to reinforcing the traditional and patriarchal structures of Mexican society[3]. This began to change only with the feminist shift in the 1970s. The Chicanas revived new forms of expression that were specifically designed for and inspired by the female Mexican American identity. They opposed the patriarchal constraints of Catholicism and the stereotypical machismo that many men within the Chicano community upheld.

A central figure in the redefinition of the feminist Chicana identity was the Virgen de Guadalupe. She appeared in December 1531 to the indigenous farmer Juan Diego on the hill of Tepeyac in Mexico City, leaving her image on his cloak as proof of her holiness[4]. Because she appeared to an indigenous person, the Virgin was revered as an advocate for the Mestizos — people from Latin America of mixed European, particularly Spanish, and American Indian descent — during the Spanish occupation[5]. In the Chicana movement, she developed into a symbol of resistance against the double marginalization that Chicanas experienced both as women and as members of an ethnic minority. This concept of „double colonization“ was later developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw and became known as intersectionality, describing how different forms of oppression can overlap[6]. The Chicanas were thus aware of their vulnerability to multiple discriminations even before the term became part of common usage. Their feminist reinterpretations of patriarchal Catholicism did not derive from Western feminist theory but from practical realities and life experiences deeply rooted in Aztec and Mexican folk culture[7]. Their religious practices often blended Catholic customs with indigenous or other rituals, creating a reinterpretation of Catholic doctrines, symbols, and, in the case of the Virgen de Guadalupe, sacred images. This challenged patriarchal structures and hierarchies, initiating a reinterpretation of gender roles and religious practices that continues to have an impact today.

However, Chicana feminists were not initially convinced of the positive impact of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the feminist movement. They particularly criticized the conflation of the Virgin of Guadalupe with the Aztec goddess Tonantzin due to the similarity of their roles as advocates and their association with fertility. Because of her focus on corporeality and sexuality, the Aztec Tonantzin was devalued, while the Virgen de Guadalupe was stylized as a chaste, protective mother[8]. Prominent Chicana writer and activist Gloria Anzaldúa argues that the Spanish colonizers purged the figure of Guadalupe of sexual connotations, while other female deities associated with sexuality were considered inferior[9]. Chicana feminists consciously opposed this devaluation of female sexuality by actively placing the Virgin of Guadalupe at the spiritual center of the movement. They enabled the rediscovery of „hidden stories,“ revived alternative interpretations and readings, and reinforced resistance against patriarchal and colonial structures[10]. The goal was for the Virgen and female indigenous deities to be portrayed as symbols of resistance rather than purely passive or negatively connoted figures.

In Chicana art, the Virgin of Guadalupe is now depicted in her full femininity to explore themes such as intimacy, gender roles, sexuality, and self-determination. The artwork „La Ofrenda“ by Ester Hernandez from 1988 effectively combines these motifs. It shows a Chicana from behind, her back adorned with a large tattoo of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Another person, not fully visible in the image, offers a rose symbolically to the Virgin. Hernandez’s image appeared on the cover of the book „Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About“ and symbolizes a tribute to lesbian and queer Chicanas.

Scholar and professor Irene Lara, herself a Chicana activist, describes the image as a work that breaks through heteronormative thinking in visual art by depicting a Chicana who is not read as classically feminine[11]. The tattooed back thus becomes a shrine dedicated to the lesbian Chicana body. The outstretched hand of an unknown person offering a rose to the tattoo of the Virgin allows viewers to partake in a form of female intimacy embodied by the act itself. The artist invites reflection on one’s own prejudices and either acknowledges or rejects the lesbian woman depicted[12]. The connection between the two figures in the image and the central role of the Virgin of Guadalupe illustrate that intimacy, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is culturally and spiritually deeply rooted for the women of the Chicana movement. This shared understanding of intimacy, strengthened by their faith, takes shape in the form of the Virgen de Guadalupe.

Another central theme of the artwork is the positive portrayal of the body or body positivity[13]. It contrasts the typical media representation of Latinx women, often stylized as „curvy in all the right places“ by actresses like Sofia Vergara or Salma Hayek[14]. Instead, Hernandez presents the Chicana with short, blue-dyed hair and a naked but not sexualized body. This underscores the core message of body positivity, which lies in self-love and recognition of the diversity of women’s bodies. In the Chicanas‘ effort to defend their bodies against capitalism and patriarchy, the dissemination of body-positive, politically, and sometimes radical images is a powerful tool.

The reinterpretations of the Virgen de Guadalupe are part of a larger effort by the Chicanas to actively shape their identity and create a strong collective consciousness aimed at social justice, equality, and the end of discrimination and violence against women. The Virgin is both a symbol of hope, a sign of resistance, and an advocate for the socially marginalized for the movement.


Anzaldúa, Gloria. „Coatlalopeuh: She Who Has Dominion over Serpents.“ in Goddess of the Americas, pp. 52-55. New York: Riverhead Books, edited by Ana Castillo, 1996.

Blake, Debra J. Chicana Sexuality and Gender: Cultural Refiguring in Literature, Oral History, and Art. Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2008.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. „Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics.“ University of Chicago Legal Forum, vol. 1989, no. 1 (1989): 139-167. https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8.

Favrot Peterson, Jeanette. „The Virgin of Guadalupe.“ Art Journal, vol. 51, 1992, pp. 39-47. https://doi.org/10.1080/00043249.1992.10791596.

Lara, Irene. „Goddess of the Americas in the Decolonial Imaginary: Beyond the Virtuous Virgen/Pagan Puta Dichotomy.“ Feminist Studies, vol. 34, no. 1/2, 2008, pp. 99-127. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20459183.

McCracken, Ellen. New Latina Narrative: The Feminine Space of Postmodern Ethnicity. Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 1999.

Messmer, Marietta. „Transformations of the Sacred in Contemporary Chicana Culture.“ Theology & Sexuality, vol. 14, 2008, pp. 259-278. https://doi.org/10.1177/1355835808091417.

Murphy, Shelby L. „Spaces of spirituality: feminist cultural productions via the Virgin of Guadalupe.“ (2019). https://doi.org/10.26153/TSW/7501.

Real Academia Española. s.v. „Mestizo“ Accessed May 5, 2024. https://dle.rae.es/mestizo?m=form.


[1] Marietta Messmer, „Transformations of the Sacred in Contemporary Chicana Culture.“ Theology & Sexuality, Band 14 (2008): p. 260.

[2] McCracken, Ellen. “New Latina Narrative: The Feminine Space of Postmodern Ethnicity.” University of Arizona Press (1999): p. 104.

[3] Messmer. “Transformations” p. 262.

[4] Jeanette Favrot Peterson, „The Virgin of Guadalupe,“ Art Journal, Band 51, nr. 4 (Winter 1992): p. 39.

[5] Real Academia Española. s.v. “Mestizo,” accessed: 5.5.2024, https://dle.rae.es/mestizo?m=form.

[6] Kimberlé Crenshaw, „Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,“ University of Chicago Legal Forum, Band 1989 (1989): pp. 139-167.

[7] Messmer „Transformations,“ p. 262.

[8] Gloria Anzaldúa, „Coatlalopeuh: She Who Has Dominion over Serpents,“ in Goddess of the Americas. eds. Ana Castillo, (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), p. 51.

[9] Anzaldúa, „Coatlalopeuh,” p. 53.

[10] Debra J Blake, Chicana Sexuality and Gender: Cultural Refiguring in Literature, Oral History, and Art. (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 22.

[11] Irene Lara, „Goddess of the Américas in the Decolonial Imaginary: Beyond the Virtuous Virgen/Pagan Puta Dichotomy,“ Feminist Studies, vol. 34, nr. 1/2 (2008): pp. 99-127.

[12] Lara. “Goddess,” p. 73.

[13] Murphy, Shelby L, „Spaces of Spirituality: Feminist Cultural Productions via the Virgin of Guadalupe,“ (2019): p. 41.

[14] Murphy. “Spaces,” p. 43.

Photocredits: JulianaSadanha on Pixabay

RaT-Blog Nr. 09/2024

  • Hannah Pale is studying to become a teacher at the University of Vienna, majoring in Catholic Religion, English, and Spanish. Her passion for cultural exchange deepened during a stay in Mexico. She is active in youth work and an enthusiastic athlete who spends much time in nature.

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