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The United Farmworkers and the veneration of the Lady of Guadalupe

Mexican union organizers spearheaded many of the early efforts to protect Mexican farmworkers recruited as temporary agricultural workers in the US. Among American unions, it was primarily the more militant industrial unions affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations that sought to organize low-wage Mexican workers. However, after many key leaders were deported during the Red Scare of the 1950s, new labor-organizing strategies were needed. One of the first of a new generation of organizations to emerge in the 1960s was the United Farmworkers (UFW). It was a hybrid, combining elements of a community organization and a labor union, and bore a strong resemblance to older immigrant mutual aid societies that had provided community-based services to earlier generations of newly arriving Europeans.

According to Dolores Huerta, one of the UFWs most revered leaders, “religion was always a part of the very fabric of the United Farmworkers (UFW).”4 During the five-year strike against grape growers in California’s Central Valley, Cesar Chavez, the leader of the UFW, repeatedly argued that the struggle was not just for a union contract but for the basic human dignity of the workers as well. Chavez drew extensively upon his own hybrid Mexican Catholic faith, routinely employing the twin symbols of Mexican national identity, the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Aztec eagle, both of which are emblematic of the mestizo people.

The cultural and religious symbolism of the Lady of Guadalupe has repeatedly been reinscribed since the Spanish Conquest. The Virgin’s earliest reconceptualization occurred in 1648 when the narrative was reworked to undermine the second-class status of the creoles. Soon, another version appeared, written in Nahuatl, the native language of the Mexica, portraying the Lady as “the mother and protectress of the Indians. This version was most likely intended to appeal to an indigenous audience by tapping into traditional Nahua religious symbolism” (Sanchez 2008, 79).

Chavez was situated within a Mexican Catholic worldview in which public pilgrimages and processions were common forms of penance. One of the most publicized of the UFW’s pilgrimages was the 1966 march from Delano, the site of the UFW’s headquarters, to the state capítol in Sacramento. A banner, emblazoned with the Lady of Guadalupe, led the marchers along the 340-mile route. The union also built extensive religious support among Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, exposing a whole new generation of emerging activists to elements of Latino spirituality in the context of the fight for justice.

Chicana feminist scholar, Jeannette Rodríguez (1994) has analyzed the meaning of the Lady of Guadalupe in the lives of present-day Mexican-American women. Writing in 1994, Rodríguez recognized that the symbolism of the Lady of Guadalupe has frequently been misused to encourage passivity in women. Yet, Rodríguez found that the Lady plays a pivotal role in the cultural renewal of Mexican-American women, while also acknowledging the patriarchal contexts in which these women live and struggle to affirm their self-worth.

Today, images of the Lady remain a constant presence along the streets of Mexican neighborhoods in Los Angeles. The symbolism embedded within her image clearly retains its power. In December of2012, an exact digital replica of the Lady of Guadalupe’s image housed in Mexico City’s basilica was brought to Los Angeles. A total of 30,000 people participated in the procession of the Lady through the streets of East Los Angeles. For a brief moment the border fence evaporated, allowing undocumented immigrants who cannot physically return home to be in the presence of one the Mexico’s most venerated images. Lucy Boutte, a long time UFW activist, believes “that Marx' comes to us in whatever form we need. The Lady of Guadalupe had to look like the indigenous, but the indigenous are not scandalized by her appearance.”

For Boutte, the spiritual significance of the Lady of Guadalupe extends beyond her impact on women’s self-identities. She understands the Lady as an image of justice for the oppressed farmworkers, and believes that “the Lady humanizes the indigenous, enabling the church to also see them differently. They have to be taken into account.” According to Boutte it is important for believers to hear the mother of God telling people, “You are my child.”6 Guadalupe is clearly meaningful to Mexican migrants in the United States, who are treated as disposable workers that can be pushed back across the border at any moment.

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