Yesterday, hundreds of thousands of Catholics across Southern California huddled in their parishes early in the morning to celebrate the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico.
The night before, the faithful also visited the handful of public shrines to the Empress of the America that dot Los Angeles and Orange counties. I attended services at my favorite one: a Craftsman-style house in Santa Ana that turns into a massive pop-up altar for all of December.
The homeowners cover the entire front of their casa with paper and Christmas lights, turning it into a Mexican flag: green on the left, red on the right, with the porch and front door left white to host a four-foot statue of la Guadalupana. Fake roses wrap around the porch and its columns; real flowers and votive candles line the steps leading up to her.
On the roof, lights form two crosses and a Christmas tree in the colors of the Mexican flag; the gable hosts its own mini-shrine, with a small statue and lights that spell out in all capital letters: “Virgen de Guadalupe.”
About 100 people sat on white chairs on the front lawn to sing devotional songs and recite the Rosary. “I know a lot of you have to work, but it’s once a year,” the host says in Spanish over a P.A. system. “So let’s tough it out!” He says they will venerate Guadalupe until about 1 a.m., “when the police usually come.”
Guadalupe is very much a public figure in Southern California thanks to her hundreds of murals. The author Sam Quinones calls the Marian apparition “the Virgin of the American Dream,” the title of his 2016 book on the subject, for her use as a “shield of succor” in barrios. Most Latino-dominant Catholic churches keep an alcove or niche devoted to Guadalupe.
But the number of publicly accessible guadalupana shrines—built as places to pray intentionally instead of incidentally—is surprisingly few, considering the number of Mexican Catholics in the Southland.
It’s by design. City planners don’t want residents to erect what they consider makeshift places of worship. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles has long tried to control Guadalupe in the public sphere.
In 1931, Archbishop John Cantwell led a procession in her name that went through East Los Angeles; the 86th edition happened on December 3, with a parade down Cesar Chavez Avenue that concluded with an open-air mass at East Los Angeles College.
But church leaders have never officially sanctioned any public Guadalupe shrine in Southern California, since they and their peers nationwide want to govern how Catholics worship. In August of this year, the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey had no complaint when authorities in Passaic tore down a Guadalupe shrine that had stood on a street corner for 14 years. Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli even sent a letter to parishes dismissing it as “a place of popular piety.”
Nevertheless, Guadalupe’s local acolytes continue to build them.
The vast majority, unsurprisingly, are in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles. The swap meet at 3425 East First Street officially called El Mercado de Los Angeles but universally called El Mercadito (The Little Market) by locals has a tiled, 15-foot mural of Guadalupe under a small arch in its parking lot that dates back to the early 1970s.
Even older is what started as a mural outside La Milagrosa Market at 4740 Eagle Street but which now has a shelf upon which people can place flowers; the Los Angeles Times dates that one to the 1960s.
The county’s housing authority building at 4800 East Cesar Chavez Avenue in Boyle Heights offers a double shrine of sorts with its spectacular 1973 David Lopez Guadalupe mural. The vibrant depiction was itself saved from the historic Casa Maravilla housing projects that were torn down in 1975, then transferred to its current spot. There, Lopez oversaw the construction of a small ledge so that people can sit in Guadalupe’s glow.
The most prominent Eastside Guadalupe shrine remains a massive statue at Self Help Graphics at 1300 East First Street, backed by a background of blue ceramic tile meant to mimic the sky. It once stood within a giant altar in the parking lot of Self Help’s original location and was the work of Eduardo Oropeza, who finished it in 1992 after doing the iconic tile-shard mural on the original location’s walls.
This Guadalupe made a prominent cameo in the 2002 film Real Women Have Curves, where she loomed over America Ferrera’s awkward date; it’s now inside Self Help’s building.
Another parking-lot Guadalupe sits in a seemingly unlikely spot: Manny’s El Tepeyac at 812 North Evergreen Avenue, the legendary Boyle Heights burrito stand. The restaurant is named after the hill upon which Guadalupe revealed herself to St. Juan Diego, so it makes sense. This one is a small masterpiece; a small stone grotto houses a couple of statues, with a bench next to it to allow reflection.
A 2011 LA Times story found smaller shrines in Highland Park and Echo Park—on top of stairs, in alleys, in vacant lots. There’s one in the Buena Clinton neighborhood of Garden Grove, housed in a small niche with faux-adobe shingles to befit OC’s Spanish Revival obsession, and another in a former trash compartment space at a Santa Ana apartment complex. Even the city’s rapidly gentrifying downtown has a tiled Guadalupe just next to uber-hip restaurant Playground.
The incongruity of the holy among the secular in Southern California has piqued pundits going back to Cary McWilliams, and our Guadalupe shrines get the same scrutiny.
“Where else, other than in Los Angeles, can you find a sacred parking lot?” sneer the authors of the high school textbook, The Human Mosaic: A Cultural Approach to Human Geography, in discussing Self Help’s old Guadalupe shrine. But that’s their beauty. They are unsanctioned, and therefore more meaningful expressions of faith than what the Catholic Church offers. Besides, that’s how Guadalupe wants it.
Her power was in revealing herself not to the powerful but to the unwashed masses. Quinones sums up her appeal best at the end of his book. “Though she may not be as present as in the past,” he concludes, “patiently, quietly, she smiles down on us … still there when we need her.”