Candles at a local Target Store.

You can’t be in Los Angeles very long before you bump into the iconic image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Or at least, that’s the way it used to be.

The stretch of Pasadena Freeway Highway 110 that I travel frequently between Pasadena and Los Angeles was for years home to a particularly large and garish mural painted on the side of a building along a frontage road, with only a raw chain link fence separating God’s Mother and the merciless humanity that flowed by each day.

When I decided to write this article for The Catholic Gene on Our Lady of Guadalupe in Los Angeles, I thought I would have no problem locating the freeway virgin and  several other popular renditions. Alas, times change. Freeway improvements and a new sound wall now obscure sections of neighborhood streets.

I’ve lost Our Lady somewhere between Highland Park and Dodger Stadium.

Angelenos’ affection for Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the oldest traditions in our rather recent history, with roots in the desert near Mexico City.

On his way to Mass on December 9, 1531, an Indian peasant named Juan Diego was passing near Tepeyac when he heard music and saw a vision of a beautiful young woman. She spoke to him in his own language, identifying herself as the Virgin Mary, and expressed her wish that a shrine be built at the place she appeared. She told Juan Diego to go to the Bishop in Mexico City and share the story of the vision and her wishes for a chapel.

Juan Diego was unable to persuade the Bishop of the truth of his story, and returned to the hill where he saw the Virgin a second time. She told him to return to the Bishop, who then asked Juan Diego to bring him a sign from the Lady.

Then, life intervened. Juan Diego’s uncle became seriously ill and Juan Diego was unable returned to Tepeyac until December 12. What he saw must have been truly astounding. The lady waited for him and assured him that his uncle would recover. When she heard the Bishop’s request for a sign, she directed Juan Diego to the summit of the hill where he found a wealth of fresh flowers in an area where they had never been known to grow. He gathered the blooms in his cloak and carried the bundle to the Bishop.

But, when Juan Diego opened his cloak to show the Bishop the flowers sent as a sign from the lady, the surprise was not the blossoms as much the colored image of the Virgin depicted exactly as Juan Diego had described her.

The image itself bore a striking resemblance to an Indian woman, not a European or Spaniard, with symbolism that would have been familiar to 16th century Aztecs. Blue referenced divinity and the gods; the rays of the sun emanating from her figure indicate her superiority to the great sun god; she stands on the moon, and hence the moon god. Her rose-covered dress would have been worn by an Aztec princess.

The Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe as she appeared on Juan Diego's cloak.

By appearing to Juan Diego, an Indian convert to Catholicism, Our Lady of Guadalupe became the rally-cry and devotion for millions of native people ready to turn away from the cruel Aztec religion to a loving and accepting deity. Her insistence that an Indian convert should act as her messenger sent a powerful message to the disenfranchised natives of Mexico.

Our Lady of Guadalupe continues to inspire devotion throughout the world, especially in the Americas. The image is now displayed behind the altar at La Basilica de la Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in what is now La Villa, Mexico City.

Closer to home, at least to me in Pasadena, California, Our Lady of Guadalupe is everywhere. Not surprisingly, she is the patron saint of “little businesses” and often found adorning corner markets in the barrio. Her image on bumper stickers guards the family car, on skin speaks of commitment, and in front-lawn shrines shares devotion.

Our Lady is the friend of the underdog, the alienated, and according to an article by Judith Dupre, this modern Virgin Mary has become the symbol of gangsters, pro-lifers, and artists.

Last Sunday after Mass I recruited my husband to join me on a pilgrimage of sorts – to see if we could find those neighborhood icons of Our Lady of Guadalupe that keep flashing through my memory.

Our Lady of Guadalupe chapel at St. Andrew Church in Old Pasadena.

I said a prayer in the Our Lady of Guadalupe chapel in our church, St. Andrew in Old Pasadena, and we headed out on our quest. We had no luck along the freeway frontage roads. We cruised Hispanic neighborhoods without success. But after a burger-break in nearby Eagle Rock, Our Lady smiled.

Our Lady adorns a tortilla factory in Eagle Rock, near Los Angeles.

Restaurant in Highland Park.

Side of restaurant building with mural of Aztec symbols and Juan Diego kneeling before vision of Our Lady.

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