In honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose feast is celebrated today, I share with you below my review of Guadalupe in New Yorkthe splendid book by my friend Alyshia Gálvez. Gálvez is a member of the faculty at Lehman College here in New York and a rising star in Latin American studies.

For a lot of people, “globalization” is something smooth and shiny that makes better iPhones available.  For others, though, it’s an experience of displacement and being categorized as less than human.

In Guadalupe in New York, anthropologist Alyshia Gálvez zeroes in on one group strongly impacted by “globalization,” undocumented Mexican immigrants in New York City. Throughout the twentieth century, Latino New York was primarily Puerto Rican and Dominican, but since 1990, increasing numbers of Mexican immigrants have joined the mix. Some estimates put the current Mexican population of the city at 500,000. Up to half of these new New Yorkers are undocumented.

Guadalupe in New York conveys effectively the difficult situation of undocumented Mexican immigrants in New York, caught as they are between economic crises in Mexico and the increasing demonization of the immigrant labor needed to make the US function.   But primarily, Guadalupe in New York shows the ways in which devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe transforms the experience of undocumented Mexicans, instilling in them a sense of human dignity and of a trans-juridical, even cosmic, citizenship.

The subjects of Gálvez’s investigation are members of two related Mexican immigrant groups, the comités Guadalupanos, confraternal organizations based in Catholic parishes across the city and their umbrella organization, the Asociación Tepeyac.  Fundamental  to both is Guadalupanismo, devotion to Mary the Mother of God as she appeared to an indigenous Mexican convert,  Juan Diego, on the hill of Tepeyac, in the northern section of what is now Mexico City, in 1531.

Devotion to Guadalupe is a central aspect of Mexican culture.  But the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe is particularly associated with the accordance of a new dignity to indigenous Mexicans after the Spanish conquest. Guadalupe herself appeared as an indigenous woman, wearing colors, jewels and other unambiguous markers of local Nahuatl tradition. This in turn makes her a particularly apt bearer of a new sense of human dignity for undocumented Mexicans in the US.

Gálvez’s ethnographic study focuses particularly on several aspects of Guadalupanismo in New York. The best known of these is the annual torch run, in which a torch is carried by Guadalupan devotés from the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, across the Mexico/US border, and through the United States, arriving on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. Patrick’s, the Roman Catholic cathedral in Manhattan. As a highly public event, the torch run is perhaps the most confrontational of the three devotional actions examined in Guadalupe in New York.  By crossing the border and publicly proclaiming their existence,  participants in and coordinators of the torch run assert “an alternative definition of citizenship: one not arbitrarily constrained by borders…(but) premised on a very particular kind of Catholic humanism articulated through Guadalupan devotion.”

A second devotion is the celebration of the Viacrucis, the way of the cross, by comités in the various New York parishes, and by comités working together on the Asociación Tepeyac’s city-wide Viacrucis del Inmigrante each Good Friday. While parish celebrations of the Viacrucis vary somewhat, with more emphasis on the social resonances of Jesus’ suffering in some parishes than others, by and large Gálvez finds that in these Guadalupan celebrations, “the traditional script describing Jesus Christ’s path is overlaid with a new script, comparing his trails at each of the stations of the cross to the humiliations and injustices suffered by immigrants.” This overlay is especially evident in the Good Friday city-wide Viacrucis del Inmigrante which begins at the offices of the Immigration and Naturalization Services and then winds its way around the financial district of lower Manhattan. Throughout the procession the “Roman” soldiers scream at Jesus , “Camina, camina, ilegal!” (“Walk, walk, illegal!”)

The  third Guadalupan devotion Gálvez studies is La Misión Guadalupana, in which members of a comité  carry a figure, often a statue, of the Virgin of Guadalupe from one home to the next.  In this devotion Mexican immigrant families are welcomed by Guadalupe and invited to participate in the comité or renew their commitment.  Because the misión Guadalupana is a much smaller and quieter devotional practice than the two described above, it’s possible to imagine them dropping under the radar altogether. But Gálvez demonstrates that they are fundamental to the formation of the Guadalupan community that in turn enables undocumented Mexican immigrants in New York to develop a new more deeply human sense of citizenship.

In making this argument, that for undocumented Mexican immigrants in New York devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe is integral to the formation of a sense of dignity and self worth beyond contemporary desiccated definitions of citizenship, Alyshia Gálvez moves well beyond the understanding of religion that was fundamental to western social science in the second half of the twentieth century.  According to that understanding, religious beliefs and practices distracted human beings from contending with the really-real—economics, politics, even biology. Members of religio-ethnic groups, as they became assimilated into advanced democratic societies, were expected to shed their quaint devotional and organizational customs, learn  civil religion, become secularized. By the end of the twentieth century, and especially since 9/11, increasing numbers of scholars have been forced to acknowledge that this scenario never adequately represented the complexity of human experience. In works like Guadalupe in New York, this long-overdue recognition comes into its own.

(A longer version of this review appeared in The Living Pulpit, Vol 19, No 1, [Jan-March 2010] 30-31.)