Living in Tejas, her image is a familiar one embellishing key chains, t-shirts, candles and walls. She goes by many names and she is seen as a symbol of many cultural identities – Hispanic, Latino, Xicano, Chicano, Mexican, Mexican-American.
Throughout all these variances, though, the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe as she appeared to Juan Diego on the Hill of Tepeyac, surrounded by glowing light in her blue-green mantle with indigenous features, remains a source of faith and hope for millions of people in Mexico and the United States.
“She is a symbol of strength, of light,” said 78-year-old Eunice Hagert, who has held La Virgen deep in her heart.
Growing up in Mexico City, Hagert learned to believe in La Virgen at a young age. Through marriage, a move to the United States and rearing of three children, Hagert remains steadfast in her Catholic beliefs. To this day, through moments of joy and pain, Hagert keeps La Madrecita bounding and fluttering within her heart, thus, empowering her.
“When I came from Mexico I brought an image from my mother, which is something material, but I brought La Virgen in my heart forever,” she said. “That is how I was able to cope with situations that were difficult for me when I came to this country.”
Dressed warmly and impeccably in a maroon velvet suit and cream top, Hagert speaks candidly about her faith and two pieces of art she created for an upcoming exhibit at La Peña called “La Guadalupana.”
“When I heard about this project, I went for it,” she said, smiling. “I said to myself, I have to do it.”
Hagert’s art, along with the murals, paintings and sculptures of almost two dozen women, hangs on the walls of the gallery space through January.
The downtown organization teamed with the Mobile Art Project (MAP) to procure an exhibit that celebrates La Virgen as a common cultural, historical and religious symbol that transcends borders. Las Guadalupanas is a term often used to describe images of La Virgen, as well as Catholic women, who revere her to the highest level.
The collaboration, however, had another purpose. Specifically, MAP and La Peña sought to spotlight the artwork of women from area senior activity centers and nursing homes, including the South Austin Multi-Purpose Center and Hagert’s own St. Ignatius Church. The two groups met worked together earlier in the year and decided that this would be a powerful endeavor.
“We approached this project from a mother’s perspective. All the women who participated are women who have raised children and I think they can relate to La Virgen as a mother,” said Theresa Zelazny, founder and director of MAP.
For more than 20 years, La Peña has showcased the work of various Chicano and Latino artists including, Santa Barraza, who was known for her empowering acrylic Guadalupanas, as well as Austin-based printmaker Sam Coronado and Austin painter Nivia Gonzalez. It is community-based and fervently dedicated to the empowerment, development, preservation and promotion of Latino expression in any and all forms.
Meanwhile, MAP focuses on empowering and mobilizing the aging and disabled populations of our city through art. The program offers participants lessons in various forms, styles and media, including artistic how-to’s on drawing still-lifes, painting with acrylics and paper mache.
The timing of the exhibit is purposeful, too. ‘La Guadalupana’ opens on Dec. 12, which marks the Feast Day of La Virgen de Guadalupe. On that day, there will be celebrations in Mexico and the United States, Catholic masses, community processions and more.
According to the Catholic belief, between the dates of Dec. 9 – Dec. 12, she appeared to a glowing light on two separate occasions to Juan Diego on Tepeyac. Speaking in his native tongue, Nahuatl, La Virgen asked Juan Diego to build a church on the site. When the bishop did not believe him, Juan Diego returned to the site for proof. La Virgen showed herself to him once again and urged him to gather flowers in the dead of winter. To his amazement, he found roses, which he gathered in his cloak. Upon presenting these to the bishop, the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe, as it is known today was emblazoned in his cloak. A church, known today as the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, was built on Tepeyac.
“It’s important to keep this tradition alive,” said David Gutierrez, artistic director of La Peña. “I wasn’t too aware of the history before I started to work here. That’s why it’s important. Each generation seems to lose a bit more of where they came from.”
Zelazny, 48, also felt women could identify with La Virgen’s symbolism and image beyond religion, but also as a caregiver and provider. Zelazny can personally attest to the power of art. Her dear mother, a self-taught artist who died of cancer, often used art to reduce her stress and cope with her illness.
Upon her mother’s death, Zelazny was inspired to complete a studio art degree at the University of Texas. She was also inspired to begin her organization and since then, she has seen participants blossom.
“I felt so strongly like the elderly were an underserved population, especially those with a low-income or with disabilities,” she said. “It builds their self-esteem, helps with focus and creativity, especially for those who have had a stroke or illness and have been forced into a nursing home.”
Zelazny also said art activities are a source of relaxation.
A recent study on creativity and the aging process conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts, suggests lifts spirits, provides for a sense of community and promotes good health.
“Our findings almost completely mirror their study,” Zelazny said.
Gutierrez, 30, has worked at La Peña since 2003. He agrees with Zelazny.
“We are not just showcasing the arts, we are giving these people opportunities where they would not have had them before,” Gutierrez said. “We are involving everybody and showing them that art is not just a one-way street for emerging or established artists. We believe in everyone.”
And, for these two organizations, Hagert is grateful. She admits that she almost didn’t finish her Guadalupana because her “dear, smart and strong” 16-year-old Australian Shepard-Cocker Spaniel mix, Mica was ill. As Hagert slept, cared for her dog and doubted the completion of her artwork, something kept imploring her to finish.
“My dog was sick and I didn’t have enough time but I promised that I would do this project,” Hagert admits. “The entire time I was thinking,’Oh, I am doing this for you, Dear Mother, help me please to do it because it is for you.'”
And she did. Not just one artwork, but two. There was the one in watercolor that came first, and somehow she found time for the second in colored pencil.
“La Guadalupana” opens Dec. 12, 2009 with a reception from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. The free exhibit runs through Jan. 6, 2010. Donations are encouraged. For more information on La Peña or the Mobile Art Program, please visit www.lapena-austin.org and www.mobileartprogram.org.