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Portrait of new saint stirs controversy in Mexico

Los Angeles Times,
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Published Jul 30, 2002 SAIN30

MEXICO CITY -- When the Vatican gave approval last year for Juan Diego Cuauhtlahtoatzin to become the Americas' first indigenous Roman Catholic saint, many of Mexico's 10 million Indians welcomed it as vindication of their struggle to overcome centuries of racism.

But when the church unveiled its official portrait of the 16th-century Chichimeca Indian, racial pride turned to puzzlement and, for some, anger.

The portrait shows a light-skinned, full-bearded man who looks more like one of the Spanish conquistadors. It appears on millions of posters, stamps and wallet-sized prints distributed before Pope John Paul's arrival in Mexico today to canonize Juan Diego.

"This is disturbing," said Fausto Guadarrama, a Mazahua Indian, author and Catholic. "First we win a moral victory. Then we get this image with Western features. Are they trying to conquer us again through this image?"

The criticism has put the hierarchy on the defensive. Cardinal Norberto Rivera, archbishop of Mexico City, now says the church would be willing to endorse any other "dignified" portrait of Juan Diego on posters and icons.

The official image was chosen, church leaders say, because it is a copy of the earliest known portrait of Juan Diego.

"During the Spanish colony, Indians were often painted to look European, to enhance their status," said Elio Masferrer, an anthropologist and historian. "That was racist thinking. The curious thing is that today's church hasn't corrected it."

The mixed signals about Juan Diego illustrate Catholicism's uneasy relations with native Americans and, more broadly, its difficulties among non-European cultures around the world. In Mexico, the church's mission is complicated by a shortage of priests and the spread of Protestantism.

The scheduled canonization Wednesday at Mexico City's Basilica of Guadalupe will be a landmark in the Catholic missionary effort.

According to legend, Juan Diego was a Catholic convert who in 1531 had a vision of the Virgin Mary as a dark-skinned Indian. When the local Spanish bishop demanded proof of the apparition, it was on Juan Diego's rough cloak that the Virgin of Guadalupe miraculously imprinted her image.

Despite doubts by many scholars that Juan Diego ever existed, the cult of Guadalupe flourished.

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