About 25 years ago, as a boy growing up in New Mexico, Antonio Sanchez began to collect religious folk art. Periodically he'd bring home a santo scavenged from one place or another, and his mother, being a devout Mexican Catholic, would accept each new statued saint like an infant, shine it clean, then place it on the living-room mantel. There they would all be cared for like prized Mustang convertibles, particularly the revered Virgin of Guadalupe.
This went on for some time. As a college student, Sanchez was still marching in with the saints. The house teemed with santos. Finally, his mother, shouldered with the responsibility of proper veneration, pleaded with him: "Por favor, mijo (Please, my son) - I can't handle any more!"
These days, Sanchez writes Washington state law for the House of Representatives. But he never stopped collecting, and some of his accumulated stash has come to the Tacoma Art Museum, where "La Guadalupana" opened Tuesday and continues through May 24.
In reality, "La Guadalupana" first opened in 1531 on a hill near modern-day Mexico City, where many believe the Virgin Mary appeared to a peasant native named Juan Diego. It was a mere decade after cross-carrying Spanish conquistadors had plundered the Aztec civilization; after the Virgin Mary's appearance, millions of natives converted to Catholicism.
The bishop at first was not convinced of Juan Diego's tale. He wanted proof. Juan Diego returned with his burlap outer robe, called a tilma, loaded with impossible roses from the desert hillside. When he unfurled the garment, the familiar image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was forever fashioned on its face.
That image, with its dark skin, sandwiched hands and star-spangled robe, has swept the Americas ever since, continuing to inspire more renditions than the entire Beatles catalog.
Tacoma's show combines a traveling exhibit organized by the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, N.Mex., with local contributions from collectors like Sanchez and artists like Alfredo Arreguin. It mixes historical, contemporary and pop art, decidedly reverent and irreverent all at the same time.
Today is Guadalupe's feast day, and some of the devoted will crawl on their knees from miles around to the Mexico City basilica where Juan Diego's tilma resides behind bulletproof glass. Churches everywhere will hold processions and commemorative Masses. But for those of Mexican heritage, Guadalupe holds meaning beyond the spiritual.
"In Mexico, not everybody is Catholic," says Prof. Jeanette Rodriguez-Holguin, chair of Seattle University's theology department and author of a book on Guadalupe. "But everybody's a Guadalupana."
In the years following the conquest, Spanish and indigenous blood mixed to create the mestizo, or mixed, race that today defines Mexico. The image, with symbolism that spoke to both cultures, literally became the banner under which revolutions were spearheaded - first as the new Mexican race cast out its Spanish conquerors, then a century later as poor Mexican insurgents rebelled against the ruling class, even decades later in California as Cesar Chavez led marches for farmworkers' rights.
Because Mexico was essentially born under Guadalupe's banner, the image has become a symbol of national and cultural identity. Bus and taxi drivers post her picture on their dashboards. Mexican-American youths paint the image on low riders. Guadalupe is Buddha, Elvis and the Statue of Liberty all rolled into one.
The Tacoma show features traditional versions of Guadalupe embroidered in cloth, etched in glass, painted on tin, carved in wood. Some are centuries old. But you also will find Guadalupes praying in muffled serenity as molded bottles, or Guadalupes that flamenco in painted glass. One Guadalupe frowns in colored ink on a handkerchief, while others emerge from painted corn husks or computer-circuit boards and wire.
There are Guadalupe gear-shift knobs and Guadalupe alarm clocks, Guadalupe bolo ties and Guadalupe quilts, rubber stamps, window decals, a scarf. There is the old Guadalupe-in-the-bottle trick. (How did she get in there?)
A trio of gabby women freak out at a photograph of a young woman with the image tattooed on her back.
Across the room, a women chuckles as she scopes out the artwork along one wall, suddenly noticing a Guadalupe night light glowing from an outlet near her shin.
The border between what is art and what isn't art is a fine line, admits Greg Bell, the museum's assistant curator. But now, so, too, are the borders between the cultures whose melding Guadalupe represents.
"The message is much deeper than art," Sanchez says. "Because she is mestiza, she represents that for which we strive as Latinos - to be able to adapt and succeed."
The show continues through May 24 at the Tacoma Art Museum, 1123 Pacific Ave., Tacoma. Admission: $4 adults, $3 seniors, students, free for museum members and children under 12. Free open house 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. tomorrow, with music. At 7 p.m. Feb. 5, Seattle University professor Jeanette Rodriguez-Holguin discusses the religious and cultural importance of Our Lady of Guadalupe.