Nearly a month ago, SFR published its most controversial story during my tenure as editor.

The story itself, our June 12

(featuring 93 local activities for summer’s 93 days), wasn’t controversial. And it wasn’t until two weeks later—long after the issue had disappeared from newsstands—that its cover became the subject of regional, national and ultimately international news.

The cover featured a woman wearing a yellow bikini, drinking a margarita. Draped over her head was a blue beach towel, and rays of sunlight shone behind her as she posed on a blue crescent moon. In short, she looked a lot like the Virgin of Guadalupe.

According to tradition, “la Guadalupana” represents an apparition of the Virgin Mary in Mexico. As the story goes, Mary was pregnant with the infant Jesus when she appeared to the peasant Juan Diego in December 1531. Anxious to prove to a bishop that she had indeed appeared, Juan Diego gathered roses in his tilma, or cloak. When he opened the cloak to show the bishop, the image of the Virgin appeared there—painted, many Catholics believe, by the hand of God.

“Our Lady of Guadalupe, to the Latino community, is sacred,” explains Anthony Trujillo, a deacon at San Isidro Catholic Church in Santa Fe. “We don’t put her on the same level as God, but we do have devotion, and there is a huge following.”

According to the Very Rev. Adam Ortega y Ortiz, the rector of downtown Santa Fe’s Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, “Our Lady has always been an image of support for the downtrodden…for those pushed aside, for those lacking justice.” Truijllo adds that every element of her image is symbolic—no matter whether it appears on a candle, a T-shirt, a tattoo or a lowrider.

“Everything in here, there is a message. Everything you see in here is not just pretty, but it tells a story,” Trujillo says. Which is exactly why he says creating a similar image of a woman in a bikini was so controversial. “When you change the image,” Trujillo says, “you change the message.”

On June 19, SFR published the only two letters we’d received about the Summer Guide cover.

“Picturing a bikini-clad, margarita-drinking sun worshiper within the same images that Our Lady of Guadalupe is usually pictured is an affront to the local families who have worshipped in this City of Faith for the past 400 years,” wrote Paula Miera Dougherty of Ribera, N.M. Another writer,  “Francie F,” called it “just wrong.”

A week later, the trickle became a flood. Letters, emails, Facebook comments and tweets poured in; local and national TV stations began calling. To date, we’ve received more than 170 emails and innumerable phone calls.

At first, issuing an apology seemed inappropriate. We hadn’t intended to hurt anyone; we merely wanted to depict an image of good, clean summer fun (what’s wrong with swimming and drinking what one coworker cleverly dubbed a “Virgin margarita”?) using ubiquitous cultural imagery.

But many readers—and many people who’d never read or even seen our paper—vehemently objected, and the feedback ranged from indignant to downright threatening. People called us names: “instrument of Lucifer and cohort to the demons,” “chickenshits,” “pieces of human filth,” “spawns of Satan.” A woman named Kathleen Boldrick proposed “a public flogging, preferably in the main plaza on a hot day, followed by a year’s wearing of sackcloth and ashes.” “May this bring the wrath of God upon you!” wrote James Brintnall. One woman, speaking to a Mexican TV station,


Not everyone was angry, though. Some readers offered support, while others accused the Catholic church of hypocrisy for expressing righteous indignation about a woman in a bikini while turning a blind eye to a legacy of sexual abuse.

But it was from locals like the Trujillos that we began to understand the real origins of the controversy.

According to tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared to the Mexican peasant Juan Diego in December 1531.
According to tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared to the Mexican peasant Juan Diego in December 1531. / Alexa Schirtzinger

First, it has to do with what the Virgin of Guadalupe symbolizes.

“It’s kind of like, the image of the one we seek intercession and help from in the times of injustice—now an injustice has been done to her,” Ortega says. “I think that’s where it was so shocking.”

And to many, she’s much more than a symbol.

“A lot of people look at her as a mom,” says Trujillo’s wife, Mardell. During her two sons’ service in the Air Force, “I’ve always asked her to wrap her mantle around my children and protect them—as a mom would, you know?” she says, tearing up.

“When I saw this image on the Reporter, I thought it was making fun,” she continues. “I’m not trying to deny anybody their freedom or their right to express what they’d like. But when it feels like you’re being mocked in a public way, that’s what’s hurtful.”

In Santa Fe, there’s also the problem of history. The Trujillos were active in a previous—and highly contentious—controversy in 2001, over a digital collage by Chicana artist Alma López that depicted a woman, wearing a modest two-piece swimsuit made of roses, with the imagery of the Guadalupana. The piece—part of a four-artist exhibit titled Cyber Arte: Where Technology Meets Tradition—hung in the Museum of International Folk Art for eight months [Arts Valve, July 3: “Shame As It Ever Was”].

“The exhibit had a big message, and it was really timely, and it was so much bigger than Alma’s piece,” says Tey Marianna Nunn, the exhibit’s curator (now the program director and chief curator  of the art museum and visual arts program at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque). But furor ensued, chiefly over López’ piece.

“It was a flashpoint for the community,” Nunn recalls. “It was about place, and identity, and Hispanic identity, and the idea of being Santa Fean and New Mexican and being displaced, and all those types of things that were happening in Santa Fe.”

Trujillo and José Villegas, a local police chaplain, pushed for López’ piece to be removed from the exhibit. By all accounts, it was acrimonious—Nunn and López got death threats; Trujillo and Villegas say they endured personal insults and felt silenced in their own community.

The controversy dragged on for years, with protesters appearing at showings of López’ work as recently as 2011. In 2008, the Trujillos and Villegas—along with many others—journeyed to Mexico City to commission the statue that now stands before the Guadalupe Church (above).

Mardell calls the episode “a learning experience for all of us.” Nunn seems to agree.

“There’s such a connection to identity and place and faith in Santa Fe that it’s almost hard to disconnect—or at least separate—all three of those things,” Nunn says. “I’m very proud of being New Mexican, and it is definitely part of my identity,” she adds. “It’s an intellectual concept, on one hand, and it’s also a very emotional concept on the other hand. And it’s a real sense of pride…feeling like you’re from someplace and being part of someplace is a big deal in this crazy, changing world.”

Anthony Trujillo and others say that’s especially important now, as Santa Fe struggles with drugs, crime, high dropout rates and other challenges. In addition to being a deacon, he’s also a chaplain for local police and incarcerated youth, and the chairman of the Regional Juvenile Justice Committee.

“Our kids are going through some terrible times right now, and so are families in general,” he says. “And the less that we respect each other, the easier it is for these kinds of problems to enter into society—and then people don’t have respect for anything.”

But the call for respect goes both ways.

Maurus Chino, who was born and raised in Acoma before moving to Santa Fe, argues that indignation over the Virgin symbol pales in comparison with Santa Fe’s more serious historical issues. Specifically, he objects to a letter Ortega wrote to SFR noting that the Summer Guide was published during the same week as the Novena de la Conquistadora, nine days of masses and prayer dedicated to a statue of the Virgin dating back to the Spanish reoccupation of Santa Fe in 1692. For Chino—an artist who’s spent years advocating against monuments to the conquistadors—it amounted to “glorification of a savage and violent past.”

At the hands of the Spanish conquerors, he says, Native people were brutally murdered, forced into Christianity, and made to suffer extreme hardship. Every time Santa Fe celebrates a conquistador, he says, it deepens historical divisions.

“There’s this insidious hypocrisy that continues and continues,” Chino says. “I mean: ‘We’ll put up these statues [of conquistadors], and they may be offensive to you, but this is our culture. In the meantime, let’s try to get along; let’s let bygones be bygones!’”

He recounts a friend’s story of watching her child perform at a local church with a “Conquistador Chapel.”

“That’s what’s wrong,” he says. “And I place the blame squarely on the Catholic Church, because they are in a position to help change perceptions, and yet they’re part of the problem…they have never owned up to the misery that has been caused.”

The result, Chino says, is a divided community.

“There’s a façade of tolerance and the melding of the cultures [in Santa Fe],” he says, “but it’s not like that, and it has never been.”

On June 28, SFR apologized. “It was short-sighted of us not to realize how sensitive an issue the Virgin would be, and how important she is in many local people’s lives,” the apology reads. “We are truly sorry.”

“Our rights come from a respecting of people, and part of that respect is acknowledging when we fail and being able to apologize to those we hurt,” Ortega says. “I think that’s what even safeguards the right to free speech…and I think that took place, and I think that helped the community. There will always be those on the fringe who won’t let it go, but we’ve got to move forward.”

In the end, perhaps, the controversy is a testament to the power of Nunn’s three elements of local culture—identity, place and faith—as well as to the Virgin herself.

“The interesting thing about her and her image is that she creates such powerful responses and emotion,” Nunn says. “It’s probably a greater indicator of other issues going on in the community…Our Lady always sort of leads the way toward other things that are going on and need to be addressed.”

Both Villegas and Chino see opportunities for dialogue and growth.

“I’ve thought about it a lot, because as I get older, I want to leave a better place for younger people,” Chino says. “And I believe that somehow—in spite of ourselves—something will happen for the better.”

Villegas seems to agree. “We need to continue bridging gaps and making the bridge strong, foundation-wise,” he says.

As Ortega put it recently, “It adds to the story.”

He was talking about the Virgin of Guadalupe’s story, but the same could be said of Santa Fe’s own story.

Additional thanks to Dean Leh, Carolyn Lopez, Gilbert Pino, Peter Quichocho, Henry Shukman and Carlos Vasquez.