Octavio Paz wrote that there are two things that Mexicans believe in: One is the lottery, and the other is Our Lady of Guadalupe. We Mexican Americans adore her as our source of solace and healing, as the Mother of God and also as Earth Mother, Guadalupe-Tonanztin. When I was growing up in Chicago, my family always had a small altar to Guadalupe in our apartment, and her magnanimous presence also beamed from a sublime painting in our parish church, where most of the worshippers were Mexican.
My parents were “cultural Catholics,” not devout but respectful of the religion into which they’d been born. I began formal instruction in Catholicism at age seven, but the greatest influence on my spirituality was my paternal grandmother. A non-Catholic medicine woman who set bones and practiced herbal medicine, massage and midwifery, she had a true faith in God and blended her reverence for Guadalupe with the heavenly powers of all the saints when applying her indigenous healing practices.
My grandmother taught me that our ancestors believed a person did “not have a face” until she became an elder. Through time, experience and accepting responsibility for one’s community, one may gain a face. The year I turned 50, I felt I had enough face to assume my role as elder and help the people (mostly women) who know me from reading my books, which often touch on spirituality.
That year I dreamed of a desert landscape in southern New Mexico. It was a piece of land that was waiting for me, and I felt I had to find it. When a writing residency gave me the opportunity to travel to the area, I went looking for property and found my ranchito on a mesa just south of Las Cruces. I moved there and began construction on a small meditation chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe. For its inauguration on Guadalupe’s feast day, religious dancers performed for hours, accompanied by drums and flutes. The guests brought roses as an offering to Guadalupe, and traditional foods: soup, sweet bread and hot chocolate.
My chapel is a highly personal expression of my blended spirituality, and I go there in lieu of attending Mass at a church. My primary healing work, I have come to understand, is to touch people through my writing. Sometimes I receive visitors and take them into the chapel if I think it will help. Mostly I meditate here alone. Inside, the five-foot-high stained-glass image of Guadalupe reminds me of the goddess within each of us who teaches us to rise to every challenge with elegance and grace.
Ana Castillo, poet, essayist, short-story writer and novelist, is the author of So Far from God and The Guardians.
Originally published in the July/August 2010 issue of MORE.