D. A. BRADING, Mexican Phoenix: Our Lady of Guadalupe: Image and Tradition Across Five Centuries. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0 521 801311 (paperback) and ISBN 0 521 803131 1 (hardback).
Reviewed by Anthony M. STEVENS-ARROYO, Brooklyn College, CUNY

This is undoubtedly the best work yet to appear on the socio-historical meaning of the devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. The excellence of the writing style, the academic skill of the author to summarize and interpret previous scholarship, and even the quality of the paper used along with judiciously selected illustrations all serve to make this a superior publication.

The book is divided into 15 chapters and includes valuable notes, extensive bibliography and excellent index. Each of the chapters virtually stands alone as an insightful essay on some aspect of the devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe; taken together, they add up to a superb publication. This volume skillfully navigates the historical circumstances from the origins of the devotion in early Mexican Christianity to the contemporary scene in which Pope John Paul II has canonized Juan Diego, whom history has identified as the recipient of Our Lady's message in 1531. Each chapter revisits history in each century and the author adds valuable background in theological, political and social circumstances that have played a role in shaping the devotion through each generation. The tone is scholarly, but not pedantic; the thrust is academic, but with attention to cultural and devotional realities. At present, there is no better source for understanding the devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

It bears stating, however, that the author challenges contemporary Latino theology for its total acceptance of the historicity of the apparition to Juan Diego in 1531. Siding with an earlier historical study by Vincentian father Stafford Poole, Brading offers convincing evidence that the accounts of the 1531 apparition are not historically verifiable. He opts for the thesis of Poole that the 1648 publication of a book on Mary by the Mexican criollo priest, Miguel Sanchez, was the basis for the devotion. But whereas Father Poole asked mostly historical questions about the relationship between the 1648 publication and events in the earlier century, Brading wades into the topic of the change in the devotion through the ages down to our own times.

This willingness to encounter Our Lady of Guadalupe in several settings is the great value of the volume. The devotion may have questionable historical origins in 1531, but even if the genesis is in 1648, Brading offers ample evidence of why the earlier date and its miraculous events have gained such wide adherence. As he moves through the tides of a changing Mexican history, Brading offers a richly documented history that shows the roles of theology and politics as handmaidens to popular religion. He may at times be critical of the popularizing elements of the devotion, but he is not arrogant or dismissive of faith.

In an indirect way, Brading's work serves as a critique to the papal decision to canonize Juan Diego after setting aside many of the usual Vatican requirements. He offers no praise for the focus on Our Lady of Guadalupe as central symbol for current theology on the Mexican American experience, although he avoids polemics against the theology of Fr. Virgilio Elizondo and others. One might say that throughout this book, he separates issues of faith from historical development for purposes of analysis, but then joins them together in an appreciation of cultural and social forces at work.

Despite it clear and readable style, this is not a book for everyone. To be properly appreciated, it requires the reader to juggle various concepts of literal historical fact, social processes and faith convictions. Key among its contributions is a definition of the American Baroque style of art, and that epoch's rules for historical and theological writing. It describes in elaborate detail the controversies that emerged from ecclesiastical and nationalistic rivalries over nearly 5 centuries of Mexican history. Brading suggest that each generation fashioned its own version of Our Lady of Guadalupe. As pointed out by Brading, there is much anti-Catholic bias that has arisen from such a process. Some have asserted that historical inconsistency proves Catholic faith in la virgen morena is misplaced. Nonetheless, a patient reader finds here ample proof that Catholicism contains a rich and multilayered profession of faith that shapes and is shaped by the lived religious experience of its adherents.


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