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Guadalupe in New York: Devotion and the Struggle for Citizenship Rights Among Mexican Immigrants

April 12, 2010

Latin American and Puerto Rican Studies Professor Alyshia Gálvez talks about her latest book, which examines the activism of New York-based religious organizations called Guadalupan Committees.

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This is Kevin Nieves, a student at Lehman College. As Mexican-Americans push for immigration reform, religious symbols like the Virgin of Guadeloupe are taking on new meaning. In this podcast Lehman professor, Alysha Galvez, discusses religiosity and activism on the Mexican immigrant community of New York City. Her latest book is "Guadeloupe in New York: Devotion and the Struggle for Citizenship Rights Among Mexican Immigrants."



Basically this book addresses-- immigration which is really one of-- in my view the-- the human rights issue-- of our time in our nation at the moment. It looks like we might be nearing again-- there was just a-- a-- a little proposal that was made-- last week. There was an immigration rights march in Washington on Sunday that was enormous. And there's-- a little bit of-- move and energy and-- and now with the health-- passage of the health care bill it looks like there actually may be political will-- to achieve immigration reform this year.

I started researching this book in 2000. And-- when I started researching it there was a great deal of optimism that-- that the United States would come to-- recognize the-- the contributions that immigrants make. And so the people with whom I was con-- conducting research-- were really hopeful in the early stages of research that they-- their claims-- for rights and dignity-- would be heard.

And that it was just a matter of time until-- their-- their hopes for-- for-- a pathway to citizenship would be achieved. Unfortunately by the time I finished the research in-- in-- well-- and the-- and the writing-- around 2007-- 2006 was a big year again. There were massive marches with 1/2 a million-- people in-- in D.C., in New York, in Dallas-- some say as many as a million in Los Angeles. But it didn't take long after that for the economic recession and other things to intervene. And it-- by 2007, just a year later, we seemed further away from immigration reform than at any earlier point-- that I've been following the issue.


It's now been 25 years since the last major immigration reform that actually benefitted immigrants. There was an immigration reform in 1996 which was almost entirely punitive and resulted in the militarization of the border-- which has generated many of the issues and problems that immigrants face today. But it's been 25 years since immigrants were given the opportunity-- to-- to address their status-- and come out of the shadows as some people-- call it-- of-- of undocumented status-- and find a path to citizenship. And so it's-- it's high time-- in my view. But basically what this research-- this book looks at is the efforts by Mexican immigrants to make claims for rights. And we might be familiar-- and many of us-- here at Lehman College certainly-- many of our students-- and faculty are-- are immigrants or children of immigrants.

And so many of us are familiar with many of the-- the-- the arguments that are made for immigrant rights. And many of those arguments center on the laboral contributions that immigrants make-- the so-called "sweat equity"-- to our nation's economy.

And these organizations sometimes make those sorts of arguments but more often than not they make an argument that's based on the human dignity of individuals. And so they are searching-- for-- recognition of their innate human dignity and their---- their-- their need to be recognized and-- and granted-- a humane status-- as a result.


And so this is a slightly different argument. I'm going to tell you about how they-- how they make the argument. I conducted research in essentially three sites. Sometimes we pick up multi-sited research. I-- one of my colleagues in graduate school conducted multi-sited research between Geneva, Bogota and Washington D.C.

Mine was between-- you know-- Marion Avenue in the Bronx, the South Bronx, and 14th Street. (LAUGHTER) Nevertheless it was multi-sited in that-- I chose three locations that illustrated-- different aspects of-- the phenomenon that I was looking at. So what I-- the-- the organizations that are really the-- the loci of-- this kind of mobilization-- are called "Guadeloupe and Committees"-- "Comates Guadeloupanos" and they are dedicated to the Virgin of Guadeloupe who is the patron saint of Mexico as-- as many of you know.

She is-- also is a patron saint of the Americas-- she was-- she was declared the Patron Saint of the Americas-- by Pope John Paul the Second. But she is especially known and-- and loved by Mexicans as their long-standing patron saint since 1531-- well, since her apparition in 1531, the official status came later.


And the organization's-- the Comates Guadeloupanos are based-- at the time-- at the height of my research there were 40 of them located in all five boroughs. Now some of them have consolidated. Some of them have fallen away.

But at that point they were-- there were 40 based in-- Catholic parishes throughout the city in every borough. And many of them grew up-- organically from mobilizations within the parishes. And so a typical story would be that there might have been three or four Mexican families that had found their way to a-- a Catholic parish, had been attending Mass.

And when December 12th rolled around which is the feast day they would go to the priest and say, you know, "What do you think if we do a Mass-- for-- for Our Lady of Guadeloupe?" And that is how many of the Comates Guadeloupanos began-- with that kind of very small scale mobilization.


In some cases large scale mobilization because sometimes they would very humbly say, "Do you mind if we do a Mass?" And the priest would say, "Okay. What kinda Mass?" And they would say, "Well, really we would like to do Mananitas," which you do at dawn on the day of-- December 12th-- and "We'll serve tamales and-- and we'll have a mariachi. Do you mind?" And the priests often recount saying-- "Oh, yeah. Sure. Whatever. If you think people are gonna come out at 4:00 in the morning I'll open the church for you."

And then the priests often found themselves overwhelmed by 1,000 or 2,000 arriving at the church at 4:00 in the morning-- and you know, full mariachi bands. And out of that experience of mobilizing festivities for the feast day-- often a committee would develop that was-- that served that organizational purpose of getting ready for the feast day every year and sometimes did other kinds of work related to the lives of its members.

So those-- that's the basic-- Comities Guadeloupano. They have a lot of ties and parallels with confraternal social organizations which we see throughout Latin America from the colonial period to the present. They have ties to brotherhoods that we see in the U.S. Catholic church to certain-- ethnic/immigrant mobilizations that we see-- in the U.S. Catholic church.


And they also are-- are unique in some ways from-- from those-- precursors. So I focused on two Bronx parish-based-- Comates Guadelupanos. And starting in 1997 these Comates were linked by an umbrella organization which is called Associacion Tepeyac which-- you saw the banner for here a moment ago.

And the way that Tapayac was born is that the-- the Catholic arch-- the archdiocese-- noticed that there was as massive, rapid influx of Mexican parishioners-- in New York City and didn't really know what to do for them, what their needs were-- pastorally or in term-- socially, economically and politically.

And so-- and there were several priests-- located throughout the city-- a couple in Brooklyn and a couple in the Bronx, in particular one in East Harlem who formed what they called a "steering committee, Grupo Timón, to-- to study-- this, influx of-- of Mexican immigrants.


And this was years before the scholars got a clue. I mean, the (LAUGHTER)-- the rest of us weren't-- weren't aware of this yet. But priests had a very-- had their finger on the pulse in terms of their communities and-- and the most recent arrivals who were coming to their parishes.

And they sent for-- a Jesuit brother named Joel Magallán, who came from Chicago-- if-- from Zacatecas originally-- had been in Chicago working with the-- with the Jesuits. And he came and did sort of a survey of-- of the Mexican immigrant community and decided that these-- existing committees provided the infrastructure for something that was-- that could be larger and-- and see the-- see the nee-- see to the needs of the Mexican immigrant community in New York City. And so that was how this association was formed.

And I wanted to see both the very local micro mobilization of people who-- didn't necessarily leave their neighborhood but-- but went down to the parish for meetings-- on a weekly or-- or biweekly basis. And then I also wanted to see what was happening at Tapayaka on 14th Street because I knew that they were going to Washington to lobby Congress people.


So I wanted to-- to low-- understand and locate these different-- modes of mobilization. I wanted to see where ideas were-- were being generated in terms of mobilizing the community. Was it the Comates who were telling the headquarters what they wanted or was the headquarters telling the Comitie what they needed to do? I wanted to trace all of those things. And I was quite interested in tracing how it is that devotional practices could be translated into political action because that's-- that was quite evidently happening. And I-- and I wasn't sure-- how-- how to make sense of it.

So the book ultimately is organized around three very specific activities that the Comates and Tapayac engage in. And they range from the-- the micro micro of local scale level-- to the trans-national scale. And so I-- I-- analyze them sort of in concen-- concentric circles starting with the micro and going out in terms of the trans-national.

One of the first activities besides the feast day that many of the Comates Guadeloupanos engage in is-- what's called the Apostolado or the Misión Guadalupana, which is-- a circuit, a very local circuit, a re-- usually right in the neighborhood of the parish in which the members of the group go out with an image of the Virgin of Guadeloupe. And they carry her-- then there's varying rules. Many of them have elaborate rules about how many people need to-- need to be there in order to carry her in a proper fashion.


Sometimes she's physically heavy but often they feel like in-- in order for her to travel in dignity she needs at least eight or ten people. And they carry a collection box with her and she is taken from home to home and left for a visit-- sometimes a week, sometimes two weeks depending on what the-- the Comitie is doing.

So at first I thought that this might be kind of-- and you know, in my-- academic-- narrow-mindedness I thought this might be one of the more boring activities that they engaged in (LAUGHTER) because it's just going house to house and I thought-- you know, sometimes-- members of the community told me-- contrasted what they saw as their grandmother's church back in Mexico and the church that they were becoming involved in here in New York City. So I thought this sounded like-- sort of like a grandmotherly type activity. But I was very wrong because in fact it is in the Misione that word is carried from house to house regarding the other activities that the organizations are engaged in.

And so-- a lot-- members of-- of-- of these-- committees that would carry-- the-- the image from home to home would tell me, "You know, if we go house to house with a clipboard trying to get people to sign up for a march on Washington they're gonna slam the door in our face.


But if we show up and we say, "We are here with the Virgin. And she's visiting and we're collecting for her feast day. And by the way we're also going to Washington' people will hear us out." And so they had the impression that most of their-- one-- the-- these-- the-- the Comates Guadeloupanos function around three major-- features of-- of organization. And so these were named by these-- members of the Misione Guadeloupana and they said, you know, "Our members-- share certain things in common. We're Mexican. We're Guadeloupan. And we're undocumented.

And those are-- are features that define our lives here in-- in New York City." And so they said, "Many of us don't realize that there's other people who are also undocumented." And they don't even necessarily know. I mean, we think we know what undocumented status means. Most of don't-- don't know it-- in terms of a day to day-- reality.

But people who are experiencing it often describe it as being a slow process of realization where you butt your head up against the limitations that exist in your every day life. Being undocumented doesn't limit you in every aspect of life. You can circulate and work and do a-- a lot of things with an undocumented status. But every once in a while you butt your head up against those limitations. And so sometimes people describe it as a relatively lengthy process by which they come to realize the-- the-- the dimensions of the box that's confining their lives and the limitations that they're experiencing.


And so these three what I call "vectors of identity" of Guadeloupanism-- undocumented status and Mexican national identity link these members. And so with the Misione Guadeloupana people are going house to house when in essence identifying their constituency.

They're going to the people that they know might-- be interested in what they have to say. And it's not exactly a recruiting tool because people aren't necessarily told, "Oh, listen. Sign up for this and donate money for this" but they're told, "You know, we're doing this. We're meeting every week. If you feel like coming come" and people will often slowly but surely become involved. It's also important to note that a lot of the members of the comates-- tell me-- told me that they view politics as-- as inherently controversial and despicable.

And so they would never go to a political protest or a political meeting per se. And so these aren't people who are coming to the United States with the intention of engaging in political activism. On the contrary they often come to escape-- some of the aspects of what they view as a corrupt political situation in their home towns.


And so these aren't people who are necessarily the best candidates on the surface for getting involved in some kind of immigrant-- immigration activism-- immigration reform activism. But slowly they are-- they come to see that-- it-- that that is the route to achieving greater dignity-- in their lives. So the Misione Guadeloupana is-- is the first. And it interestingly traces the bounds of what people perceive to be their community. And so often-- at the meetings where they're deciding when and where they're going to go-- there will be arguments about, "Oh-- X family wants the Virgin to visit but they live on the other side of Fordham Road. Can we-- can she go there? You know, is it okay? That technically belongs to another parish but there's a family there that wants her to visit."

And so there are-- there will be debates about whether or not that place-- where the family lives-- is part of their jurisdiction-- or whether it's-- it lies outside. And so they're in essence tracing the bounds of-- of their community in a lived way.

The second activity-- major activity that I describe in the book-- are this-- the processions of the stations of the cross or Via Crucis and these happen every-- April-- April-- or-- or March depending on when Good Friday falls. It's always on Good Friday. And these-- are-- you know, they occupy kind of the middle space in the book between micro micro local and trans-national.


And they are at the same time micro and trans-national or at least-- oh! I am so sorry. I thought I turned that off. (PHONE RINGS) They are-- at the same time micro and also take place on a-- on a wider city level. And what happens with the stations of the cross is it's the traditional-- enactment or performance of-- the path of Jesus Christ to-- to the crucifixion.

And it's similar to what you might see in Mexico on Good Friday. Mexico has the reputation for having rather macabre-- stations of the cross. And so you see, you know, people in full costume-- acting out the roles. And many of the members of the Comates Guadeloupanos-- actually participate in sometimes two or three-- stations of the cross per sessions during Holy Week. So one of the parishes where I conducted research in the South Bronx had-- hold stations of the cross every week-- of Holy-- of Holy-- ev-- sorry-- every night of Holy Week leading up to Good Friday.

And-- each one is meant to serve-- a slightly different constituency. And in their very local stations of the cross the ones earlier in the week process around the inside of the church. And there's actually-- tableaux of the stations inside the church wi-- and they read a script.


And then-- the last one which is on Good Friday actually traces a path around the bounds of what might have been historically the parish boundaries-- parish boundaries in New York City are now-- relatively obsolete. Nobody really knows where-- where they once-- lay. But-- but historically they did actually have meaning. So the-- the-- the group actually traces the bounds of-- of the parish and the script-- interestingly there is no single script for stations of the cross according to the church even though the stations are associated by many people with-- being a very historical-- performance.

And if you ask people-- you know, "When did the stations of the cross begin?" they say, "Oh, with Jesus," right? So (LAUGHTER) there's-- there's a-- a sense that this-- a historical memory that this goes back-- and is a very old process. It actually wa-- it wasn't until the-- counter reformation that it was-- made a little bit more-- official.

But still there is no set script. And even the number of the stations and the content at each of the stations alters a bit. And so there's-- and people I talked to generally said, "The purpose of the stations of the cross is for Catholics to have an experience of compassion-- with their Savior-- in His-- most trying moments. And whatever enables people to achieve that-- that compassion is appropriate and effective." And so there's actually-- quite a de-- quite a-- a deal of appreciation for-- innovative scripts that enable people to feel newly compassionate about Christ's travails.


And so-- in the South Bronx parish one of their-- the scripts that they use-- is-- describes each of the stations of the cross and relates them to contemporary-- social ills. So-- everything from-- drug abuse to-- neglect by city services-- to racism to abortion-- whatever the-- the community has identified as-- as problems up here in-- in one of the stations of the cross.

At the other-- parish in-- which is in the Fordham section-- the stations of the cross-- follow a slightly more-- generic script. It doesn't address contemporary social ills. But the way-- the performance actually illustrates some of the social dynamics in that parish. In that parish-- it was historically-- a Puerto Rican parish that then became-- predominantly Dominican. And today Mexicans are starting to outnumber Dominicans.

And so-- actually-- the stations of the cross is organized by Dominicans who still-- do a lot of the-- the organizational efforts in the church. But the-- roles are acted out by Mexicans who are the newest arrivals-- in part because the Comitie Guadeloupano-- actually sent-- sent for costumes from Mexico.


And they said, "So we have these real Roman soldier outfits. Can we play the roles?" And-- the organizers of the stations of the cross, you know, really-- you know, had no-- no-- no choice in the matter. So there are some actually conflicts that are illustrated-- within the parish-- in that stations of the cross in terms of whose got the-- the megaphone and who's deciding the route and who's actually acting out the roles. That same parish-- comitie, committee, also actually as been chosen-- many years running-- to act out the roles in the stations of the cross.

In the third-- procession that I-- that I will describe which is-- the stations of the cross or the Via Cruces of the immigrant, Viacrucis del Inmigrante, which happens each Good Friday-- in the Wall Street district. And so we have-- committee members from Our Lady of the Rosary parish-- who in the morning process in their home community, right?

In a stations of a cross that illustrates-- some of the relationships as well as tensions that exist in their home parish with a script that is relatively generic-- in which-- the Roman soldiers-- beat the actor who's playing Jesus-- and shout at him-- "Walk! Walk, King of the Jews! Walk-- thief!" And then the same actors go downtown and process at 5:00 in the afternoon-- strategically dressed as Wall Street is ending its day and-- white collar workers are pouring out of the buildings-- towards the subway.


They process through the financial district, past 26 Federal Plaza which is the historic address of the INS/cu-- citizenship and immigration services office. And there they beat-- the Roman soldiers beat the actor who's playing Jesus and shout, "Walk! Walk, illegal? Camina Ilegal!"

And the-- the script of the stations of the cross-- so these are the-- some of the actors-- I'm referring to-- there the script is directly geared towards a commentary on the experience of immigration. And so-- everything that Christ is said to have experienced in the-- in-- in his travails is related and this is the-- the poster for that-- is related to what immigrants face.

Being a stranger, being ill treated-- and when they-- and they do this actually with-- with a great deal of fervor compared to the-- the Bronx-- version of it. They save their energy in the morning and then when they get downtown they actually beat-- the actor who plays Jesus so ferociously that there's blood coming through his tunic and people-- and they don't actually translate any of the stations or provide any kind of hand outs.


And so often, you know, the-- the-- the workers who are coming out of the Wall Street buildings kind of stop, dumbfounded-- trying to-- to make sense of what's going on. So that's this-- the-- the-- the second activity that I focus on in the book.

And the third and final activity is the most-- ambitious and-- ambitious and resource consuming and-- and really just kind of an amazing feat every year. It's the bi-national torch run, Guadeloupan torch run, in which a lit flame is brought from the Basilica of Gaudeloupe in Mexico City over land by runners in a relay to St. Patrick's cathedral in New York City. This takes-- the first year it took six weeks.

Now there are so many communities in the southeastern region of Puebla and Guerrero States and Oaxaca, who demand that the torch go south before it goes north. And so it now takes about eight weeks-- each year to-- to get to New York City-- just in time on December 12th for Guadeloupe's feast day.


And the runners in the torch run describe their role as messengers for a people divided by the border. And so the idea is that on the Mexican side of the border-- the people who participate in the run are family members of migrants who don't get to see their-- their relatives who've migrated.

And the runners on the U.S. side of the of the border are migrants who don't get to see their relatives who they've left behind in Mexico but they are linked by this living flame that has been brought from the basilica with-- the essence of-- of-- of Guadeloupe.

And they-- here's-- you know, a town in-- in-- in Puebla and these-- these large paintings are given each year by the-- by the basilica. And so they-- they run throughout the day and then each evening they-- they stop and they have-- a procession into-- a walking not running procession into the town where they'll be-- staying.


And they describe-- one of the organizers described this as "a string of pearls linking Guadeloupanos-- from Mexico all the way to New York City." Interestingly the idea for the torch run didn't come from a Mexican at all. It was Archbishop Egan who said one year at the Guadeloupan mass, "Hey, wouldn't it be great if you could bring a flame from Mexico?" And the members of Tapayac who were in the audience said, "Yeah. Why don't we?" And they somehow managed each year in spite of-- what seemed to be impossible odds in terms of getting permits and resources-- they managed-- to do it each year.

And so in this-- in this final activity they emphasize-- the Guadeloupan message. And for those of you who are familiar with the apparition story-- Guadeloupe is said to have appeared to Juan Diego who has since been canonized Saint Juan Diego-- who was a newly converted Christian-- just ten years following the conquest of Mexico and an indigenous man who spoke Nahuatl.

And she appeared to him on a hill and asked him to carry her message to the archbishop at the time. And-- asked-- asking for a-- for her-- for a shrine to be built on that hill. And Jua-- and she spoke to Juan Diego in his language. And he said, "Oh, they're not going to listen to me. They aren't going to open the door to me. I can't-- you know, I can't do this." And she appeared to him three ti-- three days in a row. This is the image of the apparition story-- on the hill.


He tried to avoid her and he tried going a different route and she kept popping up. And-- she said, "Okay. I'll give you proof." And she filled his poncho, his tilma, with roses even though it was December and roses, Castilian roses-- even-- wouldn't have grown in that area at that time of year-- she filled his tilma with roses and her image so that when he appeared before the bishop and opened up his cloak-- the roses would tumble out and be proof of the divine message.

And when these participants in these activities in the-- in the torch run-- are running they say, "We are Juan Diego." The immigrants of today are Juan Diego. Juan Diego was-- exploited and looked down upon. In his society at his time the indigenous were at the bottom of the social hierarchies and he needed divine-- a divine Guadeloupan message in order to be heard, in order to be taken seriously as a human being.

That's what we need. We are taking the Guadeloupe message-- in order for us to be heard and treated as a human being. And related to the issue of language-- it is said that Guadeloupe spoke to Juan Diego in Nowata but it never-- there's never any description in the legends of the apparition of the language that Juan Diego used to speak to the bishop.


And so-- in my analysis I see that these messengers of Juan Diego as they call themselves-- are even in the absence of immigration reform-- achieving empowerment through these activities, achieving a sense of themselves as people who deserve rights-- which is important even if they don't achieve their ultimate goal, which is immigration reform. And so the important part of the Juan Diego story is the knocking on the door and being heard, being treated as a human being-- and the building-- the eventual building of the shrine-- is actually so-- often told kind of as an afterthought when the legend is recounted. And so the important part here is this knocking on the door, this-- assertion of the right to have rights.



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