Our Lady of Controversy

Agustin Gurza is a Times staff writer

Alma Lopez still doesn't get it.

She can't quite understand why some Catholics are so shocked by her voluptuous version of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the one causing a commotion in New Mexico. She can't understand why they're so angry with her-- a Mexican-born artist who professes reverence for this mestizo manifestation of the Mother of God.

Sure, her Guadalupe appears half-naked, legs and navel exposed. But what's wrong with that? Doesn't the real Guadalupe have a real woman's body underneath her flowing gown and distinctive blue and gold cloak?

In Lopez's defiant computerized rendition of the nearly 500-year-old apparition, the Madonna's private parts have been digitally covered by wreaths of roses, like an ample floral bikini. A live model stands in for the Holy Mother in the photo montage, head cocked back and hands on her hips. She is held aloft by a bare-breasted angel, portrayed by another Latina model generously endowed by her Creator.

"I see this woman's legs and her belly and [the angel's] breasts, and I don't see anything wrong," said Lopez, 34, inspecting a copy of the artwork, trying to fathom all the fuss.

The problem, she said during an interview at her spare Santa Monica studio, is in the eye of the beholder. Especially the Catholic men who "freak out about it." And most especially the Most Rev. Michael J. Sheehan, archbishop of Santa Fe, who publicly denounced the artist for turning the Holy Virgin into "a tart."

That one hurt, Lopez said. She meant no disrespect. She intended to portray women as strong, not sleazy.

"They're just breasts," Lopez said, defending her buxom angel. "I have them. Don't rage against the breasts."

The rage against Alma Lopez and her Guadalupe is now in its 14thweek and still smoldering. Titled "Our Lady," the piece is part of an exhibition called " Cyber-Arte: Tradition Meets Technology," which opened Feb. 25 at New Mexico's state-sponsored Museum of International Folk Art.

Lopez, who holds a master's in fine art from UC Irvine, created "Our Lady" in 1999 with a grant from the city of Los Angeles. It barely raised an eyebrow when first exhibited here. But it's the talk of the town in Santa Fe, where waitresses hash out the controversy while pouring coffee for customers. Even a local taco vendor left his corner stand to join a protest against the piece.

Many Latinos consider the work a cultural as well as a religious affront. No other symbol captures Mexico's indigenous identity more powerfully than the brown-skinned Virgin said to have appeared to a humble Aztec worker in 1531, following the brutal Spanish conquest.

Outraged Catholics from across northern New Mexico have held demonstrations, written letters to the governor, and even delivered a toilet and dead fish to the museum to express their disgust at the artwork. Some 750 residents attended an all-day public forum on the issue April 16, the vast majority demanding removal of what they consider a desecration of their cherished icon.

"In your computer trickery, you say you want to portray a strong woman," said one man at the forum, dressed in a cowboy hat and addressing the absent artist. "Alma Lopez, you don't know what a real woman is. Look around you. New Mexico has genuine women."

The controversy has taken its toll on museum administrators who have so far steadfastly defended artistic freedom. Although a museum committee last week recommended that "Our Lady" remain on view, museum managers separately announced their decision to cut short the exhibition's planned yearlong run. The move, offered as a compromise to community concerns, calls for "Cyber-Arte" to close in October, four months early.

Meanwhile, Lopez herself rebuffs appeals from Latino activists to voluntarily withdraw her work.

"It would mean Latinas don't have a right to their own voice," said Lopez, who launched a Web site to defend her work, http://www.almalopez.net .

Not all of her critics, however, are calling for censorship. Bishop Jaime Soto of Orange County urged Catholics to "engage this art seriously, and the issues it raises." Which doesn't mean he likes the image.

"I'm concerned that what she's done denigrates women," said Soto. "Rather than present something new and ennobling, I think she perpetuates an almost pinup-like image, not only of la Virgen , but of women in general."

Heated as it is, the scandal could have been much hotter. "Our Lady" could have been pictured totally naked.

Raquel Salinas, the Los Angeles performance artist who posed as Lopez's modern-day Madonna, stripped to her underwear for the photo session. Spontaneously, she tossed out the idea of going all the way.

"Raquel, maybe you're ready for that," Lopez told her friend and feminist soul mate. "But I'm not."

Discarding the notion of a nude Guadalupe ("Imagine that!" exclaimed Alma), the artist focused on her model's inner spirit. "Give me attitude," she told Salinas. "Just stand there and look strong and be yourself."

For Salinas, a lifetime of struggle went into that pose.

At 18, Salinas was date-raped. She said her mother's reaction made her blame herself: "Dios te castigo por andar en la calle " (God punished you for hanging out in the streets).

Salinas, 45, says posing for Lopez and posing nude on other occasions have been part of her healing.

"I wanted to rid myself of the shame," says Salinas, who now teaches drama to at-risk youth at Proyecto Pastoral, a Catholic church-sponsored program in East L.A.

Salinas' one-woman play, titled "Heat Your Own," provided part of the inspiration for her friend's artwork. In one scene, Salinas portrays Our Lady of Guadalupe with three men kneeling before her. They pray for the perfect woman--an obedient and faithful housewife who is pure and sexy at the same time. As she rejects the impossible male fantasy, Salinas as Guadalupe strips to reveal the "woman under the veil."

Lopez acknowledges the controversy has brought her a measure of fame and even tripled the price of numbered prints of her embattled art work, though only a handful have sold thus far. But the attention hasn't eased the struggle of being a Chicana artist from East L.A.

"Most of the time," she says, "I feel really marginal."

These days, she can't seem to escape the controversy her work has unleashed. The debate dogs her even to the lobby of the arts complex where she lives and works. There, she recently ran into playwright Leo Garcia, whose family roots date to the 1600s in New Mexico.

He understands why some folks back home are so upset. After all, their ancestors saw the land taken by invasion. Now, native New Mexicans are seeing Santa Fe invaded again by coastal elites, followed by Starbucks and skyrocketing real estate prices.

"These people are fighting for their lives," Garcia said, petting his dog. "They're holding onto what's left of theirs. And one of the things that's left are these images.

"Of course," he said, pointing to Lopez with a dismissive gesture, "they don't want the new wave media artist to come in and take what's theirs and make it something else."

Lopez waited to be asked for her reaction before rejecting the characterization.

"It's a trip," she said, "because I don't feel like I am a New Wave-y, a New Age-y artist .... I am a Mexican."

Alma Lorena Lopez Urena doesn't look the part of the hip, iconoclastic L.A. artiste. Her thick black hair is long and unruly. Her attire is strictly blue-collar--dark T-shirt and blue Dockers on her stocky, 5-foot frame.

When she eats, she always gets food on herself. ("I think I have a hole in my chin," she says, wiping at a mole stain on her shirt during lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Venice.) The only hint of glamour is a ring on one eyebrow.

Born in Sinaloa, Mexico, and raised in the East L.A. barrio of El Sereno, Alma grew up with images of Guadalupe all around her--on candles, air freshener cans, corner-store murals and the tattooed backs of gang members. To her, the original Guadalupe appears passive, head bowed, eyes downcast.

"The women I grew up with were not like this," she says, tilting her head submissively. "All the mujeres in the neighborhood worked."

Among the hardest working was her mother, Macrina, "definitely one of the strongest women I know." She was orphaned as a girl in Mexico and isn't sure of her age. She never attended school, but she helped support her six children by working as a seamstress in Southern California. Alma honored her mother by including her picture along with her Mexican co-workers in another digital montage that juxtaposes the border wall and the L.A. skyline.

Alma was first in her family to graduate from high school, "top of my class" at Woodrow Wilson High, where she was also on the pep squad, "believe it or not."

She says she didn't know she was gay until she fell in love with another female artist. Her desire for acceptance of her sexual orientation is reflected in another work depicting Guadalupe, this time in a caressing embrace with a bare-breasted mermaid.

Lopez lifted the image of the mermaid, or la Sirena, from a popular bingo-like game called la Loteria , which she also remembers from her childhood. By combining the two figures in a series of works called "Lupe and Sirena ," Lopez says she wanted to show the sacred embracing the secular.

The work also signifies the Virgin of Guadalupe embracing the gay and lesbian community, she says. And although the pose of the mermaid is subtly seductive--one arm caressing Guadalupe's head, the other cupping her own bare bosom--Lopez said she didn't intend anything sexual.

And she's mystified, again, that anyone would see a sexual component in the work.

"Maybe," she added, "I'm just naive."

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