La Iconic Virgen


Passing Broadway Street, a main avenue in Historic South-Central Los Angeles, just before Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a scattered cluster of small businesses stand erect. In contrast to their supermarket counterparts, these stores share in common one particular image on their outside walls.


“She is everyone’s Virgin,” said Maria Juan who has resided in Los Angeles 21 years and manages Garcia Mini Market . “For me, she is a miraculous image and it’s like that if one believes. I am catholic, but I’m not going to tell you that I’m in church every day.”

Juan is originally from Guatemala where she said she grew up with 11 siblings in a town where light, water and paved roads were not the norm. She is one of other local Latino business managers, owners and workers who hold high regard for the Virgin of Guadalupe and who use her image for the prosperity of their stores.

“From an early age, one grows up being taught faith and respect for the Virgin,” said Epifania Leal who co-owns Xochilt Market and originates from Mexico. “She protects everyone, the business, and oneself.”

Along with her partner Silvestre Tobar, they have operated the store for 10 years after buying it from Tobar’s brother who himself had owned it a decade prior. When they bought the store, the image of La Virgen came with it, which they said they kept as devout Catholics.

Beyond a sign of faith, Tobar said the decades-old painting of the Virgin discourages people from writing on the store’s walls.

“Things change street by street. Past King and Figueroa to here is where the disaster begins,” Tobar said. He explained shootings are not uncommon in the area and local gangs will mark territory on any wall they can.

The store that Juan manages has three different paintings of the Virgin outside the store. Leaning outside the plastic shield that encloses the register and protects from potential assault, Juan said the paintings are an additional precaution against unwanted graffiti. Police will show up to a business if it has graffiti associated with gangs and will fine owners who fail to cover up the markings, according to Juan.

Juan recounted she once saw a man writing on the market’s wall and shouted at him, “Why don’t you pull down your pants and write on your behind?”

She realized the man wasn’t alone when more of his friends in a van told her to mind her own business because she didn’t know who she was messing with, according to Juan.

People will write around the Virgin, but not on the paintings due to the respect Latinos hold for her, Juan said.

“The Virgin is everyone’s mother,” said Juan Martinez who manages La Mas # 2 butcher shop. “With Latinos there is more respect for the mother than the father and that’s why there’s more respect for her.”

According to a 2011 report by the Pew Research Center titled “Mapping the Latino Population, By State, County and City,” the Los Angeles-Long Beach metropolitan area holds the largest concentration of Latino populations in the nation. The largest group of Latinos in this metropolitan area is Mexican (78 percent), followed by Salvadoran (8 percent) and Guatemalan (5 percent).

In addition, a 2012 report titled “The Latino Church Next” by the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture cited 3.3. million Latino Catholics is Los Angeles County.

Those working the stores reference their faith for their reverence to the Virgin of Guadalupe, but not all who take an affinity to her are religious.

Lizeth Gutierrez currently conducts research at Macalester College in Minnesota and worked on the collaborative project “La Cholita de Guadalupe” while earning her graduate degree at Washington State University.

For younger generations of Chicanas, Gutierrez said, the Virgin of Guadalupe has been a site to celebrate culture and simultaneously resist traditional ideas about women’s sexuality.

Originally from East Los Angeles, Gutierrez said she grew up in a conservative Catholic household where being a woman carried shame.

“I had a lot of verguenza growing up because women were not supposed to do that,” said Gutierrez explaining that she often found herself at odds as she tried to reconcile her upbringing and her desire to express and engage in her sexuality as a woman. “She is a symbol of grace and purity,” Gutierrez said. “La Virgen was a big part of how I understood myself as a woman and what I aspired to be.”

In their written and painted piece, Gutierrez and her colleagues use the chola and the Virgin as two embodiments of femininity in Chicano culture in order to forge a new identity, according to Gutierrez.

“Cholas challenge conceptions of femininity,” Gutierrez explained. “They wear toughness on their bodies with their earrings and the makeup they wear.”

Gutierrez said that as a Chicana, the Virgin and Catholicism have made part of her lived experience and similarly how some other Chicanos have come to view the world.

Although the Virgin is an extension of the institution of Catholicism, according to Gutierrez, she holds high respect for non-religious Chicanos and other Latin Americans because she represents hope.

“As a symbol she carries a lot of celebration of a woman who is loyal to her community,” Gutierrez said. “Communities have used her in empowering ways. She is used as someone who speaks out for the poor. She is a symbol of hope among the violence and poverty.”

By: Alma Villegas

Photos By Kitty Michel

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El Company’s Hardware, Los Angeles, Calif., Aug. 23rd, 2017.
Shot on Agfa 200 35mm Film
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Golazo Restaurant, Los Angeles, Calif., Aug. 15th, 2017
Shot on Kodak Portra 400 35mm Film
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Arandas Car Wash, Los Angeles, Calif., Aug. 23rd, 2017.
Shot on Agfa 200 35mm Film
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Xochilt Market, Los Angeles, Calif., Aug. 15th, 2017.
Shot on Kodak Portra 400 35mm Film
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Garcia Mini Market, Los Angeles, Calif., Aug. 14th, 2017.
Shot on Agfa 200 35mm Film
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Garcia Mini Market, Los Angeles, Calif., Aug. 14th, 2017.
Shot on Agfa 200 35mm Film

Uno Produce Market, Los Angeles, Calif., Aug. 14th, 2017.
Shot on Agfa 200 35mm Film

La Mas #2 Meat Pollo Butcher Shop, Los Angeles, Calif., Aug. 14th, 2017.
Shot on Agfa 200 35mm Film

Mattress Warehouse Furniture, Los Angeles, Calif., Aug. 23rd, 2017.
Shot on Agfa 200 35mm Film

Deportes Guadalajara, Los Angeles, Calif., Aug. 23rd, 2017.
Shot on Agfa 200 35mm Film

El Paisa Mexica Grill, Los Angeles, Calif., Aug. 15th, 2017.
Shot on Kodak Portra 800 35mm Film

Chivas Farm Market, Los Angeles, Calif., Aug. 10th, 2017
Shot on Agfa 200 35mm Film

Garcia Mini Market, Los Angeles, Calif., Aug. 14th, 2017.
Shot on Agfa 200 35mm Film

Uno Produce Market, Los Angeles, Calif., Aug. 14th, 2017.
Shot on Agfa 200 35mm Film

Tacos Acapulco, Los Angeles, Calif., Aug. 23rd, 2017.
Shot on Agfa 200 35mm Film

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