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Mary in Latin America and the Caribbean

The biblical figure of Mary is venerated by many in the Caribbean and Latin America, critiqued by some feminist scholars, and held up as an important feminine symbol.

The Virgin of Guadalupe
The Virgin of Guadalupe

At a popular level, religious experience in Latin America and the Caribbean is often characterized by a strong devotion to Mary. The figure of Mary arrived with the Spanish conquest, when indigenous peoples were evangelized or converted to Roman Catholicism. However, conquered peoples later embraced her not as the patron of their conquerors but as the “mother of God,” who stands with those suffering oppression and discrimination. Leaders of popular rebellions and wars of independence often used images of Mary to help legitimize their revolutionary actions.

The figure of Mary was rapidly acculturated, taking on different names and indigenous colors—brown or black, depending on the region. In Brazil, Our Lady of Aparecida (Portuguese, Nossa Senhora Aparecida) has black skin; in Mexico, Our Lady of Guadalupe (Spanish, Virgen de Guadalupe) has brown skin, a mix of indigenous and European; in Cuba, Our Lady of Charity (Spanish, Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre) has brown skin, a mix of African and European; in Costa Rica Our Lady of the Angels (Spanish, Virgen de los Ángeles) has black skin. Each country also has its own accounts of apparitions of the Virgin, who typically bestows dignity on the suffering and the poor.

Anthropologists also see traces of indigenous and African-descended groups’ ancestral religions in the different representations of Mary. The best-known case is the Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico, who is believed to represent the goddess Tonanzin, a Nahuatl deity called “mother of the gods.”

Some strains of Latin American Protestantism and Pentecostalism have rejected Mary’s image and criticized her veneration. This has contributed to a scarcity of biblical studies about Mary among Evangelicals.

In the last few decades, female theologians and biblical scholars have developed a critical discourse against ecclesiastical circles’ uses of Mary. As a virgin and a mother, she has been presented as an unreachable ideal. These ideals legitimate the patriarchal stereotypes of female virginity and maternity.

Some biblical scholars, both Catholic and Protestant, now read Gospel texts about Mary from a different perspective, recovering her human character and her role as a leader. Mary’s daily life as a Mediterranean Jewish woman is analyzed using Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 1:18-24, Matt 2:1-23, Matt 12:46-50, Matt 13:55), and her role as a female leader and disciple is foregrounded in John (John 2:1-12, John 19:25-27). The Gospel of Luke reveals her humble condition and determined character (Luke 1:26-56, Luke 2:1-20, Luke 2:34-35, Luke 2:38), with special attention to the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). In this popular passage, Mary is seen as full of grace, a strong woman who knows her story and stands beside the poor and oppressed, claiming their rights. The only Gospel that has not received much attention is Mark, where the scarcity of references to Mary is striking. Here, the texts that do mention her (Mark 3:21, Mark 3:30-34, Mark 6:3) are regarded as having little relevance or even as negative in their portrayal of Mary.

Non-Catholic female theologians and biblical scholars acknowledge the symbolic lack of feminine metaphors within the evangelical and Protestant theological sphere. They recognize that recovering the biblical figure of Mary could be valuable. Nevertheless, both Catholic and Protestant women agree that appreciating Mary does not guarantee a change in how the church values women—for despite Catholics’ strong popular and official veneration of Mary, the recognition of women’s roles in the church and in theology has not shifted significantly.

Translated from Spanish by Samuel Auler.

  • Elsa Támez

    Elsa Támez is a Mexican-Costarrican living in Colombia. She is professor emerita of biblical studies at the Latin American Biblical University. She is the author of Amnesty of Grace: Justification by Faith from a Latin American Perspective (1993), Jesus and Courageous Women (2001), and Struggles for Power in Early Christianity: A Study of the First Letter of Timothy (2006).