“The Black Madonna in Latin America and Europe: Tradition and Transformation”

Oleszkiewicz-Peralba, Malgorzata. The Black Madonna in Latin America and Europe: Tradition and Transformation. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 2007. 226 pages.
John Thomas Maddox
University of Georgia
Oleszkiewicz-Peralba’s comparative approach elucidates religious and cultural traditions of the Black Madonna in communities as seemingly disparate as Poland, Cuba, Haiti, Brazil, Mexico, and the United States. The work is an example of what Earl Fitz calls for in his “The Comparative Approach” (CLCWeb 4.2, 2002) – it crosses geographical, linguistic, and cultural boundaries to explore unexpected commonalities between seemingly unrelated peoples, and in the process creates innovative scholarship in Latin American Studies and elsewhere.

Though Oleszkiewicz-Peralba’s study focuses on religious figures, it is more than a theological text. It fits well in the literature, history, or cultural studies classroom or project. She studies Polish, Catalan, and Mexican poetry. She studies the mythologies of Pre-Colombian civilizations as well as Yoruba traditions. She also analyzes the connection of the Guadalupe figure to the Chicano/a movements of the Twentieth Century and how feminist thinkers of this movement have adopted her image. She makes mention of writer Gloria Anzaldúa and painters like Margaret Stewart and Victoria Franco, to name a few. Her work concludes with a musing on the commoditization of Madonna images, such as the ubiquitous realia of Guadalupe in Greater Mexico (shirts, hats, bumper stickers), and the recreation ofcandomblé ceremonies as Brazilian tourist attractions. Her work focuses on the hybrid nature of Black Madonna figures and presents religious syncretism as a resistance to conformity.

The Black Madonna is also a gender studies text. The author traces the sacred female to the adoration of Mother Earth deities that was celebrated openly before patriarchal Christianity dominated Europe and the Americas. This search for a pre-patriarchal past echoes the quest of Irigarry, Kristeva, and Cixous for a “feminine imaginary” preceding the male-dominated Symbolic Order of human consciousness proposed by Lacan. Oleszkiewicz-Peralba presents modern Madonna figures as what I find to be analogous to the “pulsations” of a pre-patriarchal time, images of a loving Mother Goddess that is often sexual, furious, authoritative, and even filthy in the face of the modern patriarchal values of purity, passivity, and chastity that are so common in the West and elsewhere. She emphasizes how the spirits of Yoruba-based faiths transcend gender and describes the matriarchal nature of most Brazilian terreiros. More than a work on religious faith, it is also a text about what is means to be a gendered subject in different societies.

The Black Madonna also deals with racial realities, including how one envisions the divine in terms of color. From her analysis of the Polish Black Madonna’s dark skin as a representation of moist, fertile soil to the image’s re-creation in Haitian voodoo as a struggling Black single mother, Oleszkiewicz-Peralba is sensitive to how historical realities change notions of race and color, and how they are represented in religious imagery.

She also presents Black Madonnas as national figures that give hope and strength to communities in turmoil: in Poland, she spiritually lead the fight against the invading Protestant Swedes in the 17th Century; in Mexico, she galvanized the nation’s independent mestizo identity to fight against European domination; in Miami’s Cuban exile community, she was fetishized to the extent that her image was even “liberated” from the island in 1973 by anti-Castro thieves; and in Brazil, Iemanjá gave secret hope to practitioners during the horrors of slavery and dictatorship alike.

Her work appeals to the visual learner by complementing her writing with 155 photographs, 15 of them in color. This not only gives explicit examples of the phenomena she describes (for example, noting the physical similarities between Hernán Cortés’ Guadalupe and that ascribed to Juan Diego), but it also allows the reader to see for him- or her- self the importance of color in one’s reading of religious imagery. Reading photographs as well as written texts to explore gender and religious figures across cultures reminded me of José Quiroga’s Tropics of Desire (NYU, 2000), and Oleszkiewicz-Peralba uses it to equally good effect.

Many of the photos depicted are from the author’s own collection, which gives the work a personal feel, as though it were a very refined scrap book. Other personal touches are the author’s own translation of many of the texts studied and her selection of quotes that illuminate her own research. That the book feels like an album is a testament to the author’s own rich experiences. The idea for the text, says the author, came from a conversation between herself, a Polish American, and Puerto Rican colleague in New York. She is a living example of how ethnic diversity enriches today’s academy. She has traveled throughout Poland, both for research and to visit family, the Caribbean, Mexico, Brazil, and much of the United States. Her knowledge of the texts studied is further enriched by her knowledge of 12 languages. This allowed her to study original texts and conduct interviews regarding Poland’s Black Madonna and Cuba’s Nuestra Señora de El Cobre. It also allows her to trace name etymologies that include Arabic, Latin, Yoruba, and Nahuatl influences, among others to show connections between present representations of Mary with those of the past. It also enables her to provide a helpful glossary. The Black Madonna is very well researched in a way that balances the personal with the objective, as her bibliography of over 300 texts attests.

Oleszkiewicz-Peralba’s writing style is succinct and easy to follow for the beginner and expert alike. Each chapter provides a clear introduction and ends with a single-paragraph summary. She weaves a thread that makes Polish, Mexican and Haitian cultures seem like they were somehow meant to be studied together. This being said, she is sensitive to the multiple cultural perspectives of a given image, citing the layered meanings of the Black Madonna in syncretic faiths of the African Diaspora; the difference between European, Indian, and Chicano/a readings of Guadalupe; and how the image of the Black Madonna has changed in Poland through the centuries. She finds commonalities in representations of the Mother Goddess while keeping ingrained contradictions and cultural differences in mind.


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