“Peripheral Events That Subvert Empire”
A Review of
From Patmos to the Barrio:
Subverting Imperial Myths.
by David A. Sánchez.
Reviewed by Kevin Book-Satterlee.
From Patmos to the Barrio:
Subverting Imperial Myths.
David A. Sánchez.
Paperback: Fortress Press, 2008.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
As an Evangelical missionary serving in Mexico City I have my reservations about La Virgen de Guadalupe. Her association with syncretic practices does much to detract from the person of Jesus and from a Christian faith in general. And, as many empire subverters in the United States complain that our crosses are too often draped with the Red, White and Blue, so too are the crosses in Mexico draped with the bandera of La Virgen in regards to patrimony. Here to reject La Virgen is to reject Mexico itself and all that it means to be Mexican.
Nonetheless, David A. Sánchez’s book, From Patmos to the Barrio: Subverting Imperial Myths, is an excellent work in religiopolitical scholarship, writing from the much-needed post-colonial biblical studies perspective. He brilliantly weaves history, biblical studies, and literary analysis to provide the reader tools to recognize reappropriation of imperial propaganda by the dominated for purposes of empire subversion. Sánchez’s brilliant and highly relevant example of this regards the use of La Virgen de Guadalupe.
Sánchez begins by showing how John, the writer of the book of Revelation, used Roman propaganda – the story of the Dragon Slayer – to subvert Roman and Jewish hostilities of marginalized Christians. As the dominated have little resources for outright rebellion, they co-opt imperial propaganda and peripherally subvert the empire utilizing imperial symbols, stories, artwork, etc. as their own.
After thoroughly showing John’s subversive intent, Sánchez turns to La Virgen de Guadalupe. His historical exposition would have many modern day Mexican Catholics turning on their heads by revealing La Virgen’s origin as having come from Spain.
Legend, very strongly believed in Mexico is that the virgin appeared to indigenous Juan Diego, and because she was of darker skin the indigenous people quickly recognized her and came to the Roman Catholic faith in droves. Sánchez tells how the origin of La Virgen in popular tale was written by a Creole nationalist who desired to combat oppressive Spanish expatriates. Shortly after this story was written, the origin was again co-opted, this time by a man with indigenous sympathies and wrote a similar story in the Nahuatl language. Both stories, as Sánchez shows, are heavily tied to nationalistic pride more than religion.
The subversion worked. Mexico won independence from Spain, La Virgen’s bandera waving in the battles. Her flag also flew in the battles against the occupying forces of the United States, and she continues to be the mother of Mexico and her patriots today.
The book concludes by showing how La Virgen is used in religiopolitical, post-colonial subversion now. Included in the book’s appendices are a number of wonderful pictures portraying La Virgen de Guadalupe throughout East Los Angeles that show once again how the marginalized use La Virgen in peripheral subversion of the imperialists. Sánchez writes:
One can observe in East Los Angeles today the relative absence of Mexican flags in the neighborhoods – unlike New York City, where Puerto Rican and Dominican national flags are omnipresent throughout the five boroughs. I contend that the absence of the Mexican flag in Los Angeles is a defensive move by people of Mexican ancestry because such displays in the southwestern United States can be viewed as offensive by the dominant society and even interpreted as a reclaiming of former Mexican territories…The process of “reconquest” that most U.S. citizens fear is already well under way, and its flag is not that of the former occupants, but the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe. (111)
Sánchez’s third chapter does not fit tightly with the previous two, in that the use of La Virgen is not a reappropriation of imperialist propaganda in Los Angeles. However two things are congruent with the other two chapters: First is the example of El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán as a reappropriation of the U.S. idea of Manifest Destiny. It is also the plain account of the plan of “reconquest.” Second is La Virgen’s link to Revelation 12, a portion of John’s reappropriation of the Dragon Slayer story.
The work is an excellent piece of scholarship in the use of social, religious and political texts, and what Sánchez shows the reader is how to look at peripheral events that subvert empire. I’m reminded of Shane Claiborne’s story of calling pizza and soda “communion” when giving food to the homeless was illegal in Philadelphia. While I would contend that the use of La Virgen is anything but subverting the empire in Mexico today, Sánchez reminds all subverters to be creative. I would hope, however, that the reader would not use imperial propaganda solely for empire reduction, but, above nationalism, for Kingdom Come.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com