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‘Reina de Los Angeles’: Photographer celebrates Virgin of Guadalupe art

The sight of the Virgin of Guadalupe in LA is as common as freeways and palm trees.

“She’s everywhere in Los Angeles,” said photographer Nydya Mora.

Mora has spent more than 10 years traveling around LA’s vast neighborhoods taking pictures of the religious icon, and nearly 50 of them will be displayed in Forest Lawn Museum in Glendale’s new exhibit, “Reina de Los Angeles,” which runs Thursday, Oct. 19, to Sunday, Feb. 11.

“She does have a hold on the Los Angeles community,” museum curator Nieves Maria Rocha said of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

“She bonds generations. I, myself, am first-generation Mexican American. My mother was an immigrant coming to the United States and I really feel like Los Angeles was the city that welcomed her. So, seeing the Virgin was for her something that tied her to her hometown, but also told her that she was going to be OK in the city.”

Mora added, “There’s such a heavy influx of immigrants who come to Los Angeles and that’s just how it’s always been. For many generations, I feel like she’s become a source of hope.”

Mora is a community outreach librarian for the Los Angeles Public Library. Another first-generation Mexican American, she grew up in Paramount and lives in Panorama City.

Mora began documenting murals and shrines of the Virgin in 2012 in areas with which she was familiar, mostly East LA, South LA, Hollywood and parts of the San Fernando Valley. In her photographs, the Virgin appears on churches, freeways, cemeteries, storefronts, restaurants, trees, people’s homes and even along Pasadena’s Eaton Canyon Trail. In some places, she looks small, faded and covered in graffiti, and in others, particularly the massive street murals, she looms large and bright.

Mora has amassed some 300 photographs for her Instagram page, Virgens de Los Angeles, which has more than 13,000 followers, though her archive is closer to 500 and growing. After her Instagram caught the eye of Rocha, they teamed up to collaborate on the pop-up show at the cemetery.

The exhibit is organized geographically, in addition to sections dedicated to storefronts and well-known Chicano artists who’ve interpreted and personalized the icon’s likeness in their work.

Fabian Debora’s mural on the side of a market in East LA, for example, has the Virgin against a vibrant blue background and surrounded by roses, while Paul Botello’s intricate 1991 “The Virgin’s Seed” in Boyle Heights depicts the Virgin in the middle of a sweeping story of “immigrants coming to the U.S.”

And Juan Solis’ restored 1995 mural is one of three in the famed Mariachi Plaza, also in Boyle Heights. The collection also includes an image of Forest Lawn Glendale’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Terrace.

“For me it expresses an appreciation of the communities that exist today that don’t really get the recognition they deserve,” said Mora of the display.

“These neighborhoods and communities have value and are important to the cultural fabric of Los Angeles. It’s an understanding of the universal, but also very eclectic, landscape of Los Angeles.”

According to Catholic tradition, the olive-skinned Virgin Mary revealed herself in a series of apparitions to an indigenous peasant named Juan Diego in 1531 near Mexico City. Standing in front of rays of light and clasping her hands, she’s clothed in a pink robe and blue-green cloak covered in stars.

But more than just a Catholic deity, the Virgin has come to symbolize goodness and motherhood, as well as feminism, social justice and patriotism in Mexican and Mexican American culture.

“Some of the children of the shop owners aren’t necessarily religious, but they still wear the Virgin on a poncho or on a charm or in some other way,” Rocha said. “So, I think it’s also taking on a new life of its own that isn’t necessarily tied to religion.”

Mora added, “Most of these mom-and-pop shops are owned by Latinos or immigrants. And coming to America and establishing yourself in these historically marginalized communities, you kind of hold on to that faith in hopes of betterment for yourself and your family. I think that has carried on to future generations. The Virgin really holds a source of pride within the culture. They feel like she represents some sort of protection for them. She’s iconic in that way.”

Reina de Los Angeles

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays, through Feb. 11

WHERE: Forest Lawn Museum, 1712 S. Glendale Avenue, Glendale

COST: Free admission

INFO: 323-340-4782, www.forestlawn.com

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