Saving face. According to the  Oxford  English  Dictionary, the expression means “retain respect; avoid humiliation.” The words are used metaphorically, yet I recently found myself arguing why we must, literally, save—read: affirm, defend, honor—the indigenous, dark-skinned face (el rostro indígena) of a most treasured icon among Hispanic Catholics: Our Lady of Guadalupe.

I stood in front of a group of more than two thousand people, mostly Hispanic and Spanish-speaking, to give a conference on how Hispanics are profoundly transforming the U.S. Catholic experience in the twenty-first century. The energy in the room was incredible. People sang hymns that one regularly hears in parishes with Hispanic ministry. Everyone joined in. The musicians leading the moment were delighted to hear this two-thousand-member choir!

The moment became even more electrifying when the group started singing “La Guadalupana,” a tradi- tional song in Spanish to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Those in the auditorium sang louder and more passionately. It was a serenade. The moment captured well the love Hispanic Catholics have for the Virgin Mary. She is our mother. She is la Virgencita. When the song ended, someone said in a loud voice, “ella es como nosotros; es la Morenita” (she looks like us; she is the dark-skinned one). In hearing that, everyone else cheered.

Anyone familiar with the sixteenth-century icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe knows that her face is that of an indigenous maiden. In her, one can see perhaps one of the most beautiful expressions of inculturation of Christianity in the Americas. Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the Galilean woman, the one Christian symbol that has sustained the spiritual life and inspired countless believers for two millennia, represented artistically in various ways through art in many cultures, appeared in the New World as an indigenous, dark-skinned woman. Millions of Mexicans, Latin Americans, and U.S. Hispanics see ourselves in her face. Her complexion is mestiza (i.e., mixed races), just like most of us. Her face is ours; in her face we see ourselves; she is our icon.

As I turned to the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the stage, only a few feet from where I was standing, I noticed that her face was different. It was not the indigenous, dark-skinned woman that the people in the room called la Morenita. The icon, prominently placed in an event to celebrate Hispanic identity and religious tradition, portrayed a white Madonna. Her garments and traditional symbols were those of Our Lady of Guadalupe, but her face and her hands were racially white. A beautiful woman, without a doubt, yet not the autochthonous image that instilled hope in many at the time of la conquista; the indigenous lady who has sustained for centuries countless people oppressed because of the color of their skin and their cultural background; the dark-skinned woman that reminded humanity that every person, without exception, is mediation of God’s divine presence. What happened to la Morenita?

This was not the first time I encountered an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe whose indigenous, dark-skinned face had been erased, replaced, whitewashed. In fact, images of Our Lady of Guadalupe as a white Madonna are quite common. I have seen them displayed in many Catholic churches, catechetical books, devotional mate- rials, book covers, and everywhere online. Many Catholics, including well-formed pastoral leaders, do not seem to notice the difference.

We could ask ourselves, “What is the big deal?” Artists often avail themselves of certain freedoms in their work to expand the imagination and invite us to consider fresher perspectives about a given reality. From that standpoint, I have seen fascinating depictions of Our Lady of Guadalupe in murals and street art. I find the work of artist Yolanda Lopez provocative insofar as she portrays Our Lady of Guadalupe performing everyday activities such as sowing and running. In practically all such depictions, however, she retains her mestiza face.

Erasing the indigenous, dark-skinned face of this prominent Catholic icon in favor of a white-skinned Madonna is actually a big deal, I think. More so at a time in which our nation and our Church have renewed their awareness about the dehumanizing effects of racial prejudice. As I spoke to my audience about the many ways in which Hispanics are renewing and transforming Catholicism in the United States, I also invited them to think more critically about how religious iconography can be used to affirm or deny who we are as people in a society that has a long history struggling with racism.

We find ourselves before an icon that has been part of our religious tradition for nearly five centuries. We know the story of the apparitions. We also know how the icon came to be and what it looks like. We have a long record of how Latin American and U.S. Hispanic communities have interpreted the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, especially in light of its particularities—including racial and cultural undertones. While there is always room for artistic freedom and creativity, depicting our Lady of Guadalupe demands that we honor such history, symbolism, and interpretive traditions. In doing so, we affirm not only the theological meaning of the icon as a representation of the Virgin Mary and as a sign of divine presence in history but also the embodied realities of the people who see ourselves represented in it.

Racial prejudice in our society—and in the Church— takes many forms. It’s an ill that finds its way into our everyday interactions, knowingly and unknowingly. Racism is a sin that denies and destroys. Changing the skin color of a well-known religious icon from dark-skinned to a white complexion may seem trivial, perhaps innocent; some may even say ingenious. Yet, in a climate of open racial prejudice and anti-immigrant sentiment when millions of people, including many Catholics, seem to ascribe to ideas such as “white is better” or “this is a white nation for white people,” among other follies, the exploit ceases to be innocent or trivial. It matters. It is a big deal.

Erasing the indigenous, dark-skinned face of Our Lady of Guadalupe in our current sociopolitical context is almost the equivalent to an exercise of social and cultural iconoclasm that should not have room in our faith communities. If we allow the icon to be defaced, what prevents anyone from erasing or ignoring the people and communities most closely associated with the icon?

We should not forget that nearly half of all Catholics in the United States self-identify as Hispanics, yet many sectors in our Church still have some difficulty accepting this reality. In many faith communities throughout the country, Hispanic Catholics are still treated as visitors or second-class members. That needs to change in order to embrace our contemporary U.S. Catholic experience. Affirming the indigenous, dark-skinned face of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a good step in that direction. We find ourselves before a unique opportunity to save face, metaphorically and literally. May God grant us the wisdom and the courage to do this through the intercession of Our Virgin of Guadalupe, la Morenita.

Hosffman Ospino, PhD, Powell, is Associate Professor of Hispanic Ministry and Religious Education at Boston College, School of Theology and Ministry. Email: