This weekend I read Nicole M. Flores’s book The Aesthetics of Solidarity: Our Lady of Guadalupe and American Democracy (Georgetown 2021) and was absolutely captivated. What drew me to the book was the question of what might happen to the empty pedestals standing in public spaces now that the various statues have been removed. The book doesn’t really answer that question (nor does it ask that question!), but instead offers a brilliant little study of the veneration of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the important role she plays across a wide range of Latine (or Latinx) contexts from religious observations to social movements. Flores argues that the aesthetics of Our Lady of Guadalupe creates room for her to embody a wide range of deeply held commitments from the needs of undocumented migrants, economic justice among fieldworkers, anti-abortion campaigns, as well as more conventional religious practices.
The capacity of Our Lady of Guadalupe to embody this range of commitments speaks to the potential of certain kinds of religious symbols to create spaces where both BIG STORIES (in Flores’s terms) and small stories can interact. For Flores, BIG STORIES tend to be anchored in universal (or universalizing) of the world defined by either secular ideas of justice or institutional narratives promoted by the Church or the state. Little stories, like that of the 16th century appearance of Mary in Guadalupe, have the capacity to make room for the small stories of the local, the marginal, the oppressed, and the struggling as well as the big stories by acknowledging the institutional and universal messages that refract through the local.
Of course, this book doesn’t really help me specifically with anything that I’m doing, but it did get me thinking about a central problem in my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. The first draft of my book was preoccupied with the BIG STORIES. In many ways, I still am distracted by issues like climate change, COVID, racism (on a global level), economic inequality, and struggles of undocumented migrants. My preoccupation with these big stories, however, tended to turn situations into abstractions by viewing them at a scale that exceeds my ability to recognize the personal toll of human suffering, for example, or individual or collective agency.
At the same time, I am coming to realize that I need to engage the small stories that archaeology does such an amazing job revealing. More than that, I have to trust that the small stories have the potential to not only create spaces where individuals and communities can construct a meaningful sense of identity, but also where they can negotiate new ways of understanding the BIG STORIES that appear to demand our attention.