She was always slightly out of place, this Mexican patron saint in the middle of an Orange County ecological preserve. And now she may have to go.
On an outside wall of Irvine Regional Park's biggest public restrooms is a painted version of the Madonna, one that Mexicans know as the Virgen de Guadalupe .
It has been there since 1978, when a bored gang member in a summer work program copied her image from a card he carried.
"It's become something of a landmark," said Orange County historian Jim Sleeper.
But the restrooms are in a 1920s building that has aged to the point of becoming unsafe, so park officials have almost decided to tear the structure down, and the Madonna with it.
'Have Tried Every Possible Way'
"We have tried every possible way to try to save this building," said Orange County Supervising Ranger Mark Carlson.
For a year and a half, he said, workers have been conducting stress tests on the building, which rangers refer to as "Big Bertha," to see if repairs could forestall the wrecking ball. But it does not appear possible.
"All the mortar has turned to dust, in between all the bricks," he said.
The building has been closed since 1985, and ugly green portable toilets have substituted pending a decision on the building.
"Either we're going to have a building that is unusable and a danger to people even if it's blocked off, or we're going to have a new bathroom for the half a million people who come here every year," he said.
Quirky Park Trivia
How the Madonna came to be painted on the wall is a bit of quirky park trivia. In 1978, the park was sponsoring a summer youth program to put underprivileged kids to work.
One of the boys, whom Carlson remembers only by his \o7 placa\f7 , or gang name, "Roach," was painting graffiti all over the park.
"Rather than discharge him, I told him to put his energies to another use," he said. "He said he wanted to paint this picture on Big Bertha. So he painted it.
"He evidently was a Catholic and had several votive cards with saints, and he particularly liked that one. I figured that was a better use of his energy."
To many people, the brightly colored mural, about 10 feet high, is an anomaly in a place with 800-year-old coastal live oak trees, an occasional mountain lion and signs asking visitors to respect the fauna and keep off the flora. For Mexicans and other Latinos, there is instant recognition of the Madonna.
It is a well-known tale among Catholic Latinos, true or not: the \o7 Virgen de Guadalupe\f7 appeared to the peasant Juan Diego more than a hundred years ago when he went to a hilltop outside Mexico City to pray. When Spanish priests refused to believe him, the Virgin's impression appeared on his cloak, according to the account.
Juan Diego's cloak--with the impression of the brown-faced Madonna--hangs in the giant Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Even though some scientists have discounted the image's authenticity, devotion to the Madonna is so strong that hundreds of believers literally crawl for miles on their knees to the shrine every Dec. 12, the date of the supposed miracle.
That a young gang member named Roach painted her image on a restroom wall is neither sacrilegious nor necessarily religious. The Virgin of Guadalupe is just a favorite Mexican image that adorns walls, is reproduced on tattoos or hangs from the rear-view mirrors of many cars.
But this Madonna has another distinction: It does not have a face. "Roach" meticulously painted the cherub at the Madonna's feet, and the crescent moon supporting her. But there is no face, and her hands have very little definition.
"He said he couldn't paint faces or hands," Carlson said.
No final decision on the fate of the building has been reached, Carlson said. So far, no one is protesting the pending destruction of the wall and its Madonna. But tearing something down doesn't sit well with Carlson's sense of preservation.
"I like the building itself and the mural," he said. "It's not an architecturally significant building. It's a restroom."
Another restroom can be built. But it will be difficult to reproduce the apparent effect of the faceless Madonna: After Roach painted her, teen-agers stopped defacing the building with graffiti.