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Sacred Life : Acts of Devotion

February 11, 1996|Maria Elena Fernandez

An almost-full moon hangs over the parking lot of Self-Help Graphics in East Los Angeles. The nonprofit visual-arts center is closed, and the parking lot is dark and empty except for a 15-foot statue of Mexico's patron saint, Our Lady of Guadalupe, that rises from a small corner garden. She seems out of place and out of proportion. But to the women who live next door, she is their caretaker and they, in turn, are hers.

In the mustard-colored apartment she's resided in for 23 years, Sorina Mendez, 47, has just finished eating the quick dinner she prepared for herself, her husband and four grown children. She washes the dishes, then walks outside, still wearing her light blue and white striped uniform from her job as a food worker at the L.A. Convention Center, and knocks on the door of the house in front. Teresa Tejeda, 50, emerges, holding a shovel and rake. Mendez takes the rake and they walk to the parking lot.

They've been doing this weekly for eight years. The neighborhood faithful gather at the statue for novenas and the December 12th feast day, but Mendez and Tejeda tend to it all year. "In my hometown in Jalisco, the main church had the virgin La Purisima," says Tejeda, who also works at the convention center, "and every year we would take her on pilgrimages to neighboring towns." When Our Lady of Guadalupe was moved from the Self-Help Graphics building onto its parking lot, Tejeda and Mendez, began to take care of it. "They just started to do it," says Karen Boccalero, director of Self-Help. "It was a very organic thing."

Tejeda and Mendez's ritual begins by turning on the year-round Christmas lights strung around la virgen, the plants and along the fence behind her. (The lights will be turned off the next morning.) Mendez pulls out withered red roses, carnations and gladioluses in the half dozen vases and baskets laying at Guadalupe's feet that have been placed there by neighbors and visitors. She hands them to Tejeda, who throws them away. Mendez leaves only the two vases filled with pink plastic roses.

Tejeda returns, pauses and looks up. "When you think about it, she's really a work of art," she says, pointing to the color-coordinated pieces of broken ceramic embedded in the statue: pink on her dress, light blue on her floor-length veil and descending shades of blue on the oval background that the entire body. Left behind by the Catholic Youth Organization, the building's previous occupants, the statue was decorated by Eduardo Oropeza, one of the artists who persuaded Self-Help eight years ago not to discard Our Lady, but to transplant her into the parking lot.

Mendez heads back to the studio to get a broom. They follow the same pattern as the flowers: She sweeps and Tejeda gathers up the trash. They discard more than a dozen wick-less candles sitting on two black milk crates and place the remaining five candles on the steel shelf set among the shrubs. The pair have been working so long together that they cue each other almost imperceptibly. They don't need to discuss what has to be done next. Their movements are economical and sure. Tejeda planted the poinsettia the previous week. "Look, it's already sprouting," she says. Mendez goes home to get a bucket of water for the plant.

When she returns, Tejeda is sweeping the parking lot all the way over to the trash bin, about 50 feet away. "We're so lucky that she appeared to us in Mexico," says Tejeda. "She's like our mother," Mendez replies. "Whenever I have problems, I come out and speak to her."

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