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The Virgin Mary in handcuffs: How a viral image humanizes the immigration debate

A Buddhist-style artwork of the Virgin Mary in handcuffs continues to bounce across the internet two years after its creation, shared and re-shared from the United States to South America.

The sand mandala created by Katie Jo Suddaby, which shows the Virgin of Guadalupe being taken into custody by ICE. She wanted people to think about how the Virgin would be treated by the government if she arrived at the border today.
The sand mandala created by Katie Jo Suddaby, which shows the Virgin of Guadalupe being taken into custody by ICE. She wanted people to think about how the Virgin would be treated by the government if she arrived at the border today.Read moreDave Burnet

Katie Jo Suddaby watched the news coverage of federal immigration arrests. And in the faces of those being led away, she recognized something familiar.

It was the way the migrant men and women subtly turned from the glare of TV cameras — it matched the prayerful bow depicted in traditional images of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

So Suddaby wondered: What would happen if the Virgin, perhaps the most revered and powerful religious figure in all of Mexico, suddenly appeared at the U.S. border?

The minister, artist, and activist answered by working every day for a month to create a provocative sand painting: the sainted Virgin being taken into custody by two ICE agents, her hands not clasped in prayer, but pinned at the wrist by plastic handcuffs.

She called it Unholy Escort.

“Putting the Virgin Mother in that position, taking on the suffering of the refugees,” Suddaby said, “I wanted to say, if you look, you can see the spirit of God, the fingerprints of God, on people who have nothing and who need help.”

The photo of Suddaby’s original, Buddhist-style artwork continues to bounce across the internet two years after its creation, shared and re-shared from the United States to South America. It’s been printed on banners and carried by protesters seeking to link migrant dreams to the divine at a time when the Trump administration is aggressively curtailing legal immigration and sending undocumented border-crossers out of the United States.

Asked if it was hurtful or unfair to ICE to depict officers arresting the Virgin, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson said the agency “fully respects the Constitutional rights of all people to peacefully express their opinions.”

“That being said, ICE remains committed to performing its immigration enforcement mission consistent with federal law and agency policy,” the spokesperson said.

The Virgin of Guadalupe, also called the Blessed Virgin Mary, is adored by millions as a commanding symbol of faith, devotion, and possibility. On Thursday, amid a December season of light and reflection, people in Mexico and in migrant communities across the United States will celebrate Virgin of Guadalupe Day.

In Philadelphia, faithful have been honoring the Virgin for weeks, leading up to the big, annual Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul on Wednesday evening.

The holiday marks what believers say is a miracle that occurred in December 1531, when an apparition of the Virgin twice appeared to a peasant named Juan Diego. She told him a shrine should be built for her on that very spot, Tepeyac Hill, now a Mexico City suburb — and she left her image imprinted on his cloak.

Today, the Basilica of Guadalupe ranks among the most-visited churches in the world.

» READ MORE: In Pennsylvania’s conservative heartland, a historic cloister explores the immigrant struggle

The Virgin’s familiar representation is rich in symbolism: Her mantle is turquoise, the color of the gods. The stars on her cloak show she comes from heaven, while her pale red dress offers two interpretations: a rose dawn that signals a new era, or a sign of martyrdom.

Suddaby’s Unholy Escort connects that conventional likeness to the modern-day turmoil at the border.

“I see a woman being abused in an oppressive, hypocritical system that claims to exist to protect people,” said Blanca Pacheco, codirector of New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia.

The ICE officer on the left may be Latino, and his head is bowed, Pacheco said, as if he doesn’t like doing what his job requires.

“It reflects deep truths,” said Nancy Bedford, a theology professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Illinois, who cited Unholy Escort in a 2018 study of Christian artistic imagination. “Joseph, Jesus, and Mary had to flee to Egypt to escape persecution, in a manner very similar to that of contemporary asylum-seekers.”

Edgar Ramirez, the founder of Philatinos Radio and a well-known voice in Philadelphia’s Mexican community, said it’s impossible to overstate the importance of the Virgin to the faithful, as “she literally represents their mother, their faith, their reason of existence.”

But he wondered if the image held a negative connotation, meant to convey that not even the invincible Virgin can overcome the fearsome power of the American government. And if the Virgin is helpless against tough Trump administration policies, he said, “what could we expect for us, the ordinary people?”

Suddaby, 37, was raised Catholic. Today, she’s an ordained American Baptist Churches pastor — and a “baby Buddhist” trained by monks in the ancient art of creating sand mandalas. Millions of colorful grains are delicately arrayed to form a detailed, nearly luminescent picture, then brushed away, as a lesson in impermanence.

Her idea for Unholy Escort came in anger, Suddaby said, as Trump pointed ICE agents at migrants who had fled violence in Mexico or South America.

» READ MORE: In Philly, a Day of the Dead memorial honors children who died at the border

She thought of how so many people she saw on the news had crossed deserts to come to America, and how in that public moment of arrest, with families behind and deportation ahead, their lives were being swept away like sand.

Suddaby’s ancestors immigrated to the United States from County Cork, Ireland, as potato crops failed in the Great Famine of the 1840s, and she connects their hard welcome to what’s happening to others today.

“When I see people treating Spanish-speakers, or people of color, immigrants, like they’re dirty,” Suddaby said, “it’s the same as the ‘No Irish’ signs.”

She grew up near Syracuse and lives in Rochester, N.Y., where she began crafting Unholy Escort at a Fringe Festival. She thought she would finish in 10 days. She didn’t. Nearby St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church offered a basement room where she could continue her work.

During noon Masses, she could hear the congregation’s Hail Mary prayers filtering down through the ceiling. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Suddaby sent up her own prayer, that more Americans would see that immigrants, like themselves, were made in the image of God.

After 22 days, Unholy Escort was finished. Photos were taken, and the artwork destroyed. Traditionally, mandala sands are returned to nature, poured into a flowing body of water to carry blessings downstream.

The grains that made up Unholy Escort disappeared into the Genesee River. The picture endures.

“Every time our administration does something terrible to immigrants,” Suddaby said, “people share that image.”