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Stereotype of the Month Entry

Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

Thursday, July 25, 2002 (AP)

Church image of first Indian saint doesn't look much like an Indian

GRAHAM GORI, Associated Press Writer

MEXICO CITY (AP) Juan Diego, expected to become the Roman Catholic church's first Indian saint next week, doesn't look much like an Indian these days.

For Pope John Paul II's visit to canonize the Chichimeca Indian, the church has replaced traditional renderings of the 16th century figure in which he is depicted as a sparsely whiskered, dark-skinned Indian. New versions show him with a full-beard and light skin. The image is causing an uproar in Mexico, where many people feel their Indian heritage is being insulted.

The image, selected by the church as the official depiction of the Indian to whom the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared in 1531, bears the words: "True portrait of God's servant Juan Diego."

"This is not Juan Diego," said Jose Lopez, a sculptor visiting the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe from Puebla state. "This is Juan Diego in Spaniard's clothing."

Tradition holds that Juan Diego was born in 1474, 18 years before Christopher Colombus set foot in the new world. John Paul II has called the apparition of the Virgin instrumental in converting millions of Indians throughout the Americas to the Catholic faith.

Millions of Mexicans are expected to fill the streets as the pope canonizes Juan Diego on Wednesday. Pilgrims from across the country, many crawling on bleeding knees, already are arriving in the capital to show devotion to one of Mexico's most sacred symbols.

But many are angered by the depiction of Juan Diego they find when they arrive.

"This is our faith, and they are distorting history. The virgin presented herself to an Indian," said Marcos Aldrete, a 33-year old Mexican who returned from his home in Stockton, Calif., for the papal visit. "If the Virgin wanted to choose a European, she would have done so."

Despite the grumblings, the vendors who sell laminated cards, statuettes and posters of Juan Diego around the basilica say the new image is a hot seller in this largely racially mixed nation where many still consider Spanish traits superior and where television routinely features blonde, blue-eyed starlets rather than Indians.

"As businessmen, we sell what the client asks for, and some say they prefer a Juan Diego with a full beard," said vendor Jorge Elizalde. "But no Indian has a full beard. They have thick lips, large mouths and wide noses."

Church representatives said the image is a portrait painted by an unknown artist in the 1600s and was chosen for its depiction of a humble and devoted Juan Diego. They also said that the church's depiction is not intended to be the only interpretation of the Indian.

Still, many Mexicans are offended. Noemi Gomez, whose family has been selling religious goods for three generations, scoffed at the image that filled her shop. She joked that if the church wanted to change Juan Diego's image, they should have gone even further.

"They should have given him curly hair and blue jeans," she said.

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