Associated Press / Jae C. Hong
Thursday, Oct. 16, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Sen. John McCain’s earthly profile dominates the foreground; the Virgin of Guadalupe’s luminous visage nearly floats in the background.
Local talk show host Xavier Rivas saw a national group called Catholics for McCain displaying the photo at the GOP convention last month and transferred it onto palm-sized cards.
Now he hands them out, along with campaign material, in his door-to-door efforts to gain local Hispanic support for the Republican presidential candidate — an uphill climb, judging by the 2-to-1 Hispanic voter preference for Barack Obama seen in swing-state polls.
And although the image has not been without controversy, Rivas says it reflects the Republican candidate’s closeness to Hispanics. The photo came from McCain’s July visit to the Mexico City basilica named after Our Lady of Guadalupe. Rivas and Catholics for McCain transformed it into “a juxtaposition between politics and a religious icon ... that amounts to a Catholic Hispanic endorsement,” says David Sanchez, assistant professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University and an expert on the Virgin of Guadalupe.
“I can’t think of a more powerful juxtaposition ... for Mexican-American voters,” he adds.
Rivas, whose show is broadcast in Spanish daily on KRLV 1340-AM, describes himself and his mother as devoted “Guadalupanos,” or followers of the Virgin of Guadalupe. He recalls his mother’s laying flowers on shrines to “the mother of our country” every year.
He says he doesn’t give out the cards to everyone, but instead first gets a feeling for whether a person is receptive to its message.
The message: “She represents a symbol of our culture, our feelings ... and (the photo) is sending a signal to Mexican-Americans that McCain is saying, ‘I know and care about your community.’ ”
Fernando Romero, president of the local nonprofit organization Hispanics in Politics and a McCain supporter, says the image gives him “a warmer feeling about the guy.” Romero adds: “He made the effort to visit something spiritual that is in the hearts of all Mexicans” — some 100 million of whom are Catholic.
But not all Mexicans saw McCain’s July 3 visit in the same light.
According to a Mexico City news account published the next day, someone yelled out in the basilica, “McCain: You can’t play around with the people’s faith!”
A few days later, a columnist titled his take on the visit “In la Virgen de Guadalupe We Trust,” dryly implying that the phrase could become a McCain campaign slogan.
Rivas says he has occasionally come across similar reactions among fellow Mexicans and Mexican-Americans here. “But then I explain why I’m doing it, and they understand.”
Sanchez says using the photo is a logical consequence of the social conservatism Republicans embrace. “Part of that is religiously based social conservatism, and it is powerful for them to use these images.”
He also notes that the card may carry other meanings for Hispanic voters.
“The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe is invoked as a pro-life symbol,” Sanchez says. “The message is, ‘We put our pro-life symbol next to him.’ ”
At the end of the day, the image is “so evocative, with multiple layers of meaning. You just have to find yours.”
As to whether joining religion and politics is appropriate, Sanchez suggests that horse may have left the barn.
“Religion is so embedded in political discourse these days, I’m sure we’ll see more of this.”