A New Vision:
The Virgin Mary Tree of Salt Lake City Gothic Desert
by Richelle Hawks
The Virgin Mary Tree image as it stands today is quite altered from its original appearance. There are vague references and stories that the image was vandalized at some point, but ten years of liquid oozing from and onto the surface of the stump probably has a lot to do with its transformation. I recently climbed the stairs of the shrine, and was amazed at what I found.
There is a framed photo affixed to the tree, right above the apparition-stump area. The photo has an early image, so one can easily navigate the stump visually, and make sense of the now 'vandalized' image. While the original Virgin of Guadalupe image is virtually gone, there is a new, larger image just to the right-a classic Madonna and Child icon. It's fairly unmistakable, and I believe, even more striking and clear than the original image. How this could go unnoticed is perplexing. But what could it all mean?
Within the idea that such apparitions arise somehow from the collective unconscious, one can assume that there is some statement or need being addressed or filled. In Daimonic Reality, Harpur writes, " …it is a psychological law-a law of the soul-that whatever is repressed returns in another form…" and then, in giving examples of such, he writes, "Over-masculine authoritarian Christianity is vexed by subversive visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary." In applying these ideas to the Virgin Mary Tree in Salt Lake City, it does seem to fit, and in several layers of ways. It may be pertinent to take a look at the possible meaning of the Guadalupe Virgin and the now-apparent Madonna and Child symbology, within a local context.
The Virgin of Guadalupe image itself is apparently ubiquitous within contemporary Latino communities. In an article reviewing Ana Castillo's book Goddess of the Americas: Writings on the Virgin of Guadalupe Robert Orsi adds to Castillo's words about the presence of the image of the Virgin, "She appears today on bolo ties, playing cards, tattooed on the skins of cholos in East L.A. and South Phoenix, on belts, pillows, towels, cigar boxes, lamp-shades, 'among horns honking, ambulances running, children crying, all the people groaning and dancing and making love,' in the struggles of farm workers, in the places of the sick and dying, carved in soup bones, and in ravines on the border between Mexico and the United States, helping her people make the crossing north in the middle of the night by distracting the border patrols."
As I stated before, the area in which the Virgin Mary Tree is located is largely a minority and Hispanic, non-Mormon population. It has also been an area fairly steeped in poverty and crime. According to the above descriptions, it is fair to assume the Virgin of Guadalupe image represents hope.
Certainly, in the decade since the appearance, the neighborhood area is almost completely transformed. The grassy vacant lot behind the tree is now a brand new, busy children's park. Directly across the street is the amazing Koko's Kitchen-an award winning Asian restaurant with some of the city's best sushi, and legendary miso soup. There's now a trendy charter school down the street, full of brainy-cool emo middle school kids, Salt Lake Arts Academy. The image was a vehicle that broadcast the voice and image of the Latino community to the larger population, and also physically and psychically attracted the larger population to the area. In all, the image seems to have been a catalyst of inclusion.
Looking in a larger local and social framework, the idea of an emerging feminine divine is quite loaded. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is quite established and self-satisfied as a patriarchy. In the very recent past, there have been heated issues by larger groups of some members over women's earthly and heavenly roles within the dogma. There is the obvious, tired old misogyny: women are not able to partake in the Priesthood (the Mormon Church has lay clergy-all worthy male church members are expected to advance through all the levels of Priesthood.)