In American Madonna: Crossing Borders with the Virgin Mary, Dierdre Cornell combines personal reflection, theological insight, and thoughtful historical and contemporary observation into an illuminating, moving examination (and example) of contemporary Marian devotion.
In her Introduction and first chapter, Cornell establishes the personal context for her study: her memories of her grandmother’s Marian piety, her own experience of motherhood, and her involvement both in upstate New York and in Mexico with the complexities of [End Page 96] Mexican immigration to the United States. Then, in each of three successive chapters, she examines in detail three Mexican Marian devotions: the Virgin of Juquila, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the Virgin of Solitude (Soledad), centered in the city of Oaxaca.
In each case, Cornell describes her own experience of the devotion; e.g., her personal quest to understand why the Virgin of Guadalupe came to have such a powerful influence on her Irish-American grandmother, as well as her experience of helping foster a mission project in the Hudson River valley that brought a traveling image of the Virgin to marginalized migrant communities. These personal descriptions are intertwined with historically- and theologically-informed discussions of the devotions’ development, which do not shy away from historical uncertainties, but also do not use such uncertainty as a means for cheap debunking. Finally, each chapter also thoughtfully examines the contemporary role of the devotion – the active, almost overwhelming, pilgrim activity at Juquila combining longings for spiritual wholeness and material stability; the movement of images of Guadalupe across literal and linguistic borders, embodying Mary’s constancy in making Christ present (“When she appears, we are saved, for the ‘God-Bearer’ does not come alone” .); the Soledad devotion’s apparent inability to cross the divides that wracked Oaxaca violently in 2006, the last of the three years Cornell lived there. These chapters are self-contained but eventually tie together into an affecting overall picture of how the search for powerful images of Mary resulted in finding not images, but Mary herself, the deeper reality behind the many faces.
The book itself crosses boundaries that have occasionally been detrimental to Marian studies in recent years. It demonstrates that feminist analysis is perfectly compatible with deep devotion, and that an intellectually credible account of the historical and political complexities of a devotion’s development need not be an exercise in undermining its foundations – it can, in fact, be an occasion for connection rather than distancing. This deft balance contributes to the [End Page 97] book’s potential usefulness in a number of contexts. It is brief and accessible enough to use in an undergraduate course, and would lend itself excellently to interdisciplinary approaches that seek to draw on theology, history, and ethnography to explore the complexities of religion and migration in contemporary Mexico and the United States. It could also be very effective with reading or study groups in parishes or elsewhere seeking to connect the past, present, and future of United States Catholicism, and especially to understand something of the transformations being brought about by the increasing Hispanic presence in the United States church.