Our Lady of the New West 

She stands on the bottom shelf, her dark face serene, her feet resting on a crescent moon. Her eyes are downcast beneath her green mantle, her hands folded in prayer at the breast of her loose red gown. Over her right shoulder peeks the Mexican flag, its eagle forever grasping a serpent. On her left hand, roses cascade, yellow, red and pink. She is a decal, pasted on the surface of a glass novena candle, nine inches tall. She is the Virgin of Guadalupe, Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas.

I pass her every week in the aisle of a supermarket in Salmon, Idaho. "What's a nice girl like you," I ask her, "doing in a place like this?"

When we came to Idaho eleven years ago, the ingredients for the foods we had loved in New Mexico -- tamales with blue corn meal, chorrizo, posole, sopaipillas, flan, chile rellenos -- were almost unobtainable. We made frantic phone calls. "Nobody here knows what jicama is! Send chiles!"

Now the chiles are here, along with sacks of masa harina and jars of nopalitos. Above the Virgin's crowned head are cans of leche condensada azucarada, bags of arroz, cans of fruit juices, packaged drink mixes of flavored rice flour and cornstarch, pastel cookies and small round pastries, all labeled in Spanish, and all saying "home" to someone. There is even jicama in the produce section.

Lemhi County's Hispanic population has doubled in the past ten years. Many of the faces of the men driving tractors and feeding cattle and moving irrigation pipe and digging ditches for telephone lines are brown. Their features are those of ancient carvings in the Valley of Mexico, or Yucatan. Under the John Deere feed caps, the faces are pre-Columbian, which is to say Indian.

When Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe appeared near Mexico City in 1531 to a Catholic Indian convert named Juan Diego, she called herself the Virgin Mary, but she spoke to him in Nahuatl, his native tongue.

To prove her identity to doubting Church officials, the Virgin caused roses to bloom out of season, and ordered Juan to carry them in his mantle to the bishop in his palace. When Juan spilled the roses out in front of him, the Virgin's image was seen to be imprinted on the cloth. Today the mantle is enshrined in a great church at Tepayac.

Before the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego, Catholic converts in Mexico were few. Afterwards, Indians by the millions came to be baptized, welcoming an old friend in a new guise.

Sometimes I hear Anglos complain about the brown faces in the valley, and about their children, who attend local schools. But their neighbors keep hiring more of them, as ranch operations expand and consolidate under the pressures of low commodity prices. The economic base of this remote dry land is changing.

I stop by a mini-mart on the way out of town, to gas up the pickup. Inside the little store are homemade tortillas and tamales and salsa. Beside them in the refrigerators are brightly colored soft drinks labeled in Spanish. A sign in Spanish in the window offers international telephone calling cards.

Dark-skinned, weather-beaten men stop to buy food and gas, mingling with the tourists, the Anglo cowboys, and the high school kids buying burritos for lunch. The men speak Spanish with each other and with the proprietor, much too fast for me to follow. Behind the counter, children play, speaking both languages easily.

I pick up a package of tortillas and a copy of the local newspaper, reading it as I wait in line. In its pages, the owners of the gentle voices around me are invisible, unmentioned, like the shy woman who makes the tortillas. But the laughing children behind the counter will vote in Idaho someday. By 2025, Hispanics -- most of Mexican descent -- will be 11 percent of Idaho's population, and 30 percent of the West's as a whole.

A world that began with the Mexican War is ending, and I have seen a symbol of that change, standing humbly on a supermarket's bottom shelf.

Louise Wagenknecht is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). She raises sheep and works for the U.S. Forest Service lives in Leadore, Idaho.


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