My first published piece was in a book referred to in my family as Touched by a Virgin. The book is a collection of testimonials by people who have been touched, healed, or otherwise interfered with by the Mother of God. I did not submit my piece for inclusion in this book. It might best be categorized as the kind of book a great-aunt might buy you for a confirmation gift, and that you never read but somehow never give away. It’s a Chicken Soup for the Soul: Mariolatry Edition.
I do not list this publication on my CV. In fact, maybe we can agree between us to keep the fact of its existence a secret.
When I was twenty-five, in graduate school studying fiction writing, my grandmother called me from Santa Fe to tell me that at Mass that morning, she’d met a writer. “A real writer,” she clarified, as I did not yet count as a real writer—to her, to myself, to anyone.
“Oh, was she nice,” my grandmother said. “I told her you wanted to be a writer, too.”
I didn’t think much of this. My grandmother is always meeting people. In a family full of introverts, my grandmother is the outlier. She favors bright colors—golds and magentas and pinks and reds—and loves a party. When I was in high school, spending summers with her, if we were out for dinner, she’d ostentatiously place her margarita on the table between us so I could take sips. If we were downtown together, in a shop or on the Plaza, in any kind of proximity to a good-looking guy my age, she’d nudge me forward to talk to him, then finally, in exasperation, strike up a conversation with him herself. She makes friends everywhere: on airplanes, at the grocery store, in public restrooms. Of course she’d befriended a new face at Mass.
My grandmother went on to say that she’d invited this real writer home for lunch, and had shown this real writer my “beautiful story” and that this real writer had asked to keep a copy of it. You can see where this is going, but I couldn’t.
My “beautiful story,” as my grandmother called it, was my college application essay, written just after I’d turned seventeen. It was about attending Mass with my grandmother at the Saint Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe. It was also about my special affection for and fascination with the wooden statue of the Blessed Mother brought by the Spanish in 1626 during their conquest of the New World—a bloody conquest they framed as a holy war.
La Conquistadora is the oldest continuously venerated image of the Blessed Mother in the United States. She lived in Santa Fe for fifty years, until the Pueblo Revolt in 1680, when the Pueblo people retook the land that had been stolen from them by the Spanish. The remaining Spanish settlers fled with the statue. Twelve years later, the fight was on again: Don Diego de Vargas returned the statue to what he proclaimed was her rightful place in what has been called the “bloodless reconquest” of Santa Fe—“bloodless,” perhaps, until Don Diego de Vargas ordered the mass execution of Pueblo men and the enslavement of Pueblo women and children. In the nineties the statue’s name was changed to Our Lady of Peace.
Here, from the prayer by the priest and New Mexico historian and genealogist Fray Angélico Chávez on a prayer card, is an example of the kind of peacenik language that sums up La Conquistadora’s role in the region: “O Conquistadora, our Patroness and Queen, the woman whose seed will crush the serpent’s head … O Conquistadora, our Patroness and Queen, through Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, and our Universal King, convert all the infidels and enemies of the Peace of Christ … ” In his rather sweet history of the statue, written in her voice, Fray Angélico tried, not very successfully, to reconcile La Conquistadora’s contradictory roles as representative of peace and mascot of a violent land grab.
La Conquistadora stands two and a half feet tall. Her carved face is placid and regal and a little bored looking; her hair, a wig, is thick and dark under a veil. Sometimes, though not always, she holds an infant Jesus rather loosely in her large, stiff hands. He has to be pinned to her dress, and his startled expression reflects his understanding of his precarious position.
She is beloved in Santa Fe. Every summer, she is processed through the streets to the Rosario Chapel, where she stays during the novenas, nine days of Masses. She has an extensive collection of valuable jewelry—gem-encrusted crowns, turquoise and silver squash blossom necklaces—and an elaborate wardrobe of more than two hundred gowns, sewn or commissioned over the centuries by devoted parishioners. One of these dresses was a gift from my grandmother. When I was eleven, I went with her to a fabric store to choose the material, a shimmering pink-gold paisley lamé—exactly the fabric my grandmother might select for her own ball gown.
From the time I was little, whenever I visited my grandmother, we made a point of paying a visit to La Conquistadora in her chapel. We’d drop quarters into the metal box near the bank of candles flickering in their red glass holders, and then light new candles of our own.
As I prayed, I would feel the old anxiety that I might leave someone out, and gradually I would become aware of the sounds of the church around me: of a heavy door closing at the back of the cathedral, of other people’s steps, of my grandmother kneeling beside me, of my own heartbeat. I’d feel that swelling sense of connection to those who’d prayed to La Conquistadora before me, some of them my own ancestors, and I’d be struck by the vast untouchable enormity of history and of the heavens and of God himself.
After I wrote the essay, I sent my grandmother a copy, because I was proud of it and because I wanted her to know what it had meant to me to attend church with her. And, if I’m perfectly honest, I gave it to her because I knew that it would further cement my position as the favorite grandchild.
“Um, maybe don’t show that essay to anyone anymore,” I said on the phone that afternoon when I was twenty-five. “It’s embarrassing.”
“What’s embarrassing about it?” my grandmother said. “I think it’s beautiful that you come to church with me. I wish the rest of my kids would. I wish you’d do it more.”
I forgot about this conversation until about a year later, when I was visiting my grandmother. “You won’t believe what came in the mail!” she said, thrusting a shining new book into my hands. “I got you published, mi hijita!”
And indeed, there it was, my college application essay: on page 39 of Touched by a Virgin, printed in full, among the stories of visions and car accidents and sick children and mended hearts. It was printed under Kirstin Q. Kirstin Q.! That truncated attribution both offered me some small measure of solace and offended me even further.
I was mortified: I felt exposed and humiliated, embarrassed by my teenage self, and angry at the Real Writer, who had stolen my work. Stolen wasn’t exactly the right word for it, but I didn’t have another one. My head swam with arrogance and shame. The essay stank! But surely it was better than this goofy book! Thank goodness the woman didn’t use my full name—but why the heck didn’t she use my full name? Also, where in the essay had I ever claimed to have been touched or healed or otherwise interfered with by the statue? I wanted to laugh and to cry.
It was my first understanding of how something I’d written could take on a life of its own, could speak for me in ways I didn’t want to be spoken for.
As I held the book, sitting under my grandmother’s elated, expectant gaze, I was in the tricky situation of being simultaneously very, very annoyed with her, and also moved by her gesture. My grandmother loved that essay, loved that I’d written it, loved the portrayal of herself as someone who was instrumental to her granddaughter’s faith. She knew how much I wanted to be a writer, and she was pleased with herself for getting me published, for managing so easily to do for me what I had not yet managed to do for myself.
It didn’t occur to my grandmother that I might not be thrilled to show up as Kirstin Q. in the pages of Touched by a Virgin. It didn’t occur to her that her granddaughter could be such a tremendous snob. How could it? How could she guess at the intensity of my secret ambitions? First, she was under the impression that I was a nice girl. Second, my grandmother is not, herself, a reader—which hasn’t stopped her from offering me quite a bit of publishing advice over the years: “When you finish your book, mi hijita, you should tell Oprah.”
Let’s set aside, for a moment, the ethically dubious decision of this Real Writer to publish, without permission and without proper attribution, the work of another person.
There is a reason writers generally do not hire their grandmothers to be their agents.
My college application essay, while written with great feeling and earnestness—piles and piles of earnestness—should never have been published. It’s terrible and it’s saccharine, and like most saccharine writing, it is dishonest, or at least not entirely honest. It doesn’t acknowledge the problematic history of La Conquistadora, and that fact that she served as the justification and mascot for the brutal forced conversions and torture and subjugation of whole peoples, some of them also my ancestors. It doesn’t delve at all into my conflicted relationship to faith and Catholicism, to a church that I love, but that so often feels inhospitable to me, as a woman, a queer woman, a feminist. And it doesn’t explore in any meaningful way my relationship with my grandmother, which, while being one of the most profound joys of my life, is also complex.
Because of these omissions, my essay was perhaps less honest than the testimonials offered by the other people in the book, who, I imagine, actually did feel Mary’s arms around them after the car wreck, really did sense her presence as they rubbed water from Lourdes on their swollen knees. Many of these testimonials are moving. These other recipients of the Virgin’s touch weren’t trying to be writers and hadn’t created some teenager’s idea of what an essay should be.
I didn’t know any writers, at seventeen. My ideas of what constituted a writing life were pretty vague. My mother was the first in her family to graduate from college. I was a big reader, yet my models were either Anne of Green Gables, who did not exist, or Virginia Woolf, for whom things didn’t turn out so well.
When that essay found its way into print, eight years later, I had a clearer sense of how writers lived in the world, having finally met some living, breathing ones. I was a serious reader of literary fiction and trying hard to be a serious writer of it, too, in my graduate program. Of course I was embarrassed by this first publication.
And yet, I was still writing about the themes I had begun to explore as a teenager: the landscape and history of New Mexico, Catholicism, faith and doubt, the complicated bonds within families.
The statue of La Conquistadora remains important to me. She doesn’t conjure for me the Mary of the Annunciation, that startled young woman who must have been terrified by what was in store for her, and maybe proud, too, to have been chosen for the task. Nor does she conjure the terrible pathos of the Pietà: that shocked and grieving mother who had to watch her young son being tortured to death, who had to watch his terror, who must surely have doubted her god’s goodness.
La Conquistadora, poised high in her carved altarpiece, feels so entirely of a particular place, so much a part of a particular history. I imagine her gazing out over four centuries of bowed heads, listening to countless pleas for her intercession.
She hears our pains and hopes and ambitions, our smallness, our failings. She is witness to how we can use God for our own purposes. She stands as a warning. She has seen breathtaking violence perpetrated in God’s name, and she sees acts of goodness committed in his name and also not in his name. Mostly, she patiently hears our stories, she understands how sustaining those stories are.
In January 2020, on a sparkling morning after a snowstorm, I brought my grandmother and grandfather to the cathedral to see La Conquistadora. It had, at that point, been a couple of years since she and I had lit candles in La Conquistadora’s chapel. My grandmother was ninety-three. She has Parkinson’s disease. Her mobility is limited, and she’s often in pain. Even before the pandemic, she mostly watched Mass on television, and a deacon brought her communion each week. On recent visits, when I suggested going to the cathedral, she’d sigh, hands trembling in her lap, and say, “Oh, mi hijita, it takes me so long to dress,” and I left it at that, because it was easier on her, but mostly because it was easier on me. So that January morning, when I unloaded her wheelchair and helped her and my grandfather out of the car, and we made our way along the icy paths, sunlight glinting off the mounded snow, it was with the happy sense that we were fulfilling a commitment long-deferred.
But the cathedral was locked. We tried first the side door and then I jogged to the front, until someone passing informed me that it was closed due to the snowstorm. Disappointed, we turned back to the car, folded my grandmother’s wheelchair into the trunk, and drove home.
So much has changed in the past year. In October, my family in Santa Fe was hit hard by COVID-19. Both my grandparents were hospitalized, and, a day after being released from the hospital, in a week of a record number of deaths nationally, my grandfather died of it. The precarious balance of caregiving that had been keeping my grandparents living at home fell apart, and my grandmother is now in a care facility, unable to receive in-person visits. Her dementia has progressed. Our frequent chats have dwindled because it’s difficult to get a call through to the facility, and when we do talk, our conversations are brief and surreal.
I do not remember the last visit my grandmother and I made to La Conquistadora. I wish I did. Now, when I think of that mortifying essay, I think less about the mortification and more about the experience that inspired it—all those visits to La Conquistadora over all those years, all those long moments spent kneeling beside my grandmother. I think of my grandmother’s faith—in La Conquistadora’s power to intercede, and also of her faith in me as a writer, that premature, misplaced, generous faith that still means so much to me.
I think of La Conquistadora waiting in the dim church, while sickness and grief rage outside the doors. I think of the day—soon, I hope—when we can once again come together with the people we love, when those doors will be thrown open, and my grandmother and I will return to light candles before her.
Kirstin Valdez Quade is the author of Night at the Fiestas, winner of the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize. The recipient of a “5 Under 35” award from the National Book Foundation, she teaches at Princeton University. Her debut novel, The Five Wounds, will be published next week.