My Journey to the Black Madonna
Soto, Elaine. (2020). My Journey to the Black Madonna: A Memoir.
My Journey to the Black Madonna: A Memoir explores artistic representations of the Black Madonna through the eyes of author and visual artist Elaine Soto. We meet Soto as a young girl on her first night of living in a new school dormitory, saying goodbye to her mother, who moved to Puerto Rico. Forced to sleep in a separate bed from her sister, with whom she had previously shared beds, Soto is comforted by a cryptic encounter with the Madonna of the Streets, who appeared before her. This encounter inspired Soto’s work of art “Street Madonna,” a depiction of a Madonna cradling a sleeping infant, a crescent moon behind her, and a figure in a bed situated behind and within her garment. Her presence is powerful, and her face tells the story of a mother unwavering and mysterious.
Through poems, journal-like entries, reflections, and photographs, Soto shares stories about her exploration of the Black Madonna. Nearly every chapter is accompanied by an artistic representation of various Madonnas: Street Madonna, Montserrat bas-relief sculpture, Hormigueros Monserrate, Monserrate with Milagros, Virgen del Pozo, and others. She also encounters and depicts other feminine mystics from around the world: Guan Yin, Green Tara, Sarasvati, St. Sara, and Mary Magdalene. Some of these artistic representations are Soto’s creations, while others are Madonnas she has come across in her travels through Spain, China, Puerto Rico, Italy, France, and Portugal.
I enjoyed the way Soto weaves in and out of different times and places, with particular attention to the chapters wherein Soto tells her own family story, one of returning to Puerto Rico to find her father and to visit La Monserrate in Sabana Grande, the first Black Madonna she came to know from stories her mother told her. The second half of the book feels a bit like reading a travel journal, and I would have liked to read more about Soto’s exploration of her thoughts and perceptions, and less about seemingly nonessential details. While the book is full of dialogue, I also found myself craving dialogue that emulates conversational speech. I would have enjoyed the book even more if it explored the linguistic aspect of her story, including her accent she mentions on several occasions but does not represent in the dialogue, instead of writing the dialogue as formal, written language. Still, what fascinated me the most throughout this book is Soto’s meditations. She mentions seeing images, or visions, of Black Madonnas, which led her to locate these Madonnas in different parts of the world. I would have loved to see these meditations explored further.
All of the images and photographs are in black and white, and it left me wishing these images were printed in color. Although, I wonder if this was intentional- perhaps Soto is inviting us to challenge our dualistic thinking and conceptions of race and identity, imperative conversations I would have loved to see developed further in the book. Nonetheless, perhaps these black and white images are an invitation to rethink the white Madonna and to take a journey through the grey scales to find ourselves in the presence of a magnetic, divine Black Madonna. Soto quotes psychologist Marion Woodman: “the Black Madonna is erupting into consciousness to highlight the racism and materialism that has overtaken our society” and Soto suggests that the Black Madonna is an image of “equality, resistance to injustice, and regeneration” (141). Towards the end of the book, Soto briefly reveals to her readers what the Black Madonna means to her- secrets, light, inspiration, and wholeness.
While the book begins with Soto as a young girl laying in her dormitory bedroom, seeing a vision of the Madonna of the Streets, it (almost) ends with Soto as an adult resting in a bedroom at her mother-in-law’s home, seeing a vision of Lady of Fátima. This circular narrative was striking to me, and it left me, as a reader, with an intriguing image and a sense of the powerful connection Soto feels to the Black Madonna.
Readers who are willing to take the time to put the fragmented pieces together, who are interested in conversations and alternative narratives about Mary Magdalene, and who want to learn more about Elaine Soto may enjoy this book.
For anyone interested in Elaine Soto's visual art, I recommend visiting her website: https://www.elainesoto.com where you can find some of the images included in the book, displayed in color.
Review by: Sutherland Jaramillo, Artist Resource Development AmeriCorps Member.
History and Literary Arts, National Hispanic Cultural Center.
Available at the NHCC Library.