There’s nothing that Oscar Rodriguez Zapata enjoys more than going out for a drive to explore Los Angeles’ vast neighborhoods in search of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

He packs his Nikon Z6 II and a Fujifilm X100V and photographs murals, landscapes, storefronts and people across the city’s Historic South Central and Eastside to South Bay. Street vendors, lowriders and the L.A. skyline are among his favorite subjects.

But his biggest LA muse is the Virgin of Guadalupe, said Zapata. Murals, mosaics and other artwork depicting the brown-skinned virgin and patron saint of Mexico grace the walls of laundromats, liquor stores, mini markets, churches, bakeries, taquerias and tire shops.

“Whenever you see a virgencita you feel safe. You know that your people, your gente, your raza are around,” said Zapata, 35, who, though raised Catholic, identifies as nonreligious. “It makes you feel welcome.”

January marked 10 years since he began documenting images of Guadalupe, at first on his phone for his own pleasure, but eventually taking his hobby more seriously, particularly as he noticed more and more Guadalupe images were vanishing. In late 2017, he created an Instagram profile devoted to his photos of Guadalupe murals in order to preserve them. He now has more than 6,000 followers.

Zapata focuses on examples of the Virgin on dilapidated buildings in need of a fresh coat of paint or the more intricate and colorful ones that take up entire wall space, as they risk succumbing to gentrification and displacement of Latino communities in L.A.

Across Los Angeles, images of the Virgin are believed to thwart vandalism and act as “protector(s) of small immigrant-owned businesses,” according to journalist Sam Quinones’ 2016 book of photographs of murals of the saint, “The Virgin of the American Dream.”

Quinones has seen business owners commission Virgin Mary artworks on their storefronts as “purely a commercial transaction,” he told an audience last April at “Guadalupe: Holy Art in the Streets of Los Angeles,” an event hosted by the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California.

He spoke of Palestinian and Indian merchants who have put Guadalupe on their walls, with one man saying her image was meant “to show people that I’m with them … that I’m not some foreigner guy,” Quinones recalled.

Neither Catholic nor religious, Quinones — a reporter who has covered crime and gangs in the United States and Mexico — said he sees the Virgin as “softening the harshness of life,” recalling that he has witnessed how people turned to her in the midst of violence. Once he started photographing her, he said, he became obsessed, turning his head every time he drove by a neighborhood market to see if he would spot a Guadalupe. 

Between his reporting in Mexico and documenting Guadalupe in L.A., Quinones understood that images of the Virgin Mary served as a guiding force for undocumented Mexican immigrants “to find a way in this new world.”

“All you’ve got are your guts, your wits and the Virgin of Guadalupe,” he said.

Full story at