Ask Lookout: Did the Virgin Mary actually once visit a lake in Watsonville?

The shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe at Pinto Lake County Park
The shrine at Pinto Lake County Park.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Thirty years ago Friday, an apparition of La Virgen de Guadalupe visited Anita Mendoza Contreras at Pinto Lake, turning a sleepy county park into a pilgrimage site. The timing was impeccable, Wallace Baine writes.

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On June 17, 1992 — 30 years ago Friday — something happened on the northern shore of Pinto Lake outside Watsonville. The only person with firsthand experience of what happened that day is Anita Mendoza Contreras (sometimes referred to in media reports as Anita Contreras Mendoza), who has since passed away.

On that day, Contreras said she was visited by an apparition of the Virgin Mary, or La Virgen de Guadalupe, as she is known in Mexico. Contreras had come alone to Pinto Lake, as she often did, in a troubled frame of mind. Some accounts said she was brooding on “marital problems”; others that she was praying for one of her children who had drowned. At some point, a woman appeared to her, dressed as a humble worker, a campesina, and told Contreras to pray the rosary for peace in the world, and that the spot by the lake would now be a sanctuary. The woman disappeared, but, Contreras noticed, left behind on a nearby oak tree at the edge of the lake was an image which looked much like La Virgen de Guadalupe as famously depicted in Mexican folk art.

The incident was an echo of a famous sighting of the Virgin in 1531, the first sighting sanctified by the church, on a hill called Tepeyac, just north of today’s Mexico City. Since then, there have been accounts from all over the world of the Virgin’s appearance in one form or another, some of which have been sanctioned by the Catholic Church.

Contreras, 54 at the time, was well-known in Watsonville for her work as a leader of the strike of the Watsonville Canning Company in the 1980s. Canning was one of Watsonville’s primary industries at the time, and the strike, which lasted two years, was one of the biggest labor actions in California in that era, drawing support from such high-profile names as Cesar Chavez and Jesse Jackson. Contreras spoke out against the factory’s labor practices and led marches, once proceeding to the city’s St. Patrick’s Catholic Church on her knees.

The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on an oak tree at Pinto Lake County Park in Watsonville.
The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on an oak tree at Pinto Lake County Park in Watsonville. The tree is no longer there, but the shrine remains.
(Via Mary Altier)

The image on the tree quickly became a sensation. By the first year, tens of thousands of the devout and the merely curious had visited the once sleepy county park to see the outline of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the tree. After a while, when people began taking bark from the tree as a holy relic, the tree was fenced off. Then the fence itself became part of the shrine. Leaning against it, or attached to it, as photos taken a few months later show, were hundreds of flowers and rosaries, photos and keepsakes.

Pilgrims continued to pour into the park to see the tree they were convinced was a miracle and a source of divinity. Commonly, someone would reflect sunlight upon the image on the tree with a mirror, while people prayed. Reporters and TV news crews came in big numbers as well.

The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the tree at Pinto Lake.
Spectators would often shine a mirror to direct sunlight on the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the tree at Pinto Lake.
(Via Mary Altier)

Contreras herself continued to visit often, but by the first anniversary, she had become embittered and angry at the media for hounding her or mocking her beliefs. “I know what my eyes saw and my ears heard,” she told a Santa Cruz Sentinel reporter in 1999.

Today, three decades later, if you visit the park you’ll see that the tree at the center of all that attention is no longer there.

Already in a weakened state, the Virgin Tree came down in a winter storm around 2015. Still, though, the shrine survives. During the park’s open hours, visitors can follow the main trail from the parking area to the left of the ballfields, less than a quarter mile in, just past the turtle sculpture, the shrine still stands in a shady grove by the lake. A small, cabinetlike structure houses a sculpture of the Virgin. On a typical day, dozens of fresh-cut flowers surround the shrine in pots and vases. You’ll see a number of empty vases available nearby for those bearing flowers to offer. Small statuettes sit atop a fence on which hang images of Guadalupe. Several dozen votive candles take the center in front of the shrine.

The shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe at Pinto Lake County Park
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

CSU Monterey Bay Liberal Studies professor Jennifer Colby has been studying the phenomenon of Our Lady of Pinto Lake for years. Coincidentally, Colby, with a group of other artists, opened an art gallery in nearby San Juan Bautista just a couple of weeks after Anita Contreras’s divine encounter — though she had planned it, and named it, before Contreras’ vision. The gallery’s name, Tonantzin, was from the Nahuatl language for “our mother” and the Indigenous name for the Virgin.

Colby likes to view the Virgin’s visit to Pinto Lake in the context of the socio-political tenor of the times. “You have to look at what was going on at that time,” she said, referring to two seismic events (one literally so). Three years earlier, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake had been catastrophic for downtown Watsonville. The quake crippled St. Patrick’s Church, the center of Watsonville’s Catholic community and a particular touchstone for Contreras; it was soon demolished. By ’92, the new St. Patrick’s was still two years from opening. It was a moment when many devout Catholics in Watsonville had been displaced from Mother Church.

The other big event happening at the time was the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s 1492 voyage to the Americas, an event that forever changed world history. In ’92, the 500th anniversary provoked new storms of controversy over the legacy of Columbus and marked a turning point in mainstream thought. Columbus as historical hero began to morph into a symbol of colonialism and Europe’s exploitation of the Americas. That debate, obviously, had enormous implications for the Catholic Church and the cultural identity of Catholics, particularly in Latin America. It challenged long-held beliefs about the sanctity of the church and icons such as the Virgin.

Watsonville artist Margaret Chavez, herself a consistent visitor to the shrine before her death in 2001, also believed that the shrine served as a kind of haven of hope in the face of the violence that was roiling Watsonville at the time.

The Virgin of Guadalupe visiting Anita Contreras at Pinto Lake in the summer of 1992 did not happen in a vacuum.

Contreras, a labor activist and central figure in the Watsonville canning strike, might have internalized the burden of street violence, the earthquake, the church’s destruction and the controversy of the Columbus anniversary. Whether or not what happened at the lake that day was a miracle, the Virgin’s sense of timing seems impeccable.

The shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe at Pinto Lake County Park
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)