BROWNSVILLE – La Virgin de Guadalupe was here.
She waited at the top of a cottonwood tree, a bright image on dull bark, for the faithful to come. Standing at the base of the tree, a close look points to two old, faded green plastic stems underneath a 3-foot-tall oval-shaped discoloration in the tree’s bark.
An even closer look reveals that the discoloration resembles the shape of the famous halo that surrounds the Guadalupe on countless religious candles and prayer books. The purported apparition looks down St. Charles Street, toward Hope Park, past the dividing river and into Mexico.
It was here more than 13 years ago that thousands flocked to pay homage to the apparition. Some believed it was a miracle. Others believed it was a renewal of faith. There also were skeptics who scoffed at the image as a knobby piece of tree bark and nothing more.
Two wooden pews adorned with old, faded plastic flowers share space with bright, new flowers at the foot of the tree on the sidewalk. People occasionally come to bring things to the tree, pray or kneel before the homemade altar. Only one of the pews has a bench.
They come, they kneel and they pray.
James C. Davidson, who owns the white house and tree, has lived at the home since the 1940s after returning from serving during World War II.
”They (passers-by) noticed it first,” said Davidson, who goes by Jim. He sent Maria, his then housekeeper, to check it out.
”I didn’t know what the hell they were looking at,” he said, punctuating his story with a little cackle.
”Hay una virgen en su arbol,” Maria said excitedly, he recalled in Spanish with eyes wide open. ”There’s a virgin in your tree.”
Davidson’s family arrived in Brownsville in 1933 when he was just 9. They came after the hurricane that swept the Texas coast that year. His stepfather was a carpenter and found work here.
His mother, ”a redheaded Irish woman” with good business sense, bought the house at the intersection of St. Charles and 10th streets shortly after. She liked the house, she liked the town, and she liked the Rio Grande Valley, he said. This was home until he joined the Air Force, formerly known as the Army Air Corps, when he was 18.
The tree, reft of branches on its lower half, is taller than the two-story house.
”I’m a very lucky man, a very fortunate man that I didn’t get killed overseas,” Davidson said, sitting in his dim living room adorned with antique dark brown furniture and yellowed photos of his military days, a younger and handsomer version of himself.
He never left Texas during the war but trained other pilots in San Marcos and Virginia for more than three years.
”I was a young, brave pilot,” his blue eyes still bright after 83 years of life, becoming even brighter when he talks about his life as a serviceman, but he had to grow up eventually, he said, and quit flying. ”I’m not young and brave anymore.”
The tree where the Guadalupe would appear almost 50 years later was planted when he was a little boy and was already grown when Davidson headed home in 1946 to the house his mother eventually left him.
There was no fence then. That didn’t come until the faithful decided to protect their Guadalupe and installed it for him, he said.
After he could no longer fly due to poor eyesight, he worked in construction, installing plumbing, taking care of his family. He fondly recalls his wife, Bonnie, and his three children. Sitting barefoot in his home, he names his three children – Debbie, Janice and Jimmy – who all live far away. They come to visit every one or two years, he said.
He continues to be the landlord of the Garage Apartments behind his house, passing the days smoking Marlboro cigarettes and reading the local newspaper.
Life changed when the Guadalupe appeared, he recalls.
In Davidson’s mind, la Virgen de Guadalupe appeared on the tree to comfort him after the loss of his wife. The apparition coincided with her death, he said.
”Bonnie was a good woman,” Davidson said. ”I think she died just before, and the tree appeared to give me consolation. That was amazing what that tree did for me. It made me believe.”
A man with no religion, he said he likes to go to Catholic churches because he can go ”when I need help from the man upstairs, just to stay on his good side.”
Sitting in Davidson’s living room surrounded by relics from the past, he squints, trying to reconcile the flurry that surrounded Guadalupe’s arrival in his front yard.
Strangers in his front yard, stealing pieces of bark, kneeling at an impromptu altar, snapping Polaroid pictures, hawking Guadalupe merchandise. Police blockading streets. Newspaper people asking him questions. Tenants complaining about the fuss. None of it ever bothered him, he said.
”If that’s their religion, that’s their religion,” he reasoned.
The reality is that nobody knows whether the image was a random discoloration, a timely assurance of faith or a divine mandate to instill belief. People had ideas.
In 1993, Juana Maria Bocardo said ”a lot of birds” in the branches of the tree precipitated the arrival of the image. Sandra Garcia said the image would ”grow whiter” when a little boy touched it. A woman from California visited the tree in hopes of healing from a terminal illness.
The Catholic Diocese of Brownsville had ”no official position” on the apparition.
It almost doesn’t matter. Locals reported Davidson periodically emerged from the home’s front door to shoo away onlookers and rowdy types, but those aren’t his most vivid memories.
Instead, Davidson recalls the miraculous appearance of Guadalupe in front of his house with joy, an incident that brought visitors to someone whose family has moved on one way or another.
”I don’t have no complaints to God or nobody else. I think the man upstairs is nice to me because I take care of the tree,” Davidson said. ”I believe that was put there for some reason. I don’t know why. I think it was more religious than nonreligious.”
Truth be told, the image used to leave little to the imagination, as Davidson noted, holding up a framed photo he said the ”newspaper people” gave him when the frenzy began. It was taken on a clear day. The white oval-shaped Guadalupe stands out clearly from the gray bark, plastic flowers tacked onto her ”feet.”
It’s faded now, not the type of thing thousands of people would come to see, not the type of thing anyone would come see, anymore.
”Since that image appeared on the tree, nothing but good things have happened to me,” he said.
Davidson insists only good people come to worship the tree; bad people wouldn’t come.
There used to be more flowers, more people, more attention, and then it sort of stopped, he remembered.
Bark on the tree in his front yard brought Davidson closer to God.
”The tree converted me,” Davidson said.