Virgin Vigilantes

Virgins in Guadalupe are getting scarce.

That's not a slam on the sexual mores in the tiny Yaqui Indian enclave tucked between Tempe and Phoenix, but a simple statement of fact: Someone keeps stealing paintings of the Virgen de Guadalupe from their place on Baseline Road, and it's not much of a mystery why.

The icons have been placed there less as a religious statement than one of protest: Some folks in Guadalupe object to the Christie's Cabaret strip club that took over an old Bob's Big Boy on Baseline Road and turned it into the second of their operations in the Valley. One of the newer, supersize skin businesses that have transformed the old model of topless joints, Christie's owners like to think of their establishment as more upscale nightclub than bump-and-grind hovel. And in a metro area where bawdy houses seem nearly as numerous as churches, it's almost quaint to think that yet another purveyor of the porno lunch hour would get a rise out of anyone.

But Guadalupe is a unique place. Drive down Avenida del Yaqui, the village's main drag, and it isn't hard to imagine that you've been transported to a small Mexican town. By an accident of geography, however, the northern limit of the town is Baseline, a major thoroughfare that's close to an interstate freeway and the Arizona Mills mall. Guadalupe may be a sleepy throwback, but that small strip of property is a gold mine.

And that's what's caused the culture clash between the naked ladies and the church ladies.

Esther Cota, a receptionist at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, is one of the folks who goes out to a small patch of grass that sits between Christie's and a motel next door. "Oh, people just yell stupid things at us," she says, referring to both passing traffic as well as patrons on their way to the strip joint. The protesters have even gotten a rise out of some of the dancers. "When we were picketing, a couple of ladies exposed themselves," she says with a laugh.

Asked if the protest is having any effect, Cota excitedly points out that Christie's has so far failed to obtain a liquor license. "They can't sell liquor! They tried twice to get a liquor license. They were turned down twice."

Christie's, in fact, filed a pending $30 million lawsuit against the city of Guadalupe after its council failed to support their application for a liquor license to the state, claiming that not being able to serve alcohol is costing the company dearly. On the other hand, points out a Christie's employee who asked not to be named, no alcohol means the dancers can completely shed their clothes. "The plus side is that we're nude. And we're open 'til 5 a.m. on weekends," says the employee.

"A couple of people are sitting there, reading a book, when I get here at 9 in the morning," says the woman. "They're normally gone by noon. The heat is probably killing them."

Leading the protest is Socorro Bernasconi, who works for the Centro de Amistad, a nonprofit that tries to combat domestic violence in the small town. Bernasconi is candid, admitting that the protest has worked out as a way to raise awareness of the Centro and its efforts. "We don't want to get rid of [Christie's]," she says.

The nude dance place is one big advertisement for what her organization fights, she says. "To me, that's violence. They offer women money to take their clothes off. [They] offer them so much money they can't refuse. This is total disrespect."

But Bernasconi's also concerned about the disrespect shown the Virgen, who keeps going missing. The first two, she says, were elaborate banners. "I spent hours on them," she says. Eight of the swiped paintings were on black velvet with wood frames -- and it's easy to wonder if their thefts were really political payback or just a form of art criticism. Whatever the reason, some 20 or 21 Virgins, Bernasconi says, have vanished. "The one in place now has been up there for about three weeks," she says. "Different ones catch people's attention, I guess."

Lots of protest signs have also gone missing from the small patch of green outside the cabaret. "Oh, hundreds of signs," Bernasconi says.

Christie's general manager Andy Wallock says he doesn't encourage the sign stealing, but admits that "it's up to [the employees] if they want to do it." The strip place, he says, gets another chance with the state's liquor board in September, and in the meantime, he says Christie's is trying to be a good neighbor. "We're doing things for the town and they are aware of it." The company has donated bicycles to local kids and has given support to youth baseball organizations, for example.

Cota, the 65-year-old parish secretary, says she's aware that behind the scenes, Christie's has been trying to woo the town. "We heard different things. Offering money for Little Leagues," she says. "It's a small town. There's nothing else that interests the kids. Can you just imagine seeing baseball suits with a Christie's [logo] on it?"

Sure, that would be strange. But we can guess where the dads will want to take the team to celebrate if they win a local championship.

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Dan Cortez