Wednesday, December 06, 2017

who's your mama?

Speaking of  essays that have been sitting incomplete in my inbox -- .

Last summer I saw a newspaper headlining a controversy in Guadalajara. About a statue. Of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The article offered up a double scoop of Mexican history.

Like most big cities, Guadalajara wants to be known for its artistic elan -- especially, its public art. In that spirit, the city paid 5.2 million pesos (about $275,000 (US)) for a statue entitled "Syncretism," and then installed it in the median of a major street.

That seems a bargain for a 30 foot statue. But the price itself is not an issue. Well, not entirely. It is the subject matter.

There is a bromide here in Mexico that the only two persons who cannot be insulted are the president and Our Lady of Guadalupe. If it was ever true of the president, it certainly is not today. Insulting any Mexican president is a national sport. And some of my friends have medaled in the event.

But, insulting Our Lady of Guadalupe is worse than insulting your own mother. She is the patron saint of Mexico. And she wears that honor with pride. For those of you who do not know much about Our Lady, here is a Classics Illustrated version of her story.

In 1531, an Aztec Indian named Juan Diego (not to be confused with Zorro) saw an apparition on the hill where the Spanish had destroyed an Aztec temple dedicated to a goddess known as Our Revered Mother -- Tonantzin or Coatlicue. The woman in the apparition claimed to be the Virgin Mary and requested a church to be built in her honor.

So, Juan Diego did as he was told and went to see the archbishop, who did not believe him. The apparition appeared three more times to Juan Diego.

The fourth time, the apparition told him to gather flowers from the hill. To find blooming flowers in December was rare. But the flowers he gathered were even more rare. They were Castilian roses -- not native to Mexico.

He gathered the flowers in his cloak and rushed to the archbishop. When Juan Diego opened his cloak, the archbishop was amazed to find his favorite flowers -- Castilian roses. But he was even more amazed when the roses fell from the cloak revealing mirabile dictu an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The archbishop built the church which was later dedicated as a basilica. And Guadalupe was well on her way to becoming the very essence of the Mexican spirit.

It is that spirit that got wrapped around the axle of True Catholic Believers in Guadalajara. The controversial statue depicts Our Lady emerging from an image of the Aztec goddess Tonantzin or Coatlicue.

And if there is any doubt that the artist intended to convey the idea that the Coatlicue myth gave rise to the Guadalupe myth, he underscored the point with the sculpture's title. 
"Syncretism." A theological term meaning "the importation of an object of reverence in one belief system into another." 

The artist's point is not original. For centuries, people have pointed out the similarities between the two women. The Aztecs worshipped a mother goddess at the same site where the apparitions appeared. Catholics worship a revered mother who described herself as "the mother of the very true deity."

A newspaper supporting the protesters breathlessly (and somewhat inaccurately) reported: "The erection of the nine-meter-tall image has provoked massive public protests in the thousands, by Catholics who denounce it for confusing the country’s most important Christian symbol with the very religion of human sacrifice that it helped to defeat 500 years ago."

Historians tell us that the Aztecs continued to worship Coatlicue at the site of her ruined temple. Because of the similarities, it was easy for the church to substitute the similar attributes from Coatlicue to Guadalupe.

It would not be the only example of the Catholic church substituting saints for local gods in the finest tradition of hostile corporate takeovers. The most obvious example is Christmas. If the gospels are accurate, Jesus's birth was unlikely to be in December. The presence of all those shepherds is a start.

The Romans celebrated a huge festival (Saturnalia) to honor the lengthening of the days in December -- on 25 December. A lot of the pagan traditions for the day were adopted, and the whole shebang was re-christened "Christmas."

Some holidays the church just appropriated without any attempt to hide the pilfering. "Easter" still bears the name of the pagan English goddess for which it was named. Very similar to all of those Norse gods who clutter the names of the week in northern Europe and the Roman gods who perform the same service for Latin-language calendars.

But I could rattle on and on, and it will not change the fact that Mexicans will defend the honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe as a matter of faith. And they have done that in Guadalajara.

Tens of thousands protesters have shown up to vent their religious spleens. At the statue. At the fact their tax money was used to insult their dearest beliefs. At the archbishop who was too weak to do anything about the travesty.

I would say they were up in arms. But that phrase has a very particular meaning in this context.

Following the Revolution, Plutarco Elias Calles became president. One of the goals of the Revolution was to finish the job of taming the Catholic church that was begun by Benito Juarez's Reform War.

Calles took that mission to an extreme by enacting anti-clerical laws that not only stole the church's property, but treated the clergy as if they were not citizens of the republic.

The more religious areas of Mexico rose in open revolt during the three years of the Cristero war. Jalisco and Guadalajara were in the forefront of defending the church against the central government -- a government that eventually repealed the more offensives portions of the anti-clerical laws. The city government may be getting off lucky with this current perceived insult.

But all of that is for big city folk. Here, in our little fishing villages by the sea, we are in the middle of celebrating the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on 12 December. Like most religious festivals, one day cannot contain the zeal.

Since the beginning of the month, celebrants have been firing off cohetes -- those sky rockets that could easily substitute for the cannons in the Overture of 1812 without any of Tchaikovsky's even more annoying music. Starting at 5 or so in the morning.

And then there is the daily evening religious procession. Rather simple. "Indian" dancers. A float. More cohetes. And a bushel of deep-hearted devotion.

The historian in me defends the sculptor in Guadalajara. But my faith fully understands that deep devotion.

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