Sunday, August 26, 2018

the priest and the altar boy

That is what my wag friend calls the statue in front of San Miguel de Allende's La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel church.

The statue honors San Miguel's first priest, Fray Juan de San Miguel, for his work evangelizing amongst the Otomí and Chichimeca tribes. It portrays him standing above an Indian who appears to be a supplicant with his hand raised.

Historical statues bear a heavy burden. They are created in one time to reflect a certain view of history. But, when viewed solely through anachronistic eyes of a later time, the original intent often goes missing.

Fray Juan's statue reminded me of the current dispute over a statue in San Francisco that is being removed, or, by now, may be gone. It depicts an Indian man sitting at the feet of a Catholic friar. A Spanish vacaro peers off into the distance -- as if wondering just when his turn will come to be erased from history.

Critics have labelled it with terms you would expect. Racist. Promotes genocide.  Disrespectful. Promotes human subjugation. The only slur missing is that it is a rather bad piece of art. But art criticism is not the point.

No one seems to be bothered one bit that the scene symbolically depicts not only an historical truth (that European settlers did defeat and subjugate the Indians), but an attitude that existed in the 19th century when the statue was cast.

I have always felt a bit queasy about statues depicting the tragedy of the American Indian. When I was young and we watched westerns that displayed interactions with Indians, my mother would express her indignation of how the Indians were treated.

So, I have some rather mixed feelings about the existence of the statues and their removal. The statues make me uncomfortable. But, trying to erase history bothers me just as much.

Let me be up front on the history issue. When it comes to destroying culture, we are all hypocrites -- or, at least, contradictory. That is certainly true of me.

When people raise the history defense, there are certain examples that are trotted out. Stalin airbrushing opponents out of photographs. The Taliban blowing up the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Islamic State destroying the treasures of Palmyra.

The reactions to those travesties were appropriate. Barbaric. A crime against culture. Abominable. An act of terrorism against all humanity.

But, we all seem to pick our favorite villains, whose cultural artifacts deserve no special protection. When the Soviet Union fell, and the captive nations were freed, one of the first targets were the statues of Stalin, Lenin, and Mark that stood rigidly in parks and squares. Down they came, along with their ideology, to be dumped into the dustbin of history.

I did not raise a peep. Instead, I was cheering on a people, who had lived in the darkness of tyranny and were now taking revenge on the ideology that had enslaved them in a system that was the moral equivalent of National Socialism.

At times, I wonder if we would be better off labeling statues we find offensive through post-modern eyes to promote some thought about our own feelings of otherwise objectionable art objects in public places. Of course, that takes all the adrenalin out of moral indignation.

And what about that statue of 
Fray Juan de San Miguel? Doesn't anyone object to it?
It turns out that they have. I learned on a walking tour that there was a movement to remove the statue in the 1960s -- for some of the same reasons the San Francisco statue came under attack. But, Mexico seems to have a kinder and gentler way of dealing with these issues.

Someone from the church pointed out the Indian is not in a conquered position beneath the priest. He has come as a supplicant. To be baptized by God's representative. The shell in the Fray Juan's hand is a baptism tool. The priest uses it to pour water.

With that explanation, the controversy went away. The Indian is still in an obviously inferior position. Even though it is legally a secular country, the majority of Mexicans are Catholic. And, even though the statue clearly takes the conservative side of the conservative-liberal division that has split the country since before Independence, it still stands in the square.

I am always amazed how Mexicans can spin a potential controversy into a consensus myth.

Unlike San Francisco, which will crate up its uncomfortable bit of history, Mexico lives with its own in the light of day. I suspect very few people who view the priest see any racial or religious significance in the piece. It is simply an interesting backdrop for the next selfie.

And maybe that is a healthier approach than trying to re-write history.


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