Archive for Religious Rituals

Language by Baptism: Parte Nueve

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2017 by timtrue

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Wrapping things up around here.

Tomorrow is our examen grande, a kind of final exam to see how effective our Spanish immersion experience has been. Then, for me and my daughter anyway, we’ll be traveling back to the southwestern United States, leaving San Miguel de Allende to continue its life without us.

By the way, while we were staying here, Travel and Leisure named SMA the #1 city in the world to visit. What are the chances?

Anyway, point is, we’ve been thinking a lot about what we want to do in our last few days. What would we reget if we were to miss it?

El Museo de las Mascaras topped the list.

So we arranged a visit (by appointment only); and we went.

And we learned a whole lot more about the history of Mexico.

Do you know there are 63 recognized languages in this country?

One language, the language we’ve been studying so intensively for the past four weeks, of course, is Spanish.

Still, that leaves 62 others (which, incidentally, are spoken by over seven million people).

So what are these 62 other recognized languages in Mexico? Those of indigenous peoples.

Yeah! In Mexico, that friendly country to the south that we in the US tend to give little mind to–or else ignore or exclude–there are 62 recognized indigenous groups. These are peoples who speak their own language; carry on their own ancient customs, albeit vestiges for the most part; and, sadly, are largely forgotten by their own government.

Yesterday in conversation class–that hour after three intensive hours of grammar and syntax when we let loose, set aside our notebooks, and just talk–the subject of indigenous peoples came up. Mind you, this was just two hours before my and Christiana’s appointment at the Mask Museum.

Jessica, our teacher, a native of Mexico to whom I cannot offer enough praise, told us about education in Mexico. It’s free through college for all citizens; but there are simply not enough schools, especially in rural areas; especially where the indigenous peoples dwell.

Imagine the closest school being more than thirty kilometers away, and your family’s main source of transportation a donkey. Yeah! This really exists in our modern world. And just a few hundred miles south of San Diego!

Maybe the government of Mexico is to blame, I don’t know. But it is very difficult to find teachers who know or are willing to learn the languages of the indigenous peoples; so even if the government were to build a school in the midst of an indigenous community, what good are such schools without teachers?

The students could be immersed in Spanish, I suppose. But would they attend? Would their family or tribe want them to attend?

And these indigenous languages aren’t simply dialects of Spanish. Indeed, they’re not even cognates! They are completely unrelated to Spanish, connecting directly to the old, old languages of the days of the Aztecs and Mayans!

So, two hours later, with these questions persisting and pestering, we headed to the Mask Museum.

Photographs weren’t allowed, by the way.

It was an incredible experience, a highlight of our entire time here–wish I could offer some photos!

So: over the last 26 years, Bill, the owner of the museum and a retired businessman from the US, has been visiting indigenous communities all over Mexico collecting masks made for festivals and dances. Over the last dozen years, Bill has been displaying his collection in his museum, continually improving it. Each room is lined with masks; each wall displays a theme. Placards all along the way explain the themes (making for an ideal self-guided tour).

We read every word, spending more than three hours there. Here was indigenous history at our fingertips!

Syncretism figures prominently into the history of the indigenous peoples in Mexico. The Spaniards came to the new world and brought their religion and military might. Their modus operandi was to overwhelm the natives with their ways. Where religious ritual could not be snuffed out, it was incorporated and baptized (in a matter of speaking).

Ritualistic dances to the gods of harvest and bounty, for instance, became religious rituals to the Spanish understanding of the Christian god. Masks were very much a part of these ritualistic dances; and thus had to be carved into acceptable images–not in the image of the god of the four winds, for example, but in the image of St. James. If indigenous persons refused to comply, well, punishment included (from one edict I read) two hundred lashes and six years in prison.

Needless to say, the natives complied.

Más o menos.

And thus dances that formerly beseeched the gods of rain and bountiful harvest now took on an air of good versus evil according to the Spaniards’ version of the Christian story. St. James was good; Lucifer bad. The disciples were good; the Jews, and specifically the Pharisees, bad. Jesus was good; Pontius Pilate bad. The Spaniards were good; the moors (Muslims) bad. And one more: the slave-owning Spaniards were good; African slaves bad.

By the way, Judas Iscariot comes into the yearly dances too. But only once a year, during Holy Week. Thus, ironically, he is not an archetype of evil. (He’s evil, sure; but not an archetype.) The archetypal enemies (in dances performed to this day!) are Lucifer, the Jews, Pontius Pilate, and the Moors.

Thus, throughout Mexico (and I’m imagining most if not all of Latin America as well), the natives’ masks and dances were overwhelmed by and incorporated into the Spanish version of the Christian story.

And thus some very nasty and stubborn versions of racism entered friendly Mexico.

It’s all there in the masks.

To this day!

Nevertheless, despite all the Spaniards’ efforts, vestiges of the old, old dances remain.

One indigenous group, not too far south from Tucson, Arizona, as a matter of fact, continues a ritual dance to this day calling upon the god of the hunt to give the community ample deer meat for the season.

The conservative side of my psyche finds much hope in this; for maybe, just maybe–I like to think anyway–the old, old ways will triumph in the end over the newer. . . .

Anyway, I began this blog post with a photo. I wasn’t able to take any photos of any masks in the museum, I mentioned. But I was able to take this one.

That’s because it wasn’t taken in the museum. I purchased this mask and am bringing it home.

Made by a mask-maker in an indigenous community not far from here, in the Sierra Madre outside the city of Guanajuato, it’s a mask for Carnival, called Mardi Gras by the French, that great party that takes place each year just before Lent.

It’s a gift to my family.

More importantly, it’s a reminder of the social injustices happening to this day in that friendly country to the south.

At the end of this Spanish immersion experience, then, I am left to wonder what I can do about it.

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