Archive for syncretism

Language by Baptism: Parte Nueve

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


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.


Language by Baptism: Parte Cinco

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 9, 2017 by timtrue


Each day here seems to get better. If that’s the intention of an immersion experience, it definitely applies in my case.

Yesterday began with a walk to our host family’s eatery for breakfast and then on to the AHA! campus for a half-day field trip. Our destination? Cañada de la Virgen, or Ravine of the Virgin, where in recent years archaeologists have uncovered a Mesoamerican pyramid unique in the world (so far), most likely from a Matriarchal culture–more on this later.

Back to AHA! by 2pm, Christiana and I were both feeling a little bushed. So, after lunch, we returned home; she napped, I did laundry.

But on the way home we’d stopped by the box office of Teatro Angela Peralta to purchase two tickets for an evening concert of opera arias for what turned out to be one of the best classical concerts I’ve ever attended. Admission was 100 pesos, or a little more than $5.

The performers were students of a summer program called Bel Canto, rising young musicians from Mexico, South Korea, and the United States; and this was their final event, the culmination of six weeks of long rehearsals and hard work.

That ended at about 9pm. A couple friends we’ve made at AHA! were there, who suggested we catch dessert together at a local panaderia; and a few minutes later, and 17 pesos poorer (<$1), we were enjoying churros deliciosos on the jardin (plaza) in the middle of this glorious city.

Great day! But where to go from here?

Entonces, I devote the remainder of this post to the incredible archaeological tour at Cañada de la Virgen. By the way, did I mention it was a semi-private tour, given by one of the chief archaeologists himself?


The tour began here, in this parking lot, looking out over a lake towards a tall mountain. I took this picture because of the scenery. Soon, however, I found out that the mountain on the horizon is a chief player in this story. For this mountain is a volcano that erupted some two million years ago; and the lava from this eruption formed into the stone used to construct the pyramid.


This is our group. The guy in the middle, facing everyone else, is Albert Coffee, our tour guide; a brilliant man with a wicked dead-pan sense of humor. The only non-Mexican archaeologist allowed to work on this site, he has been excavating, collaborating, and otherwise putting together the pieces of this mysterious cultural puzzle for the past twenty years.

This site, by the way, is on private property–with the exception of the road to the site and a sixteen-acre area including and immediately surrounding the pyramid, both federally owned. The landowner (a very wealthy German family who purchased an 11,000 acre parcel at the conclusion of WWII, knowing nothing at the time about the pyramid) controls access. We could only see the site by special permission. Together this means that this particular pyramid is pristine, with no hotels or vendors anywhere (unlike other, more well-known pyramids); we also had to walk the last kilometer or so just to get to the entrance.


On the walk to the pyramid now, looking back toward the Ravine of the Virgin, so named because a peasant farmer some years back, before the excavations began, found a cracked geode in the bottom of the ravine; inside, the crystals formed an image in appearance remarkably like the Virgin Mary, to whom many local miracles have been attributed over the years.

Or so the story goes anyway. The actual whereabouts of this geode today are unknown; but local rumors place it in a crude, country chapel within sixty kilometers. Albert might even go to look for it soon.

As for the road itself, it was built close to two thousand years ago and runs east to west, following the precise path of the sun on March 4 and October 7. In the above photo I am looking eastward. Beyond the horizon, precisely in this direction, is the city of San Miguel de Allende, leaving modern archaeologists like Albert to speculate that perhaps SMA itself was built on top of another pyramid, now lost. And, if speculations are to be followed, is the parroquia itself in the exact spot of the lost pyramid, the Spaniards’ attempt to overwhelm the old religion with the new?


Evidence intimates. Still, what are the chances the Vatican would let archaeologists dig around, even a little? We may never know for sure.


Continuing westward up the ancient road.


And the pyramid comes into view.

Mindbogglingly, the pyramid functioned similarly to the Jewish Temple. Priests mediated between the people and the gods, between the human and the divine. The priests lived in residential areas on the pyramid’s (temple’s) campus; whereas the people lived away, down in the ravine mostly. The people brought animals to the priests for ritual sacrifice. Moreover, with their secret knowledge of astronomical events, the priests were able to wield a kind of power–or control–over the people.

Are these all mere coincidences? It’s enough to leave me scratching my head anyway.




Of course, over long years the pyramid has lost some of its lustre. It would have been covered in stucco and painted to represent the four directions of the compass. Also, trees have grown up over time, some of them even growing out of the rock walls themselves.


The trees that grow out of the wall today, such as the one in this photo, will remain so; their root systems are necessary for the wall’s stability.


These trees have become a part of the overall site too, not being a part of the original layout. But this photo shows something much more important than new flora: a patio.


In addition to no trees, imagine the rock walls around the sunken patio being six feet taller. This patio then forms a kind of amphitheater, where sound is kept within the walls and people of the community can gather.

Moreover, in the far corner, which you cannot tell from this photograph, is a kind of drainage pipe. Albert has concluded that this patio was actually a kind of pool. Strong evidence suggests that the drainage pipe could be plugged and water could be directed into the patio until the pool was a few feet deep.

Why does this matter? With the east-west orientation of the pool, the sky–and in particular the night sky–could be quadranted off; and the moon, stars, and planets could be observed quite intricately and carefully. Additionally, the heightened acoustic qualities of a six-foot wall would make it very easy for priests to communicate across the reflective surface of the pool to one another, collaborating, observing, and forming their secret knowledge together. Make sense?

By the way, in C. S. Lewis’s The Horse and his Boy, a volume from his Chronicles of Narnia, the protagonists encounter an old mystic who spends much of his time gazing into a reflective pool. There is a similar episode in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. Another coincidence?

Scratch, scratch.

Whatever the case, these pools (there is another, see below), and not the pyramid, actually comprise the chief architectural features of this site.


We begin our ascent . . .


. . . only to encounter a kind of courtyard between us and the pyramid. The ground level of this “courtyard” seems to be the same level as the ground outside. The wall upon which we now stand is maybe 12 feet tall. What’s the deal?


Albert the archaeologist points out a similar drainpipe in the southeast corner. Ah! Another reflective pool–making a really short commute for the priests!


And now to begin the ascent for reals.


And here are four perspectives from the top.


Looking eastward, towards SMA.


Looking southward.

The edifice in the photo is one of three prominent tombs on the site discovered thus far. The woman inside the tomb was killed by a wolf or wolf-like creature, as evidenced by traces of fang and punctures in her bones. Whether she was mauled or sacrificed is open to debate. In any case, she was a prominent figure in this society.

The other two prominent tombs also contain the bones of females, one of a girl (7-10 years old is the guess) decked in the garb of a warrior, perhaps a princess who died young.


Looking westward.

Might there be more buried pyramids this way, perhaps under or beyond the mountains?


And north-ish.

It’s more northwest, actually: I didn’t have a clear view directly north. Still, it’s a good shot of the first patio/reflective pool.

Anyway, put it all together and something unique in Mesoamerica rises, eh hem, to the surface.

The reflective pools are the chief architectural features at this site. Pools are considered female symbols by archaeologists. Moreover, unlike similar sites in Mesoamerica, here are no phallic symbols. Additionally, all prominent tombs discovered here thus far house females. Could this actually be the only known (thus far) matriarchal society from Mesoamerica?

I’ve yet said nothing about syncretism. That’s what happens when the old religion is incorporated into the new, like when the padres from Spain incorporated Ancestor worship into Catholicism with the festival we call today Dia de los Muertos; or like when they incorporated worship of the god of the four winds into the four arms of the cross.

What, am I suggesting that some modern Catholic practices in Mexico might date back to the Mesoamericans?

Um, yeah.

Anyway, well is this matriarchal site named, then, after the Virgin, the Matriarch of Catholic Christianity!

Also, for what it’s worth, I mention vortexes. Lots of people speculate that there are special places on the earth with heavy concentrations of energy called vortexes. The jury’s out for me, just so you know. Point is, people who are into this kind of thing think SMA may just be a vortex, as well as Cañada de la Virgen, Make of it what you will.

To wrap this post up, I conclude with this photo, a tribute of sorts.


It was taken when I was unaware; and I think it captures well the profundity of this day. My daughter is in the foreground, standing still atop an ancient monument to architecture, astronomy, leadership, wisdom, and woman. I am in the background, walking eastward, having given to her what fatherly direction I’ve been able.

Indeed, may she and all my daughters rise to heights I can never imagine reaching! Go woman!