Is There History Without Faith?
If you grew up in the United States or Canada we have been well-schooled in the delicacy of talking about religion in the company of others, particularly if conversion isn’t on the agenda. Consequently, we are reluctant to bring religion, much less faith, into the conversations about our Mexican experiences as it doesn’t feel appropriate for public discourse. For us from the North, we prefer to believe that faith plays no active role in our traditions or culture.
But here in Mexico it is different. We cannot understand Mexican history, culture or practices related to everyday living without understanding the pervasive role that faith plays even today. Even for the non-religious, or simply unaware.
Like many, I’ve trotted around the pre-Hispanic pyramids and temples in Mexico and I’m always amazed by their similarities despite the different tribes and time frames. As humans we’ve always seemed interested in three universal things: jewelry, sports involving a ball and the belief in a higher power.
The gods and goddesses change but their roles don’t. To me, the ancient gods whether Roman, Egyptian or Mayans became dethroned with the arrival of the Catholic Church with their Saints and versions of the Virgin Mary. They ruled until the arrival of movie stars and the cult of celebrity, another human image magnified and blown out of all proportion.
Yet it can be argued Mexico is still a Catholic country. How can it not be? The Inquisition lasted much longer here than it did in Europe, until 1820. Even then it took another century and another revolution to seriously dent the strong and lasting power of the Church.
The state for San Miguel de Allende (SMA), Guanajuato, is 96% Catholic. It’s hard to find those odds outside of the Vatican! Does that mean every resident of SMA spends their days in church? Yes and no.
Yes, I have teenaged students that don’t blink on a first date being going to mass or a pilgrimage. I also date ladies much older than my teen students who have never gave Catholicism much thought, or went to mass, yet when they had kids they were named for saints. When their daughters turned three they had a big birthday party like Mary did and every graduation is preceded by a mass.
By the same token my pals that have switched over to other faiths, Mormon, for example, still pull with them their Catholic roots. They may have spent a lifetime using birth control and join the Pentecostals every Sunday morning but come Christmas time they’ll organize a posada (a Catholic procession depicting Jesus’ birth). Why? It’s not part of their new faith but these traditions are part of the culture and you simply can’t yank the Catholic threads out without the fabric of life unraveling.
That’s not to say we foreigners don’t try to. I’ve heard some exceptionally gifted foreign speakers talk about Mexican history and culture. They’ve the dates and battles right, but don’t know the whys behind the war because the whys inevitability deal with both the ingenious and Spanish concepts of faith and that make us foreigners uncomfortable.
For example, I’ve trained a local tour guide who talks about how her car was constantly robbed until she thought to put an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the dashboard. “Phew!” she exclaims on her tours, “Now no one will steal from me with Guadalupe watching them.”
Well, yes, sort of, but why? Without the why her neighbors come across as dim witted toddlers afraid of a 500 year old image of Mary. The why involves Guadalupe being the mother of Mexico and Mexicans causing an irretrievable mixing of the customs of the Spanish and indigenous. Hence her image appears on nearly every street in town. The why involves faith, and faith, like the pyramids show us, impacts culture and history whether we want to acknowledge it or not.
You don’t have to believe what your Mexican neighbor does, but to understand why your neighbor believes what they do and how it impacts our shared culture infuses our lives here with greater joy. To me, understanding history and culture removes fear and anger, replacing them with compassion and joy. Now, instead of being angry to be stuck in traffic you understand there are rich traditions in place during a funeral procession blocking the street while easing the spirit into eternal life.
And, we might even just smile when those church bells clang in the early morning!