“Nowhere in the world do two countries as different as Mexico and the United States live side by side…nowhere in the world do two neighbors understand each other so little. More than by levels of development, the two countries are separated by language, religion, race, philosophy and history.”- Alan Riding1
These photographs are a work-in-progress describing spiritual practice in Mexico. The Mexican cultural transit is marked by intensity, violence, devotion, excess, altruism, paradox and humor. Native pantheistic beliefs survive under hegemonic Catholicism. The present may appear wide-open but is bound tight to history. The tragic human condition is evident. Suffering, compassion, and ideas of the past are illuminated in the sunlight of the present.
In no small measure, Mexican religiosity emerges from the recurrent disasters and conflicts of the last two thousand years. Advanced civilizations collapsed through internal strife and climate change, or they were vanquished by more powerful groups. Unremitting warfare was the status quo. The colonial period was difficult for everyone who wasn’t born in Spain. Natives lived a three hundred year nightmare of slavery and abuse that still lingers. In the last two centuries, most of the good political leaders were killed: from the War of Independence, the heads of heroes Hidalgo and Morelos ended up on pikes; Revolutionary leaders Zapata, Villa and Madero were all assassinated. Grass roots movements have largely been crushed or compromised. Daily life continues to be a struggle for many. Few have confidence that the government will solve the issues of poverty and corruption. The political rhetoric is shameful burlesque.
Despite the scars Mexicans have not lost courage or their relish for life. Their remarkable openhearted compassion grows out of the pain. Mexicans know that life involves suffering. Misfortune does not subjugate appreciation of existence and is used instead as impetus in the continual quest to recreate, to resurrect, themselves.
The majority of the population is of mixed racial heritage – mestizo. The beautiful brown skin could be a unifying factor, but is instead touched by shame, seen as the result of the Spanish rape of the native mother.2 This psychological conflict and the persistent social problems cast a fatalistic shadow. Thankfully, this predilection is not without ironic humor and dignity.
The meaning of “mestizo” is belied by many cultural situations that are not mixed; instead polarities simply exist side by side. Mexico is a land of constant and exaggerated contradictions. Ancient versus modern plays out in spiritual clashes of indigenous pantheism and monotheistic Catholicism, and in the earthy conflicts of traditional and modern farming methods. Widespread native languages strengthen cultural resistance to Spanish. The schisms continue in rich against poor, urban versus rural, and the tendencies toward violence or passivity. Devotion and faith can be seen next to extreme practicality. Paradox defines the society.
These photographs result from preparation (largely cultural and historical readings), opportunity, friendships, and my own spiritual experience and inclination. The following paragraphs detail specific ideas shaping the images.
Mexican spirituality resides in the body. Christ gave his entirely. Sacrifice was basic in the major indigenous civilizations. Human blood was given to the Gods in exchange for their support of this world. The gory rituals prepared the Aztecs and Mayans for Spanish Catholicism with its emphasis on the tortures endured by Jesus and the saints. The religious evolution is not linear, however. Seen under dark, cloudy skies, the crowds of Mexican tourists at Teotihuacan seem ready to return to the legacy of the pyramids.
Christian veneration of Mother Mary also had ancient parallels that allowed for the extension of native religion into Catholicism. The Virgin of Guadalupe inherited the mantle of the Aztec goddess Tonantzin after she appeared on the traditional site of this pre-Hispanic Mother Earth. La Virgen later became a symbol of free Mexico during the War of Independence. Her consoling presence is ubiquitous - from full back tattoos to wall shrines in tortilla shops. Human vulnerability can be openly expressed to the Mother. Perhaps this admission prevents emotional shut down.
The cult of death grew under the auspices of the Catholic Church as the Days of the Dead assumed priority over All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days. However, the Church is not pleased with the recent metamorphosis of dark worship to Santa Muerte, Saint Death. La Virgen has now given some of her power to Santa Muerte. The Mexican tradition of addressing Death with imagination and humor continues. Death is venerated as a societal leveler, a release from the pain of life and a reminder to appreciate our short lives. The open recognition of death enriches life.
As repositories of ancient personifications of death, Mexico’s anthropological museums transcend their academic mission and become religious sites through the pure power of their ritual objects. The public is accessory and subordinate. Several centuries from being sacrificial victims, visitors do not escape a mythological infection of fear and irrationality.
Signs of faith and religious zeal are not uncommon. Evidence of living pagan ritual can sometimes be found at the pre-Columbian ruins. The image of a skull on the ground, made of flowers and seeds, returns us to a world of shamanism that has not receded as far as we thought. Wonderful naïve-style paintings and written testimonials to miracles are displayed at Christian pilgrimage sites. Many of the depicted miracles are somewhat ordinary; they affirm the Mexican belief in the magic of everyday life. Small, informal shrines mark roadways and small businesses. Public prayers and the Evangelical laying on of hands are not rare phenomena on city streets.
The establishment and constant repair of the colonial churches is a metaphor for the assembly of Mexican religiosity. The Spanish conquerors razed the native temples and reused the stone for Catholic churches. Incorporating the ancient rocks into new buildings did not sever connections to the past as the missionaries hoped. The churches are literally and spiritually supported by the Aztec or Mayan building blocks. In Mexico City the heavy stone churches are sinking into the unstable subsoil necessitating heroic feats of scaffolding, restoration, and the lowering of surrounding streets. The main Cathedral has a giant plumb bob permanently hanging in the center of the church to monitor the shifting structure. The dangerous and disorienting tilts of the buildings are surreal in the manner of the country itself. Attention to the here and now is demanded.
Like the churches, Mexican Catholicism holds unknown quantities. For native pantheists, the addition of the Christian god is not a problem. In fact, another god, especially a powerful one, can make the pantheism stronger. If the ruling monotheists insist on the exclusionary worship of just one god, pantheism hides. Prayers are not spoken aloud, rituals are performed secretly and old idols are actually buried underneath new crosses. The Christian cross itself resembles some figurations of the pre-Hispanic world cross, or tree of life, which unites heaven and the underworld with the earth.
A few nexus points reveal the complexities of belief and culture in Mexico. The Pino Suarez subway stop in the Distrito Federal channels thousands of daily commuters in a circumnavigation of an ancient Aztec ceremonial platform – sunken into the underground station but still open to the heavens. The aptly named Plaza de Las Tres Culturas, in Tlatelolco, also in the D.F., embodies the collisions of cultures in a crucible of pain. Here are the ruins of Aztec structures where Cuauhtemoc surrendered to Cortes, a somber Catholic church built from stones of the pyramids, and the site where police killed three hundred student demonstrators in 1968. As if the tragic focus was not enough, several of the massive apartment buildings surrounding the plaza twisted and collapsed in the 1985 earthquake, killing thousands. Death echoes through Mexican spiritual sites, native and mestizo. Our shared human fate is evident.
The distance between god and man is exemplified by the glass boxes (found in most churches) that enclose figures of the suffering Jesus. In protecting the statues from the physical touch of the believers, a spiritual separation is enforced. The intermediary function of the Catholic priest made sense to native people who had a comparable religious hierarchy. The growing popularity of Christian fundamentalism derives, in part, from its attempt to bypass this division and relate directly to god.
The Catholic Church has been embroiled in political life from the beginning of the colonial era. Identification with repressive regimes and the great accumulation of property brought attacks in revolutionary times, followed by counter reprisals when conservative government was re-established. The rebellious Cristeros fought to preserve the Church’s power and wealth in an ugly civil war in the late 1920’s.
Vibrant murals in the town halls portray Mexico’s turbulent past. The imagery often depicts triumphs of the people over their rich oppressors. These displays must hold bitter irony for the peasant supplicants traveling these halls of bureaucracy. Will there be future paintings describing the struggles against the narcotraficantes? The time of this project coincided with the worst of this situation but, aside from a generalized fear, I felt little of its terrible impact.
Given the innate sense of community, Mexican religious experience is strongly social. Festivals and pilgrimages bring together diverse groups of people. Participation of entire extended families is normal. But an acute class-consciousness lurks in the background as revealed in the folkloric tales of peasants who had miraculous visions but faced rejection by Church officials.
In a country of poor but hard-working inhabitants, the commercial potential of religion has not been overlooked. All marketing possibilities are exploited by entrepreneurial small businesses in sales methods sincere or crass. The aggressive hawking of religious articles is redeemed by subsequent blessings by the clergy. At the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a constant, loud, megaphoned sales pitch intrudes on quiet prayer. But Mexicans have a high tolerance (or appreciation) for noise and don’t appear perturbed.
My personal spirituality has gone from serious Catholicism in my youth to atheism and now secular Buddhism. After years of disappointment with the Catholic faith, I now seek to reclaim what is valuable at the base of religion - such as the promotion of morality, compassion, community, and works of art and architecture (which connect beauty and virtue). Religion helps us cope with the pain of our lives and realize our small place in this big world. Rituals lead towards calm and contemplation. Although the superstitious aspects of Mexican religious life are evident, many practitioners realize personal and social benefits. We can be non-theistic and still utilize these helpful rituals or create new nonsectarian practices. And whatever our beliefs, we can expand our spirit into the magnificent space of the cathedrals.
Can a Norteamericano do justice to this project? While one could rightfully argue that cultural insight naturally comes from within, we need go no further than Robert Frank’s The Americans to realize the rule is not absolute. Sometimes societal emphases, contradictions, excesses and nuances are more readily seen from outside. The comparative sensibilities of the foreigner can bring a revealing attention to a culture’s unexamined assumptions. Given the great challenges of defining the Mexican character, any sincere ideas also seem appreciated by the native born.
From my first visit to Baja California forty years ago, I realized Mexico was a very foreign place, full of strange phenomena, contents, people, and a past I did not understand. Even the landscape was mysterious. I entered the enigma with fascination and some fear. I feel much the same today. I now understand that I love this country because it completes/complements me, teaching and giving me possibilities I do not have. Through warmth, humor, and threat, Mexico demands presence and immediacy.
With the openness and precision of photography, I seek to make new descriptions of Mexican religious life, and do so in a direct and human way. I don’t focus on the extremes. I want nuanced images from everyday experience that express the rich spirit that has arisen from the staggering complexities of Mexico.
1Alan Riding, Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans (New York: Vintage Books, 1986), ix-xi.
2Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude, "The Sons of La Malinche."