Plaza Wars

I recently returned from Merida, Mexico, having escaped wintry Boston for a warmer and lovelier place. A city built by Spanish conquistadors on the ruins of an older Maya town, Merida is constructed out of stones recycled from smashed buildings, including its cathedral, oldest in the Americas, built over the remains of a Maya temple. Franciscan and Dominican missionaries soon followed, imposing Catholicism on a conquered people. The conquest was brutal, the conversions forced, but in a surprisingly short time Jesus, and especially his mother Mary, became naturalized Mexicans.

According to the foundational legend, this naturalization process began in 1531, when a peasant named Juan Diego reported having a vision of a dark lady ("la morenita" as she came to be called) while climbing Tepeyac, a hill sacred to the Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin. Speaking in Nahuatl, la morenita told Juan not to be afraid, for she was his mother. To affirm the veracity of this apparition, the dark lady imprinted her image on his cloak, now revered as the divinely etched portrait of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. The image on that cloak, housed in a basilica on Tepeyac, remains the essential badge of Mexican identity. It is reproduced on haptic altars, baseball caps, bicep tattoos, and---according to the tabloides --- it re-occurs (miraculously) on shower curtains and burritos. Just as a new religion was grafted onto an old, so Guadalupe became the mestizo patroness of a mestizo people.

Despite the corruptions of the institutional church, and sometimes violent anti-clerical persecutions of secular governments, the mestizo Catholicism of Mexico has perdured, though such endurance was by no means inevitable. In nearby Cuba the official atheism of the early Castro Revolution effectively shut down the Catholic church for decades after the Revolution. For unlike Mexico, the Cuban church had never developed folk roots. It was always a bourgeois affair, with no Juan Diego, and no Nahuatl-speaking morenita. If not for the practitioners of Santeria and other Afro-Cuban religions, who have appropriated saint imagery for their own decidedly non-Catholic purposes, the churches of Cuba would be museums.

I noted Guadalupe images everywhere as I made my evening paseo to Parque Santiago, center of the barrio where I lived. Every barrio in the centro histórico has a similar plaza with a Catholic church, a fountain, a market, fast food eateries, and plenty of shaded benches for families, lovers, and occasional hustlers. Here I would sit many evenings, smoking my cohiba, watching neighbors pass the time, sell huipiles, kick balones de fútbol, steal kisses, eat panuchos, or casually slip into the 17th-century plaza church to join in vespers or light a candle before images of Guadalupe.

Across Merida, Mexico, and most of Latin America, plaza cultures offer a similar interplay of the sacred and the profane. They are the nuclei of what Ferdinand Tönnies (1877) called Gemeinschaft: cultures based on communal spaces where interpersonal relationships are defined on the basis of traditional social roles and common rituals. But as the contemporary history of Mexico suggests, religious traditions do have a shelf life, and, as I was to discover, plaza cultures are not immune to the transforming force of globalization, especially from El Norte (as the 19th-century dictator Porfirio Díaz presciently quipped, "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States!")

On a final Saturday evening, usually the busiest of the week, I was shocked to discover a nearly empty plaza. Gigantic speakers had been set up on a sound stage, blasting treacly hymns for the spiritual uplift of a neighborhood audience they had managed to drive away. Instead, a dozen or so bused-in Maya "converts" were seated on folding chairs before a stage where an American preacher and his teenage son, Pentecostals out of Jesus-land U.S.A., harangued them with visions of hellfire, and pleadings to accept Jesus as their personal savior. Their preaching, in a Dixie-inflected Spanish, along with the eardrum blasting hymns, reverberated through a plaza they had effectively shut down.

Analogous wars are being waged across Latin America, plaza by plaza, usually with more success than the hostile takeover I had witnessed that night in Merida. An almost homogeneously Catholic continent is being transformed into a flourishing religious market place, with Pentecostalism posting huge gains (as it is doing in Africa, and in such 3rd World outliers as Orange County, California). More Latinos have converted to Evangelical Protestantism in the last quarter of the 20th century than in Europe during the century after the Reformation. What is being sold in this new religious market place besides sob inducing hymns and saccharine visions of Jesus? I would argue that it is Gesellschaft, the term social scientists use to describe a way of life utterly opposed to Gemeinschaft. A world where rational self-interest replaces traditional bonds of community, where human relations are impersonal and indirect. A world where malls---selling polyester shirts and Big Macs---replace the huipiles and panuchos sold in the plaza.

One might argue that one colonialism is simply replacing another. NAFTA capitalists vs Spanish friars, both in opposition to el Mundo Maya. But in the Gesellschaft there is no room for Guadalupe. No syncretism of the old with the new. No mestizo accommodations. A telling news item: in the 1990s Sergio von Helde, bishop of Brazil's largest Pentecostal church, went on TV to kick an icon of Our Lady of Aparecida, Brazil's equivalent to Guadalupe, all the while shouting "this is no saint. This is idol worship!" His iconoclasm caused a backlash, and the good bishop was eventually tried and convicted of "public disrespect for a religious symbol." As we used to say in the days of my rebellious youth, "la lucha continua."