The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Dia de los Muertos

Tradition, Theology, and Bad Poetry

(Photo credit to the Lion and the Cardinal Blog)

You had to expect this post from me, so here it is. Many of you may be tired of me putting references to my Mexican heritage on my blog, but it is something I really can't help. I am pretty white-washed and have my "coconut" moments (I go to an Anglican Church for crying out loud!), but the Mexican comes out sooner or later.

In that vein, I went to the event that the Latino student community here in Berkeley put on last night, and I have to say I felt pretty alienated. Sure, it was good to be in a room where brown people were the majority; I haven't felt that too often since I left Hollister last August. I soon realized, however, that I had waltzed into the "Chicano nationalist" world of petit-bourgeois stereotypes and mythologies. The vast majority of those who read this blog will have no idea what I am talking about, so let me summarize the issues at hand concisely. With the rise of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements in this country in 1960's, many Mexican Americans also began to articulate their own vision of what it means to be a racial minority in this country. What they came up with was the term "Chicano", which often exalted the indigenous roots of Mexican peoples over our Hispanic heritage. In this way, many leftist activists began to embrace pre-Columbian spiritualities and culture, trying to envison the struggles of Mexican Americans in the broader context of the struggles of people of color all over the world.

So when I got to the large room where this event was being held, they had already set up altars for the dead that are traditional for a Mexican All-Souls' Day celebration. While some of the displays were indeed touching, other altars featured home-made votive candles with the images of Che Guevara and Tupac Shakur on them. (Don't get me wrong, I think Tupac could flow tight, but that is another post....) In other words, these aspiring members of the Latino petit-bourgeoisie had stripped the holiday of any reference to the Catholic holy day, aside from, of course, the occasional image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Finally a young woman was introduced to read some poetry. Now, this is where I am really going to show my reactionary colors.... SPANGLISH IS NOT A LANGUAGE!!!! True, my mother speaks fluent "Spanglish" but that is just because we get the poor woman so flustered that she gets confused sometimes. Nevertheless, Mexican-American kids in academia seem to think that speaking a mixture of Spanish and English somehow makes them more Mexican-than-thou. But my "barrio credentials" are solid, so I do not feel the need to speak bad English in order to know who I am, but I digress....

This young woman then proceeded to read a few of her poems, of which the best were passable, and some needed a lot of work. Mira, preciosa, (lapsing into Spanglish, my bad), you don't have to make poetry into an exercise in Maoist propaganda. Just let the poem be. And when you raise your voice in indignation like that, you look cute, but I am not going to take you seriously. Here in Berkeley it is proven over and over again that bad art makes bad politics, and good art is usually not political at all.

While she was reading, a few spaced-out frat-boys went around with an incense wand "blessing the altars". This demonstrated that Mexicans make very bad pagans, so they either should go back to Mass or give up religion all together. The poor poetess up front tried to explain the significance of the spirits coming back to altars with theology that would make a class of pre-schoolers giggle. It reminded me of the Chesterton saying that when people start believing in nothing, they will believe in anything at all. If this is the future of our people in the Mexican diaspora, I don't want it. It is the apex of idiocy and an excuse to celebrate an illusion that we have long ago left.

Nevertheless, once the ordeal was over, I went over to one of the more presentable altars and mumbled the "De Profundis" in Latin, making a prominent Sign of the Cross before and after. I then realized that maybe the Reformers were right in a sense. Here were many things that once were Catholic but finally stripped of Christ they had become pure paganism again. (And even worse, paganism without taste!) In the past year, I have had to gauge what is important and what is not in my life as a Christian, and I have had to discard so many things that I once thought I would die for. Many of the trappings of Roman Catholicism have become solely cultural for me. The whole idea of an "incarnational religion" can become idolatry on so many levels, not just on the obvious ones like these neo-pagan altars. When we take externals too seriously on the account that the "Word became flesh", we often end up deifying sinful men, dividing the Church by over-valuing trifles, and in the worse case scenario, keeping the smells-and-bells but throwing out Christ. What then is imporant? I am still trying to find out.

In any event, I see no harm in participating in things like a traditional Day of the Dead if we keep our priorities straight. I don't believe in plenary indulgences, temporal punishments due to sin, and purgatory strictly speaking. They may be true, but I will never treat them as Gospel truth. At best, they are stabs in the dark at a mystery that we will never understand, and I respect them as opinions held by my ancestors. If we accept them as such, perhaps we can keep this sacred sense of life and death, of the mystical bond between heaven and earth that nothing can destroy. In this way, I think it is possible to have our cake and eat it too, to have Christ and traditions, and by them show the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection on a more personal and familiar level. We just cannot lose sight of what is really important.


At 10:35 PM, Blogger axegrinder said...


I have been eagerly awaiting a post from you on the Day of the Dead. This was not exactly what I was expecting but it was rather funny and a good critique from within.

Do you have a post in you about positive reflections and/or memories regarding the Day of the Dead? I would be interested to hear about it.


At 8:59 AM, Blogger D. I. Dalrymple said...

An interesting post, Arturo.

My three year old son, who is so totally white-bread it isn't even funny, has developed a fascination with Spanish. He's using his own version of Spanglish now. One of his favorite things to ask is, "Where is un bano?"

On dis/incarnational religion, I think I follow you. There is a real danger in "incarnational" religion when it fails to effectively signify Christ. It devolves into mere paganism. On the other hand, there is a danger in "disincarnate" Christianity, too. It devolves into philosophy.

At 5:26 PM, Blogger Anaxagoras said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 5:28 PM, Blogger Anaxagoras said...


It isn't just the Mexicans. It is Hispanics in general. I've finally come to the conclusion that we can't do religion unless it is either weird, extreme, or emotional. So we have Spanish catholics who flagellate themselves and dress in penitential hoods during Holy Week, or we have "Creciendo en Gracia":

... these two groups think they are worlds apart, but they are two sides of the same coin.

During my time as a low-church "fundagelical bapticostal" of the generic American megachurch sort, I realized how profoundly *weird* (most) Hispanic religious sentiment was compared with (most) of the same thing done by "whitebread" Americans. You rarely find boring mainstream old school Protestant churches of the Calvinist or Lutheran sort among Hispanics... but you do find a lot of charismatic type churches. I also learned from first hand experience the difference between an Irish or Polish Catholic and a Cuban Catholic, and it ain't language alone.

Maybe I'm coming down too hard on my own, but I've almost given up on the Latins. We like weird religion TOO much for our own good.


At 6:53 PM, Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...

Some would argue Orthodoxy is weird, but maybe I am just being a contrarian....

You are absolutely right. I can't think that it must be easy to separate the Catholic Faith from santeria as a Cuban, and more often than not it is probably not separated. I myself was raised charasmatic Roman Catholic, and my grandparents and most of my extended family are involved in the Charasmatic movement still. I remember being dragged to prayer meetings as a child when they started praying the rosary in Spanish and then half way through began to pray the rosary while speaking in tounges. That was not as unsettling as when I heard recordings from some of my relatives who became evangelical Protestants of Spanish "praise music". I always felt that stuff was creepy for some strange reason. I guess it's a little like being afraid of clowns.

Do I think that all hope is lost for Western Christianity in its Hispanic context? The jury is still out for me. I have always seen Roman Catholicism in particular as suffering from a split personality disorder in Latin America. On the one hand, many are all for Rome and the Second Vatican Council. On the other, they want to keep their rosy-cheek baby Jesus, torch-lit processions, and saints days that are just an excuse to get really, really toasted. Many "gringo" Catholic intellectuals might praise these things in a romanticist manner as something very quaint and even profoundly moving, but being at ground zero I can assure you that everything bad that is said about them is true. This was confirmed for me when I once worked with a Mexican-American man who always made the Sign of the Cross when he passed a church but hadn't been in one since he was baptized. Alas, this is also a familiar case in many Orthodox countries.

I suppose that maybe we passionate Latins need to chill out a bit. But I wouldn't want to get too cold. I still enjoy a tortured Spanish hymn once in a while.

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