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Between Christianity and Costumbre: Religious Syncretism and Resistance in Latin America

Lenore Maier 10336347 History 271 14Mar13 Instructor: Marie-Christine Dugal

Indigenous peoples all over Latin America have been exploited and victimized by the unfettered weights of colonial endeavors since the arrival of the conquistadors in the late fifteenth century. For over five hundred years these groups of people, although unique in their beliefs and traditions, have shown interesting similarities in their abilities to maintain centuries old practices through very innovative and unconventional ways. Since the arrival of Europeans in Latin America, there has been a seemingly merciless, colonial campaign to quell all things indigenous through the use of coercion. Colonialism in Latin America utilized Christianity, more specifically roman Catholicism, as a paramount tool in the conquest of the New World. Indigenous people were required by Spanish law through the requerimiento to abandon their ancient religious beliefs and practices, and embrace Christianity. In the years to follow, Catholicism and costumbre, that is, the embodiment of ancient tradition and customs, engaged in a centuries long confrontation that still continues today. The results were quite remarkable. In the context of Latin America, fusions of religious syncretism emerged, effectively blending elements of both Christianity and costumbre. In turn, these religious syntheses enabled the continuity of indigenous religious practice, while providing a sense of contentment within the catholic mission that the church had become the new religious hegemon. In reality, there are many case studies of religious syncretism in Latin America that have fostered the identity and religious autonomy of indigenous people. By adopting elements of Catholicism into indigenous practices, indigenous groups, to a significant degree, effectively slowed the fervent nature of the Christian mission. Indigenous groups were able to incorporate elements of Christianity into local religions, instead of abandoning their beliefs altogether. On the surface, these groups may now appear to be Christian, but upon further inquiry, it is evident that there is much more to Catholicism in the Latin American context. In reality, syncretism in Latin America has

created a religious strata, in which elements of both Christianity and costumbre each come to the fore at different times. Firstly, this essay seeks to explain the misconceptions and contemporary academic understandings surrounding religious syncretism. Secondly, those understandings will be applied to three different case studies: The case of El To in the highlands of Bolivia and Peru, the deity of Maximn in El Santiago de Atitlan in Guatemala, and finally El Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, this essay will seek to demonstrate the stoic tenacity of the Latin American spirit through the preservation of indigenous costumbre in religious syncretism. In addition, it will support the idea that by replacing certain elements of pre-Colombian religions with those of catholic origin, indigenous groups have in reality, managed to save and maintain significant elements of their spiritual traditions by practicing them under the guise of Christianity. Religious syncretism has become a highly debated and quite controversial topic in religious studies.1 Such a disputative nature may stem from our constructed understandings of the term. Religious syncretism, according to Leopold and Jensen, is a term that incorporates the blending of, or mixing of origins.2 They also note that syncretism and our ways of understanding such, reveal much in the way of how we come to identify relationships of kinship and foreign entities as well. To draw on these aforementioned ideas, anthropologist Pascal Boyer observes how people believe that kinship refers to a special kind of essence shared by people with a common genealogy.3 Similarly, anthropologist Larry Hirschfeld denotes the concept of naive sociology in which we as humans tend to understand each social groups as naturally

Anita Maria Leopold and Jeppe Sinding Jensen, Syncretism in Religion: A Reader (London: Equinox Publishing Ltd., 2004), 3.
1 2 3

Ibid, 2. Ibid, 3. 3

different from one another.4 These ideas can help us to understand the often contested and debated nature of religious syncretism . The traditional understandings of syncretism are more cut and dry than reality may suggest. The very existence and embodiment of religious syncretism in action contradicts traditional western understandings of religious purity. Therefore, it is essential to view religious syncretism from outside of a pure/impure context, to gain a better understanding of its depth. In other words, syncretism embodies elements of struggle and negotiation, rather than contamination in the transmission of religion.5 These arguments suggest that through an anthropological lens, we must be critical of our own subliminal understanding of syncretism. Such a consciousness is useful, and may perhaps foster a new understanding in the analysis of religious syncretism in Latin America. The mezcla, or mixing, of religions in Bolivia has had some very interesting culminations with regards to the struggles of religious syncretism. The religious strata in Bolivia exists in an amazing dichotomy of geography. On the ground, the catholic church has roots that have been planted for over five hundred years. The country is predominantly roman catholic, (although the number of people who attend mass is far smaller).6 However, deep in the tin mines of the Andean spine, there exists another spiritual icon, which is literally out of view from the watch of the catholic church. For centuries, indigenous Bolivians have been forced to extract silver, and later tin, out of the Andean cordillera, at the hand of European colonialism. The Andes have housed some of the worlds most intriguing civilizations, all of whom held a deep, spiritual relationship with the surrounding mountains, and Ibid. Ibid, 2. 6 U.S. Department of State: Diplomacy in Action. Bolivia,
4 5

understood them to be the dwelling places of the gods.7 Descendants of the grand Inca empire, the Quechua and Aymara people of the Andes have for centuries, held a very strong, spiritual relationship with Pachamama, or Earth Mother.8 With the coming of Catholicism from Europe, sacred mountain places such as El Cerro Rico in Bolivia were pillaged of material wealth, and a catholic church erected at its base. The colonial expansion of silver and tin mining in this region had a profound and devastating effect on indigenous costumbre, and as such, new spiritual practices developed in the mine itself. In an unofficial response to the weighted impression of Catholicism, a somewhat opposing deity has emerged in the mines. Known affectionately as El To, or The Uncle, he is present in virtually every mine in Bolivia and Peru. Dawning a chalky personage with moustache and large eyes, his mouth agape, nostrils blackened from cigarette smoke, and his body is covered with various adornments. He is seated on a throne, his hands extended to receive offerings, his knees bent and feet enclosed in rubber mining boots. He displays a large erect penis, a reminder of his virility. The tunnels of the mines are his kingdom.9 El To is a symbol of many things. He brings harm, but he also brings protection to the workers in the mines. He is the devil, although he is never referred to as such.10 El To is honoured through offerings and homage, similar to the ancient practices which glorified Pachamama through indistinguishable means. Anthropologist and Historian, Heraclio Bonilla explains the methodic variation of offerings to El To:

7 8

Ibid, 338. Heraclio Bonilla, Religious Practices in the Andes and Their Relevance to Political Struggle and Development: The Case of El To and Miners in Bolivia, Mountain Research and Development, Vol. 26, No. 4, Religion and Sacredness in Mountains: A Historical Perspective (2006), 336. Ibid, 336. Ibid. 5


On Tuesday and Friday the miners offer coca leaves, hand-rolled cigarettes, and bottles of white rum to slake the Tios thirst. Furthermore, each carnival Tuesday the miners perform chaalla in the mine, soaking the earth around the Tio with chicha (Andean corn-based beer), rum, or beer, lacing his neck with confetti garlands, and placing food and drink all around his throne. Additionally, in August comes the toast of karaku, a sacrificial offering of a llama or alpaca whose blood is splashed on the threshold and walls of the mine.11 El To emerges from the mines only once a year, during the famed festival of Carnival, in which he is disguised as Lucifer so that he may dance with the other demons.12 While El To is underground, he wears no disguise. For the mine is his mask, inside which he becomes the tangible indigenous manifestation of ancient Inca costumbre. It is when he emerges to the world above, where Catholicism thrives, when he must be disguised as Lucifer, the Catholic epitome of evil. The symbolism in the scenario is remarkable, and the seemingly obvious dismissal of traditional Christianity serves as a blatant and rather tongue in cheek demonstration of the indigenous autonomy of costumbre. The deity of El To is found all throughout the major mines in Bolivia, in addition to many more in Peru. However, in the Peruvian context, instead of El To, he is given the Quechua name of muqui.13 The geographic strata of religion in the Andean region of South America is ripe with elements of both Christianity and Costumbre. The apparent dominance of Catholicism shifts to subservience upon entrance in the mines. In the netherworld of the Andes, exists what great Peruvian thinker Jose Maritegui called the mythic core of humankind, which is paramount to a metaphysical conception of life.14 It is here in the sub-regions of the Andes where the Bolivian miners revitalized another spiritual world for themselves. While above ground, El To garners minimal
11 12

Ibid. Ibid. 13 Ibid. 14 Ibid, 341. 6

power, and is replaced by the strong colonial influence of Catholicism. Upon entry into the mines though, El To or muqui reigns supreme over the most powerful catholic notion. It is here where the fantastic divide between two religions occurs. In a religiously syncretic display, the mining regions of Bolivia and Peru appear at first to be plainly catholic, but inside the mountain mines, where ancient gods live, there still exists a deity named El To who rules in a world apart from Christianity. Religion as a form of resistance in the Andean context is a testament to both a political struggle, and a struggle to maintain autonomy with regards to identity and customs. The perseverance of El To serves as a powerful example of resistance through religion. Further north in the highlands of Guatemala, another syncretic deity emerged in response to an overtly coercive catholic mission. The figure of Maximon sits proudly in the lake town of San Andres on the shores of El Lago de Atitlan. Maximon is basically a flat piece of wood about two and a half feet high and six to eight inches thick. A little jar or enameled iron cup is strapped to the top end and contains the base of another piece of wood, or possibly a gourd, which forms the core of the head. At the bottom end, two jars contain the wooden legs.15 The immediate visualization seems less than impressive. However, Maximon is most comfortable adorned and dressed in offerings. During fiestas, Maximon is covered in numerous sets of clothing, and he emerges as four and a half feet tall, clothed in shirt, pants and belt of the local Atiteco style, plus a Texan 55-size hat, a blue serge jacket and a bib made of some thirty silk scarves.16 Through such a veneration, Maximon becomes a deity that is half new/half old, half Christian/half Costumbre. Maximon was born in the cofradia system, which was


E. Mendelson, Maximon: An Iconographical Introduction. Royal Anthropological Institute of Britain and Ireland, Vol. 59 (1959), 57.


Ibid. 7

originally a European creation, built as a means of organizing and supervising newly converted indigenous catholics. Indeed, the cofradias eventually became a rather unsuspecting place for the revitalization of ancient Mayan beliefs and practices. The cofradia itself serves as a vehicle for both Christianity and Costumbre, as it has fostered the development of two different religions, often at the same time. Maximon resides in the cofradia Santa Cruz, where all who enter cross themselves under the light of large standing candles,17 which are predominantly catholic elements of worship. One particularly curious addition to the syncretic nature of Maximon is surrounded in myth and uncertainty. Mendelson attests to the rumour that at his core, Maximon contains a small idol which cannot be checked: some speak of a gold or silver figure, pagan or Christian, others of a silver cross, one man of an ear of corn.18 Such uncertainty towards the essence of Maximons core demonstrates the indigenous disavowal of the importance of Maximons origin, towards which Christianity is so inclined. Instead, the uncertain mystery serves as more of an animistic power than one of impurity or religious illegitimacy. Maximon is very similar to the ancient Mayan deity Mam, who has through time, become associated with Holy Week.19 With striking similarity, the ancient Mayans had a piece of wood, which they dressed like those figures of boys made of straw that are used in bullfights and placed on a stool on a mat. They gave him food and gifts during the feast known as Vayeyab. When the feast was finished they undressed the idol and threw the piece of wood on the ground without troubling to reverence it anymore.20 In addition, Maximon also bears symbolic resemblance to Jesus Christ as well. He is known as a traveler or walker, and also has a whore wife named Maria, or

17 18

Ibid. Ibid. 19 Ibid. 20 Ibid. 8

Magdalena Castellana,21 which echoes an almost identical relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus from the New Testament Bible. Maximons moniker is naturally syncretic as well. Although it too, is subject to regular confusion, any outcome is still religiously syncretic. Maximon is commonly understood as a blend of Mam-Shimon: Mam referring to the aforementioned ancient Mayan deity meaning old man, and Shimon referring to one of two Simons from the catholic New Testament.22 The first possibility is the apostle and betrayer of Jesus, Simon Judas. The second is Jesus apostle Simon Peter, more often referred to as Peter.23 Such associations with Jesus apostles explain the common reference to Maximon as Primer Apostol,24 or First Apostle of Jesus. During the catholic Holy Week, Maximon is celebrated not in place of, but alongside Jesus Christ during Lent.25 Such an occurrence serves as an example of religious syncretism whereby two icons are openly celebrated in the same act of glorification . This can be seen two different ways, albeit both religiously syncretic: On one hand, one can view it as the emergence of polytheistic Catholicism, where Jesus and Maximon share the devotion of their followers. On the other hand, this scenario can alternatively be seen as the addition or incorporation of Jesus Christ into ancient, and already polytheistic Mayan beliefs rituals. The creation and embrace of Maximon in Guatemala was a culmination of centuries of political and religious struggle for indigenous identity. As a response to the coercive nature of religious conversion in colonial Latin America, indigenous peoples found innovative ways to worship the ancient deity of Mam within the framework of Catholicism. Through time, elements of Christianity and Mayan customs blended, and Maximon emerged as result. The emergence of Maximon is neither proof of defeat nor
21 22

Ibid. Ibid, 59 23 Ibid. 24 Ibid. 25 Ibid, 58. 9

victory for either religion. Alternatively, he is an effective tool of resistance in a five hundred year struggle to maintain religious autonomy and Mayan identity. Another example of Religious syncretism emerged in Mexico, just north of the capital on December 8, 1531, on the hill of Tepeyacac (now Tepeyac).26 According to history, The Virgin Mary appeared to a newly Christianized native, whose baptismal name was Juan Diego. Using the Aztec language of Nahuatl, the Virgin asked that a church be erected in her honour. Juan Diego tried three times to convince Archbishop Juan de Zumrraga of this apparition. He succeeded only on his last visit, when roses tumbled out of his tilmatli, or cloak, and a life-sized image of the Virgin was found miraculously imprinted on its cactus-fiber cloth. Juan Diegos cloak is said to be the same painted icon that is central to the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe, venerated today in the twentieth-century basilica that bears her name.27 This famous story of the Virgin Mary appearing before Juan Diego is another account which garners an abundance of religious syncretism. The appearance of Mary took place on the ancient and sacred site of Tepeyac. This site had for centuries, served as the worshipping place for various pre-Colombian earth deities whom often shared the same name of Tonantzin, or Earth Mother.28 It is here that Tonantzin also became Jesus mother, Mary. In the wake of such fusion emerged El Virgen de Guadalupe, who is effectively the embodiment of both forms. Catholic churches were often erected on top of pre-Colombian spiritual spaces, the geographic location is an example of an arguably violent negotiation between religions.

After the erection of the catholic basilica on Tepeyac, church officials later noted,

Jeanette Favrot Peterson. The Virgin of Guadalupe: Symbol of Conquest or Liberation? Art Journal, Vol. 51, No. 4, Latin American Art (1992), 39.
27 28

Ibid. Ibid. 10

Now that the church of our Lady of Guadalupe has been built there, they (campesinos) call her Tonantzin too. The term refers to that ancient Tonantzin and this state of affairs should be remedied, because the proper name of the Mother of God is not Tonantzin.29 Through the subsequent emergence of The Virgin of Guadalupe, the catholic church created a dilemma whereby indigenous Mexicans were able to continue worshipping the Earth Mother, albeit under a catholic guise. By erecting a church on Tepeyac, the catholic mission not only subdued Aztec religious practices, but they also unwittingly opened the doors for religious syncretism in Mexico. It is important to note that this happened in many places throughout the Americas, although Tepeyac is one grand example. In addition to the maternal and geographical lendings to the syncretism of El Virgen de Guadalupe, her physical attributes were also altered in the syncretic process. The original Virgin of Guadalupe was an eminently European image that had little meaning for the Native worshiper.30 As a result, the painted icon on Juan Diegos cloak contained essential modifications such as the inclusion of dark-olive skin, and straight black hair. In addition, the mantle on which she stands is blue-green, a colour only kept for the celestial Aztec couple Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl. Moreover, she is also adorned by the Sun, with the moon under her feet,31 qualities resembling that of the Aztec Earth Mother, Tonantzil. The collision of Aztec and Christian customs in colonial Mexico, formulated a deity that, in time, came to reflect the beliefs and practices of both Christianity and Costumbre. In a showdown of spiritual warfare, indigenous groups used religious syncretism as a tool for political and social resistance. As a result, elements of ancient Aztec customs survived, and live on, through the El Virgen de Guadalupe, when they likely may not have otherwise.

Eric R. Wolf, The Virgin of Guadalupe: A Mexican National Symbol, The Journal of American Folklore. Vol. 71, No. 279 (1958), 35. Peterson, 40. Ibid. 11

30 31

The conquest of European colonialism changed Latin America forever. In a centuries old confrontation that sought to subordinate and eradicate all things indigenous, colonialism in the Americas has left its thieving fingerprints all over the land and people. Religious syncretism as we have come to understand it, has a very unique history in Latin America. The mission to convert all natives to Catholicism was fierce and merciless. With virtually no defense from the disease and weapons of colonialism, indigenous people all over the Americas found a way to covertly resist through the utilization of the rather ironic tool of religion. These syncretic deities are just as fluid and changing as the syncretisms that made them.By blending into Catholicism just enough, ancient preColombian beliefs were salvaged and incorporated back into the changing religious milieu. The cases of El To in the Andes of Bolivia and Peru, Maximon in the highlands of Guatemala, and El Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico, are all unique examples of indigenous resistance and struggle in the seemingly never ending campaign to maintain cultural and religious identity and autonomy under the vacuum of European colonialism. This resistance is neither victorious or defeated. Instead it is should be understood as remarkably still alive and breathing. The ongoing process of religious syncretism in Latin America is a testament to the consistent perseverance and solidarity of the spirit of historically subjugated indigenous peoples, and their sincere refusal to abandon their beliefs, even when it appeared impossible to do so.



Bonilla, Heraclio. Religious Practices in the Andes and Their Relevance to Political Struggle and Development: The Case of El To and Miners in Bolivia. Mountain Research and Development, Vol. 26, No. 4, Religion and Sacredness in Mountains: A Historical Perspective (Nov., 2006), pp. 336-342. Chiappari, Christopher L. Culture, Power, and Identity: Negotiating between Catholic Orthodoxy and Popular Practice. Latin American Research Review, Vol. 42, No.3, October 2007. Leopold, Anita Maria and Jeppe Sinding Jensen. Syncretism in Religion: A Reader. London: Equinox Publishing Ltd., 2004. Mendelson, Michael E. Maximon: An Iconographical Introduction. Royal Anthropological Institute of Britain and Ireland. Vol. 59 (April, 1959), pp. 57-60. OConnor, Mary. The Virgin of Guadalupe and the Economics of Symbolic Behavior. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Vol. 28, No. 2, (Jun., 1989), pp. 105119. Peterson, Jeanette Favrot. The Virgin of Guadalupe: Symbol of Conquest or Liberation? Art Journal, Vol. 51, No. 4, Latin American Art (Winter, 1992), pp. 39-47. Stanzione, Vincent James. Rituals of Sacrifice. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003. Wolf, Eric R. The Virgin of Guadalupe: A Mexican National Symbol. The Journal of American Folklore. Vol. 71, No. 279 (Jan-Mar., 1958) pp. 34-39. U.S. Department of State: Diplomacy in Action. Vanderwood, Paul. Religion: Official, Popular, and Otherwise. Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos, Vol. 16, No. 2, (Summer 2000), pp. 411-441.