The Parody of Paganism in the Postmodern World

7 07 2008

Part II: How the radical lesbian Wicca-practicing “Chicana” feminist scholar is NOT like my grandmother

As I have stated before, there is a tendency amongst more educated Mexican-American middle class scholars to elevate the indigenous hertiage of Mexico over and above the “Hispanic” Catholic elements that have historically been more dominant. Pre-Columbian Mexico is seen as a paradise of pluralism, paganism and proto-feminism that was destroyed by Cortes and his merry band of male chauvinist pigs. In their minds as well, there has always been “resistance” to the destruction of the indigenous religion by the Catholic Church, and such images and practices as the Virgin of Guadalupe and folk healing known as curanderismo were encoded messages that passed on the true pagan faith from generation to generation. The radical feminist scholar, Gloria Anzaldua, wrote in this regard that the task of the “Chicana” (radical Mexican-American woman desperately seeking tenure) was to skip over her parent’s generation of “assimilation” towards the generation of the grandmothers, who through their being able to cure the evil eye with an egg are deemed to be secret pagans worshipping the Aztec mother goddess.

To further reflect on this phenomenon, I will cite the scholar E. Byrant Holman, a student of Mexican folk religion and healing arts.  I found these quotes of his on the Curanderismo list that I belong to quite fascinating:

The first quote is from here:

The real pillars of New Mexican curanderismo, just as they are in Mexico itself, are nested in the Catholic Faith, which is not rooted in some lost string of shamanistic culture stretching back through time to an ancient, but still thriving albeit sublimitated or else secret woman-based subculture, as some writers have actually suggested. Rather, it is exactly as it appears to be, without the need of any tenuous theorizing. It is something brought over from Spain by the Spanish, couched in the trappings of Catholic dogma. Until this avenue is exhausted, which most of these writers have not done – in fact, they seem to have even begun to explore it – it seems rather dubious to begin to try and extract the threads of what really stands as a practically baseless theory from what amounts thin air, essentially…

“Witchcraft” (brujeria), in Mexico, is not anything that is looked upon with any sense of wonder, and certainly not admiration. In fact, the response that people have to witches is try and figure a way to kill them and get by with it. The role of curanderos and curanderas (and you are right – they are one in the same – their sex has nothing at all to do, whatsoever, with their avocation) is, more than anything else, to combat the brujos/brujas and hechiceros, and to try and cure people who have been been hexed by them, in order – in a rather large percentage of these cases – to save their lives.

 The next quote is from here:

On an even more extreme scale of making stuff up and getting by with it, you have writings, and that includes whole books, in fact, by people who are trying to bring this faith under the aegis of New Age, Goddess, and Wicca paradigms, which is not only ludicrous, it is insulting. Why do I say that? Because, for one thing, I would defy anyone to show me even one Mexican curandero or curandera who does not have all sorts of images of Catholic saints all over the place, including Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, or who does not use Catholic prayers such as the Creed and the Magnificat in their curing rituals. Does this not fly very much in the face of Wicca and Neopagan anti-catholicism? Would one presume to find a way around that problem by attempting to point out that the participants are unaware that these are really pagan gods who were transformed into Catholic images by syncretism? That might make a nice sort of dry discussion in terms of a discussion of comparative religion, but it sidesteps the fact of wanting to have your cake and eat it too here. You cannot build your house on a rock of anticatholicism and then turn around and attempt to coopt a catholic culture. To be sure, the Mexicans who have been made aware of this have all rejected it. They have come to quite resent these people, and to consider what they have done to be an affront.

****************

So here we see a very frank condemnation of neo-pagan feminists by a man who isn’t even Catholic. Even for Mr. Holman, what passes for an exultation of Mexico’s pagan past is really an usurpation of Mexican folk healing by “Chicana feminists” and “New Agers” who are hostile to the Catholic religion. The curandera is usually a devout Catholic who uses very orthodox Catholic things in very unorthodox ways. One cannot impose upon her radical feminist ideologies, the need for social change, and certainly not the accusation of paganism. Such accusations would be insulting to people like my grandmothers who only used these arts to cure their children of such bizarre ailments as el susto or el mal ojo. (It should be pointed out that neither was a curandera proper, but all women back then had some knowledge of these arts).

Nevertheless, I find some inspiration in the rhetoric of Anzaldua as it touches on the going past my parent’s generation to the generation of my grandparents. These folk healers and the arts they practiced represent the normal state of Catholicism in a typical society. People’s interaction with clergy was usually quite “hands-off” and their relations with the Church often tenuous at best. The devout Catholic of yesteryear was more spiritually and religiously “self-sufficient” than we are for better or for worse. That is because the role of the hierarchy is to regulate the life of the Church, not create it. They are the editors and not the authors. As we enter a period of time where we might have less and less clergy for the needs that the Church will have in the near future, such spiritual “self-sufficieny” may be the wave of the future.

While the “Chicana” theorists might mistake these forms of Catholicism for paganism, it is clear that they are nothing of the sort. The problem is that we have sifted so much of the past of Catholicism through the strainer of modern rationalism that what we think of as “ancient” orthodoxy is really a very modern creation. In truth, the things mentioned above are about as pagan as St. George fighting the dragon or May Crownings. They cannot be used to make a new feminist heaven and a new lesbian earth. They are useful, however, in curing you of the evil eye and removing a curse from your house.

(the painting shown above is by Carmen Lomas Garza and was found here)


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9 responses

15 07 2008
Huw Richardson

OK. Cool. Interestingly… Orthodoxy functions that way (at least in my experience) but converts (like me) try all the time to clean it up and present it as neatly as possible.

It is chaotic, local and often at variance with itself. It is very beautiful, very messy and very catholic (meaning, as Fr Tom says, “whole” not “universal”).

15 07 2008
Arturo Vasquez

Huw,

Sounds about right.

15 07 2008
Huw Richardson

Without getting into the whole Paganism-Or-Not debate, there seems to be a folk-level Catholicism that is not, let’s be honest, Catholicism as taught by B16. Just as there is Orthodoxy at the parish or local level that is nothing like Alexy 2 would recognise – or Orthodoxy in the “old country” that is nothing like American converts would recognise.

That being the case, your series of articles on this local-level religion (at least in the last few years I’ve been reading), from the Philippines to Mexico, S. America (etc) seem to indicate that it’s all good. None of it’s clean and well-ordered like one might imagine in theology class – and there’s no problem with that *at all* save in the eyes of a few (on the insider or outside) who think the whole thing needs to be cleaned up.

Am I reading you right?

14 07 2008
Carlos

I made the mistake of taking an Cultural Anthropology class a few quarters ago… didn’t learn a friggn’ thing…

10 07 2008
Alice C. Linsley

Viewing indigenous peoples and their practices in a romantic light is common among liberal academics, but anyone who studies culture as an anthropologist recognizes that there are no perfect societies or peoples, only communities struggling with the here and now according to their metaphysical views.

8 07 2008
Han

“[T]he role of the hierarchy is to regulate the life of the Church, not create it.”

And to determine whether the incorrupt body you found in the woods and have been venerating is really a saint who needs to be put on the calendar, or just a vampire that needs to be desposed of.

7 07 2008
Leah

I don’t know where some cultural studies people get the notion that paganism is somehow more feminist, less racist, and more ecologically friendly than Christianity. Imperial China (a country influenced by Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism) was already experiencing severe erosion and desertification by the 18th century or so. In ancient Greece and Rome, respectable upper class women weren’t even supposed to leave the house. Many hard-core neo-Nazis and Klansmen today are involved in neo-paganism reconstructionism, in which they try to resurrect the gods of their ancient forefathers (look up terms like Odinism, esoteric Hitlerism, and Wotanism). No love, flowers, and Gaia worship for that crowd. To my knowledge, it’s only been in countries that have been influenced by Christianity in which sexism, racism, and the treatment of the environment have been questioned. There must be a reason for that.

7 07 2008
Matt K

Crap like this (and the ridiculously poor work-to-salary ratio) made me get the hell out of Liberal Arts academia. “Forever in labor but never giving birth” etc…

7 07 2008
FrGregACCA

Reminds me of a religion professor I once knew who, among other things, was in the habit, in his classes, of comparing the resurrection of Jesus to contemporary Elvis sightings. However, on the back of his bicycle was a sticker depicting Our Lady of Guadalupe.

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