Monday, April 16, 2012

Take Up Your Cross and Follow Me: The First Mexican Martyrs

(Painting showing Aztec fathers putting newly Christianized sons to death)

    Many years ago, I came across a poignant dialogue that describes a first encounter between a group of Spanish Conquistadors, a Captain and a Catholic priest, backed by a host of soldiers, and a group of Maya warriors, led by a chief and a woman who serves as a translator. The Spanish Captain tells the Maya woman, "Tell your chief we have come here in search of gold and silver." Immediately, the Catholic priest interrupts saying "No, no! Tell your chief we have come here so that they may come to know The One And Only True God'!"

    After a lengthy translation by the woman interpreter, the Maya chief says, "Tell this powerful men here (addressing the Captain), that in the Sun which is our gold, and the Moon which is our silver, lies our everlasting hope, but in order for him to reach them, first he must kiss the earth."

    This dichotomy between the acquisition of power and the saving of souls, was the hapless burden of the European conquerors and the Catholic church in Mexico. In her book, "Idols Behind Altars", Anita Brenner tells, among other things, of the church's struggle to convert Indians to Christianity during the early years of the Spanish conquest in 1521. 

    Suspicious and fearful of the new religion, the Indians reluctantly embraced a new Christian pantheon, but often, at the risk of grave danger, covertly clung to their own deities. Brenner describes how the Indians, who comprised the labor force building the numerous Catholic churches across Mexico, sometimes hid idols representing their own gods deep inside the altars as they built them, then quickly covered them up!  Thus, as they reverently knelt and prayed before the altars during mass, they were actually praying to their ancient gods hidden inside them.

    For the first decade after the Spanish Conquest in 1521, the Catholic Church was relatively unsuccessful in convincing the stubborn Indians to convert to Christianity, and despite openly condemning their beliefs, destroying their temples, paintings and idols representing their old gods, only a few brave souls dared be baptized into the strange new faith, some paying with their lives as the image above shows.  I cannot imagine putting my own son to death for his conversion to another faith.

    Ironically, with the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe to the Indian, Juan Diego in 1531, everything changed and thousands of Indians flocked into the churches to be baptized. Now, they had a new heavenly woman they could believe in, Mary, one like them, dark skinned ("La Virgen Morena"), not like the pale, white gods they had heretofore seen adorning the insides of the cathedrals they had helped build.

    Nonetheless, for years, indigenous beliefs flourished underground in secret, in caves, hidden from the eyes of the Europeans; for it was no easy matter to let go of the gods they had worshipped for centuries, in time forcing the church to find other ways to attract converts, not by pointing out differences in the native and european beliefs, but the similarities.

    Thus, in Mexico today we see this bizarre mix of Indian and Christian beliefs. Where one belief ends, and another begins is a supreme mystery, as Aztec dancers dance before the Virgin of Guadalupe at the hill of Tepeyac in Mexico City, at the very same place where they had once worshipped a female diety, Tonantzin.

     In fact, "La Catedral", the main cathedral in the heart of the "Zocalo" (central square) in downtown Mexico City, is built at the  very same spot, with the same stones that once made up the main pyramid of "Tenochtitlan", the Aztec capital, that Cortez himself had once characterized as the "Constantinople of the New World".

It was leveled by the Spaniards to build the city we know today.

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