Back to Index


     Sam Huntington's stress on the importance of religion in international affairs is amply justified. Islam comes to mind first, and we should note the incredible festivities in Saudi Arabia celebrating the centennial of the Saudi regime and calling for the unity of Arab and Muslim countries.
     In the Americas, Roman Catholicism is the hot issue. It is a curious mixture of faith, paganism, nationalism, and feasting, all providing distractions from the misery afflicting the mass of the population of Latin America. The year began with Epiphany, celebrated for example by Texan Mexicans with the baking of an enormous cake.
     Then came the Pope's visit, which triggered a great outburst of Mexican nationalism, with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe as the catalyst. However, Mexican hopes that this would lead other Latin Americans to venerate that Virgin seem as remote as expecting Mexicans to venerate the original Virgen de Guadalupe in Spain. It simply stimulated other countries (Bolivia, Peru) to stage similar shows devoted to their own Virgins.
     Then, on February 2, came Candelmas (only one m, as in Christmas, and known in Spanish as "candelaria"). The most ancient of all festivals honoring the Virgin Mary, it commemorates the presentation of Christ in the Temple, 40 days after Christmas in accord with Jewish ritual. It is now forgotten, so it was astonishing to see in the poorest districts of Mexico City people buying expensive images of the Christ Child. One poor old woman was hugging one, weeping as she said it had performed miracles for her. I have traveled throughout the Catholic world, and I have never seen Candlemas celebrated elsewhere. Some old Spanish usages survive in Mexico.
     There were different scenes in Chile, following the celebration of St. Sebastian's Day on January 20. There is a shrine with a rather grotesque wooden image of the saint, which, it is boasted, the Spaniards brought with them (unlike the Mexicans, who delete the Spanish origin of the Virgen de Guadalupe). It is paraded around the streets on the saint's day amidst emotional demonstrations.
     A new priest, following the Vatican's instructions in such matters (which did not seem to have applied in Mexico), unwisely denounced the paganism of the cult and apparently banned the procession. He was the target of violent abuse by crowds of women, providing the spectacle of ardent Catholic anticlericals. It took a large body of police to calm them until Pax Christi was restored.
     Most important was the scene in Latin America's largest country, Brazil. Carnival in Rio is supposed to introduce Lent, which has been forgotten in favor of the pleasures of the flesh. There was the Queen of Carnival, a girl of modest background but less than modest proportions, demonstrating how she writhed to call attention to her anatomy. In a hall in a slum district, a black leader banging a drum was teaching little black children how to hop in carnival. Interestingly, his first name was "Negritude," the French term invented by Senghor of Senegal to exalt the blacks. How that name reached the slums of Rio is a fascinating mystery. I must add it to my study of the cultural history of Brazil based on the choice of first names. Carnival was also celebrated by a huge crowd at a soccer match, yelling as usual.
     Meanwhile in Brasilia the new Congress was meeting, with a record number of Evangelical members, determined to fight abortion and other evils. Despite the Pope, Protestantism is on the march in Latin America. Despite their rivalry, they are both fighting their old enemies, "the world, the flesh and the Devil." Or is the enemy the poverty, boredom and misery of millions, who find solace in a variety of ways?

Ronald Hilton - 02/02/99

More on Religion

     The memos on Catholic festivals in Mexico elicited some warm, even heated praise of their value. Re the memo on Candlemas, Mark Salzwedel of U.S.C. points out that it is celebrated in different ways. He writes
     "Candelmas, the mid-point between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, became the tribute to Jesus's mom. Still lots of folks all over celebrating Candelmas. Ground Hog Day is a related celebration, if you follow the original intention of the holiday, praying for a quick return of the sun's warmth."
     My comment: I thought of that, but comparisons are odious. Men dressed in formal clothes with top hats stand in a group while one of them grabs a protesting groundhog upset by the publicity. Catholic ceremonies have great dignity and do not have an unfortunate animal as their focal point. Admittedly the "Lamb of God" comes close.

     More Comments

     Much attention has been paid to the pomp of the Pope's visit, little to the serious implications of the new church militant. The cult of the Virgen de Guadalupe has many. It leads to a distortion of history. A previous memo referred to the non-mention of the original, Spanish Virgen de Guadalupe. at whose shrine Cortes prayed for nine days (a novena) before taking off for Mexico. That Virgin is linked with the conquest of Mexico, but the name of Cortes and any reference to his conquest were totally absent from the Mexican celebrations. Anti-Spanish propaganda has blackened his name. Among the students at the University of the Americas in Puebla I conducted a poll "Was Cortes a bad man?" All said yes, except for one practising Catholic woman who said "if he hadn't conquered Mexico, some one else would have." It was this hatred of Cortes that led my master Salvador de Madariaga to write his biography praising him.
     The tourist success of the Mexico celebrations has led other countries, which have their own Virgin, to plan similar shows. Take Bolivia. Its historic shrine was Copacabana, isolated on the Bolivian tip of a Peruvian peninsula jutting into Lake Titicaca. It was famous throughout South America, and Copacabana Beach in Rio is named after that Virgin. Yet a different Virgen, del Socavon (mineshaft), in the center of Bolivia is being promoted, with the avowed aim of promoting tourism by staging an Indian carnival. A preview of it was a ludicrous affair, with men dressed in weird costumes hopping and attractive young women prancing around in a kind of a samba. The old priest of the shrine gave the carnival his blessing.
     The cult of the Virgin is giving rise to commercial rivalry among various national Virgins and to the old Protestant criticism that this cult distracts attention from the centrality of Christ. The new, militant pro-Indian Church is winning the support of the Indian population, but that will feed the anger of those WAIS members who view the Catholic Church as a de-stabilizing force.

     More Comments

     The sale of papal bulls, bingo, and carnival festivities have all been associated with the Catholic Church. The Pope's visit to Mexico featured a show in the Azteca stadium with Indian dancers. There were also dancers at his big show in St. Louis. A memo described how this is catching on in Bolivia, where the Virgen del Socavon will bless a tourist-attracting carnival .
     Now the idea has spread to Peru. Cajamarca is in the northern Andes, not easily reached by tourists. It is famous for its Inca ruins and as the scene of Pizarro's capture of Atahualpa. Now it too is preparing a carnival with Indian dancers, the blessing of the church, and plans to develop tourism. The preview there too was pretty silly, but success could ease the area's isolation and poverty.

Ronald Hilton - 02/05/99