April 20, 2017
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Multicultural Masters: Obama to Guatemala
by Doniphan Blair
Father Stanley Rother, a multicultural master recently declared a Catholic martyr, in his town in Guatemala, circa 1975. photo: courtesy family of S. Rother
WE HAVE ALL WITNESSED BARACK
Obama's agile code switching and radical multiculturalism. Indeed, Barry can cycle through presidential, professorial and wise-cracking community organizer in one sitting, if not sentence.
More personally, I encountered a number of mash-up masters during my five years of world travel, sometimes becoming friends, occasionally moving in for weeks at a time.
I did exactly that in Jamaica after meeting Victor Nuyan on March 2nd, 1972. A goat herder and singer/songwriter, Victor liked to roll joints in banana leaf, discuss philosophy and lead a band of local musicians, including a Rasta playing a home-made saxophone (a large bamboo flute-like instrument with a reed, sounded great, by the way) and a farmer on a guitar he carved from a log. Victor ended up in London producing music and in Brooklyn as a “tile man,” putting in bathrooms. When I finally reconnected with him, in the latter location, he still evinced the jam spirit of the jungles of Jamaica's St. Mary’s province, where he planned to return.
In India, I stayed with Om Prakash Sharma, a painter who helped start India’s abstract and Neo-Tantra art movements and also played a mean sitar. Indeed, Sharma showed and performed across Asia, the West and the Communist block nations throughout the Cold War, furnishing him with endless, often absurd, cultural mash-up moments (watch for forthcoming cineSOURCE article).
Amid the joyful chaos of Carnaval, in Salvador, Brazil (1979), I met the nationally-known photographer Mario Cravo Neto, who invited me into his home, where I stayed for two months, luxuriating in his devotion to filmmaking, jazz, the New York art scene AND Candomblé, the voodoo of Bahia.
Stanley Rother, I didn’t know personally.
Father Rother with some parishioners about 1970. photo: courtesy S. Rother family
As with President Obama, whose inauguration I attended in 2008, I only came close to Father Stanley once, albeit within 15 feet, instead of the 1500 yards with Obama. That was on Easter Sunday, 1978, in front of his church in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, not far from the lovely Lake Atitlan and surrounded by voluptuous volcanos, some still smoking.
I learned more about Rother when I went back in 1984 and found Santiago to be a ghost town and that he and dozens of his parishioners had been murdered by the army. I learned still more with the Catholic Church's recent announcement that Father Rother had been declared a martyr (see
NY Times article
Raised in Oklahoma, Rother was ordained in 1963 and assigned to Guatemala in 1968. Reportedly a retiring, quiet guy, he still threw himself into the community and culture, soon learning the local Mayan language, Tz’utujil, and translating the New Testament into it, see his
To the casual observer, missionary work can seem strange, if not outright abusive—and some sadly is. Nevertheless, the vast majority of clerics provide a lot of physical, as well as spiritual, benefit, if nothing else by introducing so-called civilization before the harsh arrival of loggers and gold miners, not to mention the military.
In point of fact, the Catholics have always been comparatively liberal, and became even more so with the advent of Liberation Theology in the 1960s. While Protestants have come to be associated, especially across South America, with charismatic cult leaders and war lords, a half-a-millennia ago, the Catholics created syncretism.
Their word for multicultural mashup, syncretism has been enacted from Micronesia to Ireland, where the Druid end-of-the-year celebration was transformed into Halloween.
Erasmus introduced the term in the 16th century to cover "coherence of dissenters," a concept soon adopted by the Catholics to deal with the pagan religions they encountered during the so-called "Age of Discovery." Although better labelled "Age of Conquest," the Catholic missionaries did syncretize, often to an amazing degree.
While I witnessed syncretism in Guatemala, between Father Rother and the shamans of his village, I am most familiar with the version developed in Salvador, Bahia, where I assisted Mario on a film about Candomblé; he loaned me a few books; I attended some rituals; and I even rented a house from a man who could be described by the disparaging term "witch doctor."
Indeed, I was astounded to learn that the Portuguese completely integrated Candomblé into their Catholicism.
Instead of declaring Candomblé devil worship and trying and executing its practitioners, as America’s founding Puritans did in Salem and elsewhere, the Catholics made the West African Orisha religion, widely worshipped in Bahia, Brazil, perfectly legal and assigned each of the spirits or deities, like Ymanga, Shango or Babaluaye, a corresponding Catholic Saint and a Saint’s Day.
In fact, the Orisha priests, generally called Pai do Santos, after years of study and initiation, are sanctified right inside the city’s main Catholic church. The large building itself is a monument to syncretism with mindblowing murals and sculptures, covered in bright Brazilian colors, telling all sorts of Biblical/native stories, and culminating in a four-story, similarly carved and painted altar, which rises into a large basilica, adorned with a baby blue sky and fluffy, white clouds.
Some kids off the alleys of Santiago Atitlán. photo: courtesy j. Rodriguez
My landlord on the island of Itaparika, across from Salvador, turned out to be both a tough Candomblé priest—his spirit was Eshu, keeper of the crossroads (look up your Robert Johnson)—and a multicultural marvel. Stanislau, as he was called, was a merchant marine and Frank Sinatra fan as well as a forbidding black magic practitioner, who could only rent his second house to gringos due to the fear he inspired among locals (we eventually became friends; a cool, if intense, guy).
It took me decades to learn the full extent of Guatemala's Catholic syncretism, since I arrived in Santiago a 23 year-old who had recently fallen in mad love with the lovely French girl, Catherine Bert, with whom I soon set out for South America. Nonetheless, I did notice around town a number of odd figurines, fashioned from straw, rather tall and dressed in jeans, boots and a work shirt, and smoking a cigar and drinking a beer.
They were effigies of the Mayan deity, Maximón, I learned 20 years later from my daughter, Irena, who visited Santiago Atitlán, met some local hipsters and turned amateur anthropologist. Wikipedia and other sources identify Maximón as the Mayan trickster deity, “max” being Mayan for sacred tobacco, but they don’t mention what Irena's informants told her.
Since the 16th century, the Guatemalan peasants had been forced to work free, usually for one third the year, a practice only terminated in the 1940s. In fact, having Maximón tall, and dressed in jeans, makes him look like a gringo overlord or plantation owner. This allowed the Tz’utujil to worship in peace, pretending to honor their slave masters—a brilliant bit of their own syncretism.
As it happened, although the red-bearded Father Rother “became a champion of the indigenous community,” according to the NY Times article, “determined to reach out to residents,” he couldn’t accept everything the shamans did in Santiago, as I saw for myself that Easter Sunday in 1978.
Catherine and I had been standing for over an hour on the main square, directly in front of the church, watching a crowd of a couple of thousand colorfully-dressed locals and the church’s massive doors, from which was wafting chanting and incense, until they finally opened and out marched the town's truly magnificent Easter Procession.
In the lead were two elderly but spry natively-dressed gentlemen bearing six foot tall and lit candles; ten paces behind, a man was backpacking a small table with a large Bible, from which Father Rother was reading; following him were a half-a-dozen men in Western suits and ties carrying a heavy glass coffin, containing the body of Christ and brindled with electric lights; and behind them were four more men bearing a humming generator—to power those lights: a syncretist performance piece par excellance!
The procession exited the church and crossed the square until the old men, or shamans as we could now see, were directly in front of us.
Suddenly, the crowd quieted, the old men snapped to attention and, above the crowd to our left, a figure appeared, hanging off a pole, the very Maximon we'd seen in front of numerous houses around Santiago Atitlán, sitting at altars full of food, cigarettes and money.
The church and square of Santiago Atitlán. photo: courtesy J. Rodriguez
As Maximón was raced through the crowd, some women shrieked and most of the kids ran for cover. Chanting a prayer, the shamans raised their right hands and tracked Maximón's arc across the square, as the figure split the procession precisely in its middle.
Father Stanley was aghast. Storming out from behind his massive Bible, he raced up to the shamans and proceeded to ball them out. Although we couldn’t understand—it was in Tz’utujil, we deduced it must have gone something like:
“In the name of god, Francisco and Juan, you promised not to do show Maximón this year! Everyday is Maximón’s day, for the love of Pete! Can’t we have just one day for our Savoir, the Lord Jesus Christ?”
As radical a multiculturalist as Father Rother may have been, agreements are agreements; being rejected can make anyone angry; and syncritism is a two-way street.
The shamans simply smiled. Father Rother finally shook his head and returned to his place in the procession, which proceeded to wind its way through the entire town, bringing the church to the people, literally, while displaying the multicultural masterpiece of the electrified Christ led by the candle-carrying shamans.
Alas, some of those villagers, lining the stone-wall-edged alleys to see the procession, may have been aiding the guerillas, who had lived on the big volcano behind Santiago Atitlán for almost a decade. After the CIA overthrew President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, simply because he had a socialist or two in his cabinet, a long civil war ensued, ultimately killing over 200,000 people.
Knowingly or unknowingly, Father Rother had offered succor. Even after receiving death threats and returning to Oklahoma in 1981, he came back to Guatemala. “The shepherd can not run at the first sign of danger,” he wrote to a friend.
On July 28th, 1981, a government death squad swooped in on Rother's church and pierced him full of holes, in front of his parishioners, much like the Christ they so esteemed. Thirty-five years later, he has been classified as a “martyr” by Catholic Church, the first step to sainthood.
Rother’s slaughter was made even more poignant by the fact that during the 1970s, Santiago Atitlán had been a flourishing multicultural wonderland. Guatemala’s North-West is full of robust traditional communities, resplendent in the rainbow-hued clothing they preferr to spend their time weaving, sewing and wearing, rather than building pyramids, as their ancient forbears had been forced to do by the priests and god/kings of the Mayans.
Indeed, their spectacular culture made the Lake Atitlan region more like Bolivia or even Tibet. In addition, Santiago had a great market, crowded with women bedecked in the aforementioned cloth, and all sorts of vegetables and artisania, which attracted many Guatemalans as well as tourists.
Santiago also had quite a coterie of outsider residents: a wellknown Guatemalan painter, rich kids from the capital building second homes on the lake—they introduced me to a Guatemalan spiritual teacher, Jorge Rodriguez (self-taught, he created a lovely heterodox community on a hill in Guaremala City), and many world travellers. If nothing else, the above pumped plenty of cash into the local economy while endowing a certain international elan.
And, as noted, Santiago had guerillas up on the volcano.
On top of this cultural potpourri, spiritually speaking, sat Stanley Rother and his team of nuns and lay workers trying to bring the words of Liberation Theology to life. Although the movement has faded in recent years, given that the current Pope Francis hails from Argentina, is quite liberal, and the Church has upgraded its sanctification of Father Rother, it may be returning to relevant practice today.
Indeed, when his parishoners started getting kidnapped and the guerillas came to town for food, Father Stanley went as far as he could down that Liberation Theology road. The Church will need to prove a miracle to graduate him from martyr to saint but that seems likely since, on top of a Latino pope, in today’s fractured world, radical multiculturalism, the entertainment of two very different cultures, is a blessing and perhaps even a miracle.
After decades of atrocities, the Guatemalan civil war was slowly negotiated to a close in the late ‘90s. Although the right remains very powerful, some steps towards transparency, rule of law and democracy have been achieved.
Let's hope the memory of Father Rother, and perhaps his canonization, as well as the work of the many of other mashup artists across Guatemala and the world—notably Barack Obama, who appears to be shouldering the chore of explaining the Trump phenomena—will also contribute to those evolutionary developments.
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Dec 09, 2016 - 11:45 AM