When the Democratic Party realized that they should maybe, kind of, make an effort to campaign in my home state, President Obama descended upon one of the local campuses to give everyone the ra-ra-ra. Small little flags popped up, lining the walkways of campus like mushrooms, to disappear almost as suddenly afterward. Afterward, in the wake of the Democratic Party’s defeat, I came across a single little grimy flag entangled in some holly bushes, its pole broken and its fabric creased and crumpled.
I picked that up and carried it home with me, casting it atop one of my altars. Ever since, I have been praying and working through this idea of America, this world that is greater than the United States of America, atop which it is built and into which it will no doubt one day be dissolved. I have been thinking about the constant turning away from America in which we in the esoteric community are often entangled, a turning away that takes shape in the fantasies of European magic and the romantic exoticism with which we tar Americans and Africans who have nourished and preserved the spirit of America with greater sincerity.
A while ago, I bought a copy of R. C. Padden’s The Hummingbird and the Hawk: Conquest and Sovereignty in the Valley of Mexico, 1503–1541 from a local used bookstore (now closed). I have kept it through several purges but not quite had the urge to read it. That changed and it brought me back in touch with one of those root moments in American religion, the clearing of the Aztec’s central temple by Cortes. While Montezuma attempts to reach some compromise with the conquistadore, Cortes refuses to permit the Aztec gods to remain.
The Aztec elite set to protecting their religion as best they can. They clear the temple, pack the idols off into hiding. Padden describes how residents in the city gather to witness the work, eagerly snatching up small stone chips as tokens of blessing, tokens that I imagine will make their way into the work of curanderos, will pass from a system of oppression into the liberatory practices that resisted it (important, that: there is a strand of liberation before Christ). The temple room cleared, Cortes marched his troops up the temple stairs to install the Virgin Mary and St. Christopher (“the only other one Cortes had on hand” ) in place of Huitzopochtli and his retinue.
Holy Mary, Mother of God.
(Consider this story of Cortes from Serge Gruzinski’s Images at War: Mexico from Columbus to Blade Runner: “It was said that while still a child, Cortes risked losing his life several times; his nurse saved him, all the while drawing lots to determine which of the twelve Apostles would bring him protection. St. Peter became his patron, and from then on Cortes celebrated his saint’s day each year” .)
Those hidden idols will come to trouble the Spanish soon enough, serving as points of resistance among the Nahua elite. Secret cults develop and the elites use their access to the idols to reassert their political authority over their neighbors. The bishop, Don Juan de Zumarraga, will enter into a long, largely unsuccessful effort to uproot these cults, breaking up some, but with far more slipping through his fingers.
Zumarraga, a man who had cut his teeth against heresy and idolatry in Navarre, where the Basques worshiped “Satan in the form of a black billy goat” (245). would collide with a yet more intractable force. Desperate to break the back of this secret world, Zamarraga risks torturing a sick man, risking his soul for an opportunity to defeat the idolaters.
Padden paints Zumarraga at the end of his career in despair, having risked his ideals in a failed campaign against what he imagined his opposition. I can’t help but wonder at that, wonder if the rivalry he set for himself puts in motion the inevitable failure of his campaign. At the root of it, it is not war that the Franciscan gave himself too, but to peace and the good news. The good news, something far different than the missionary work with which it became entangled.
Let us return to this opening moment, where the Virgin and St. Christopher become the anchors of Christ in America. The future that Cortes evokes in that moment is something quite different than he envisioned. Cleared of the idols, the great temple is still a temple, a potent and densely inscribed world unto itself, a world built atop bloodshed and oppression, a world that will only foreshadow the bloodshed and genocide that the Europeans will bring to America.
Pray for us sinners.
The Virgin and St. Christopher, heterodox bundles of history and divinity, gathering and gathered into the Americas. Syncretism is too clumsy a word for this moment, a world in which the sympathies between these powers and those of the Nahua intertwine. Mary’s apparitions will define a vector of entanglement with Africa and America in the American world. Guadalupe and Tonantzin, Caridad del Cobre and Oshun. She doesn’t mask them, they don’t mask her, they intertwine. This is the good news, Sophia the heavenly wisdom transforming and transformed, opening a joyful future.
Mary and the saint, like Zumarraga himself, joining trains of European hope and despair to the American soil. Zumarraga’s struggle joins Christianity to the Nahua religion, joins the Nahua religion to that of the Basque through his common struggle with it, setting in motion the later communications which will develop between them on American soil.
There, in the heart of a shrine to the Aztec empire’s violence, amidst its literal and metaphorical ghosts, the Queen of light and the dog-headed prisoner of war, a strange twin of Quetzalcoatl’s twin, Xolotl, twin of a twin who carries forth the dead of another world into the next, twin of a twin who bears more than a passing affinity with the cihuateteo, clawed, dangerous, and holy. There, at the crossroads of violence and terror, the axis of salvation and release, and he who will run to and from from it, gathering.
Now and at the hour of our death.