This is part 1 of an examination of art, syncretism and arrogance. Check back soon for part 2.
Last Christmas, leaving the usual rain and possibility of snow, my wife and I went to Mexico. Joining my parents for the holidays and the sunny eighty-degree days. Mexico is a land of long histories, myths, magic and legends true and legends false. On the trip all of our adventures submerged in old stories. I walked through the home of Hernan Cortez. I stood in a church that was built while the U.S. was only a few pilgrims fighting against the harsh reality of a new and fierce land. We walked among ruins that have lain broken for hundreds and hundreds of years, still silently speaking of the past glory and artistry of it’s makers. The Zapotec people once ruled that part of the world, but now live in humble shacks in the hills that once held their pyramids. Mostly poor, oppressed and looked over, the kings became paupers. The Spaniards broke them, and the descendants are still fighting that very moment, seeking to know who they were and who they are.
These people have a legend, one of many, that goes back to one of their first encounters with the Spaniards (those tried and nearly succeeded to wipe them off the map). The Spanish arrived to subdue and conquer the people. They ventured onto the beaches of modern day Oaxaca, and met the Zapotec people who had been there for generations. One Zapotec man, maybe a shaman pointed at their shields and flags and gestured for them to follow. They could tell he was pointing at the cross, and soon, as they followed him through the jungle and out onto another beach, they saw one standing on the sand, before them was a cross. Through their interpreter they asked, “How did this come to be here?” and the Zapotec told them of a white, robed and bearded man who had arrived many years before, before the time of these people, and had given them this cross.
Their name for the place, Huatulco in the Indian, means place of the tree, possibly referring to that cross. At first the Spanish deemed it witchcraft and tried to tear it from the ground. “It could not be that these Indians had received this cross from anywhere else but us,” they said as they tried to burn it, failing. Finally the Spanish moved on, burning the rest of their way across Mexico. Soon after, the English came and they too found this cross. Asking if the Spaniards had left it behind, they heard the same story and again, seeing it as a symbol of paganism, they too tried to burn it down. They tied a rope around the cross and tried to pull it from the ground to no avail. It would not burn and would not be taken. So they left. Eventually, a priest heard the stories but instead of refusal, chose to see it as a miracle. To protect it he pulled it from the ground, apparently with God’s blessing and sent pieces to the Vatican, some to a local church and others to the Cathedral in Oaxaca.
This is where I peered through the bars of a small chapel and saw them.