Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Mexico: Virgin of Quetzalcoatl

From Earl Shorris, The Life and Times of Mexico:
It was a theological rebellion: The criollo church, eventually joined by the mestizo church, separated itself and its parishioners from Spain. Or perhaps the Spanish kings inadvertently decreed the separation, for during the entire colonial period, three hundred years of rule and the extraction of enormous wealth by the Spanish crown, no king of Spain had ever crossed the Atlantic Ocean to visit his provinces in the New World. Nonetheless, the crown made all the important decisions about life and death, God and money, in New Spain.

Had the crown been closer to its most profitable colony, the king might have noticed the signs of religious and intellectual unrest that appeared long before Fray Servando’s sermon; the Jesuits had attempted to Mexicanize Christianity. Even more dangerous was Fray Juan de Torquemada’s notion of the Indians’ having undertaken a journey like that of the Israelites, making them the “chosen people?’ Torquemada’s idea posed several problems for his fellow Spaniards, who considered themselves the “chosen people:’ evidenced by their discovery and conquest of the New World as part of their God-given mission to universalize Christianity.

But then the criollos decided they were the “chosen people” on the basis of the finding of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of precious metals in the sixteenth century. If God had not chosen them, they argued, why would He have provided them with such wealth?

Only one people could be “chosen.” But which one? Could the arguments be combined, as in the idea that the indigenous were chosen to receive Christianity? And if so, by whom? And did that make them the “chosen people”?

The spark came from Fray Servando and the theologians. There had been earlier thoughts of the conversion of the Indians by the Apostle St. Thomas; claiming he was really Quetzalcoatl, but they had come to nothing. The seventeenth-century writer Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, who revered the pre-Columbian Indians and had nothing but contempt for their descendants, had argued the unlikely tale almost a hundred years before Servando’ sermon.

At the end of the eighteenth century the St. Thomas as Quetzalcoatl theory had gone out of fashion. It made no historical sense. Then Fray Servando came up with an equally bizarre notion. Sigüenza y Góngora was in the right church but the wrong pew. It was not St. Thomas the Apostle but St. Thomas of Mylapore who had converted the Mexicans in the sixth century. The cloak on which the miraculous image of the Virgin appeared had been brought to Mexico by the sixth-century saint; it had not appeared miraculously.

For the people of New Spain the argument could not have been better. The tall, white, bearded man known to the Indians as Quetzalcoatl had converted the people of New Spain long before the arrival of the Spaniards. As unreasonable as the argument sounds to the twenty-first-century mind, it had a powerful effect on the people of New Spain. It fulfilled their dreams of religious, social and—did they dare say it?—national equality.

So they thought it was logical: Proofs of the evangelization of Spain by St. James the Apostle were very weak, but there was no doubt of the existence of the cloak of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the very cloak that had been brought with him by St. Thomas in the sixth century. A person could see it with his own eyes. What evidence was there that the headless skeleton found at Compostela in Spain really belonged to St. James?

If Servando’s theory was correct, the Mexicans had not been evangelized by the Spaniards; they owed nothing of their understanding of God to the invaders. The Spaniards had come a thousand years too late to lay claim to the discovery and evangelization of the Mexicans. The argument made by Spain since the end of the fifteenth century that it had been chosen to carry out the will of God by evangelizing the natives of the New World no longer held true. St. Thomas, the real Quetzalcoatl, had done his work before the invasion. Truly, God had loved the people and the people had loved God long before the Spanish invasion. The justification for Spanish control had never existed. There was no longer any reason for the people of the place known as New Spain to be loyal to the Spanish Church or the crown.

Servando had conveyed the right to govern themselves to those born in New Spain, the criollos (he did not suggest that the land be returned to the indigenous people whom St. Thomas had evangelized). It made no difference that the historic Quetzalcoatl (of Tula) was born hundreds of years after the supposed visit of St. Thomas. New Spain in the nineteenth century did not concern itself with such matters. Servando had solved the questions around the evangelization and the Virgin of Guadalupe’s cloak; he had pulled everything together with one marvelous explanation just as the Virgin herself was to pull together all the divergent parts of Mexico. The Inquisition recognized the power of his idea almost immediately and saw to it that he was sent into exile. For the next fifteen years Fray Servando wandered through southern Europe and Spain, now in prison, now fleeing for his life, hounded by Church and government.

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