What is sacred? What is too sacred to address? What is so sacred it must be handled tenderly, gingerly?
And what is respect? What is dignity? What is the significance of one’s identity within a socio-cultural climate in which there are clear markers about what and who has more power, more privilege, more rights to a sense of entitlement?
What is it that happens when we become so educated in the ideas of socially constructed reality, relativism, and postmodern/post-structural aesthetics that we can violate that which others hold sacred, private, intimate, or secret?
These are the types of questions that quickly came to my mind after seeing James DeMars’ “Guadalupe: The Opera” performed by ASU’s Lyric Opera this past weekend.
Let me start by saying that the arias were beautiful, the set minimally powerful, the music by Carlos Nakai and Xavier Yxayotl heart-opening. I’ll come back to some of this later, though. Because what was overwhelmingly present for me during the entire performance was the blatant rewriting of the “legend” as traditionally passed on, to, and through the Mexican people since 1531. And that’s where the paradoxes and contradictions complicate the repeated sense of violation that I experienced while watching the opera.
You see, one of the best ways to confuse someone is to combine something they’ll wish to destroy with something they wish to hold sacred. And DeMars succeeded in doing just that, in a very parallel way to that of the Spanish Roman Catholic Church when they took the Aztec imagery and symbolism of Tonantzin, earth mother, and combined it with the language of Mary, Santa María, the doctrine of the Church, and the power of the Spanish Inquisition’s threats of torture and death.
As I marveled at the beauty of the arias sung by Juan Diego and tenor Peck’s reverential presence on stage, I simultaneously was repeatedly struck by the casting of a plump and pink-faced “Malinche” as the competitor with Juan Diego for the Bishop’s attention. I had to keep telling myself, “It’s a college student production,” and simultaneously reminding myself, “but DeMars changed the historical facts in favor of his story.” It’s this sort of inner dissonance that made the original Aztecs vulnerable to colonialism and the Inquisition’s version of a holy faith, and which is the reason I found the opera deplorable today. While the predominantly white audience appreciated the story that I can only assume most knew only distantly before seeing the opera, I was also aware that many Chicano/as and Mexicans do not know detailed historical accounts such as those scholars of Guadalupe and Mexican colonialist and cultural history could tell. So we were all stuck with what DeMars “told” us through his English text viewed above the staged production. And it was dramatically and significantly changed to serve the contemporary Roman Catholic doctrine–even radically more distorted than the initial stories. (I could go into prolonged narrative detail here regarding history and the stories, but I suggest if you are interested that you read from books such as those listed at the end of my blog.)
Let me just say that there are places to read what the original legend claimed the lady said, in native Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs/Mexica. She did not claim to be Mary, but ambiguously referenced herself in a way that would confuse and mystify–and in fact some hold that she gave her name which had some phonetic similarity in places to the word Guadalupe, the name of a town in Spain with an associated image of Maria. And let me say that even the image on Juan Diego’s tilma was the “new” image, after the original image “miraculously” lost her crown a little over a hundred years ago when the first image began to show signs of wear and tear.
The issue here isn’t “what really happened?” The issue is who gets to share the story in a semiotically powerful staging of beauty in images and sound, so that it imprints itself on the minds of those learning the story perhaps for the first time. Who gets to portray the Aztec heart sacrifice with melodramatically struggling victims (learn the history to know why that is relevant) in order to tie the heart sacrifice to the “beauty” and “wonder” of what DeMars’ cultural experts (provided from the Church) led him to sanctimoniously proclaim as the first “peace treaty” between the equally confused savage and real Spaniards and Aztecs? Who gets to decide that Tonantzin, called Guadalupe, has suddenly become mestiza, and ceased being a Nahuatl Mexica woman? Apparently, today, as then, it is not us. That is today’s neocolonialism.
And let me say one more thing–despite the discordant imagery of what I could only call “hipster Azteca” members of the chorus, a Guadalupe dressed in the Eurocentric light colors of Mary humming in a way that sounded as if she would be more comfortable singing a southern Afro-American spiritual, and the repeatedly stridently flirtatious and millennial Malinche…despite all these things on TOP of the neocolonial propaganda we were being fed in the libretto…I had one very powerful reminder of who we are.
When the wonderful tenor as Juan Diego dropped his tilma to reveal the image of Guadalupe as we know her, my heart jumped, and I instantly began to cry silent tears of deep love. My friend who had brought me to the opera shared that she, too, had “to admit that moved me.” That image holds archetypal ancestry for us, traces of our original spiritual roots as both Mexicans and Spaniards. And as recent research has begun to admit to us, our DNA holds our ancestral trauma and history. My body knew. I just wonder what the bodies of those who do not hold our history say to them when they see us protesting the spiritual political and dogmatic fairytale they just found “delightful.”
READING: For a variety of perspectives and interpretations of the story of the apparition of Guadalupe and how it is held and experienced by the Mexican people around the world, here are just a few books I suggest: Rodriguez’ book, Our Lady of Guadalupe; Gaspar de Alba & Lopez (eds)’ book, Our Lady of Controversy; Castillo’s book, Goddess of the Americas; my book, Maria Speaks, Steta et al’s book, Una Gran Señal Apareció en el Cielo. Also, for an excellent lesson plan prepared by the Yale National Initiative, see “Context Clues: The Appropriation of Malinche and the Virgin of Guadalupe
About her name: What the church says she said about who she was is based in the official translations of the Nican Mopohua, the Nahuatl account written for the Mexica. It managed to conserve more of the Aztec meaning–see Rodriguez’ book named above for a powerful accounting of the text.– It takes effort to find the translations today with the “two Nahuatl alternative names that sound similar to “Guadalupe”, Tecuatlanopeuh [tekʷat͡ɬaˈnopeʍ], which …translate… as “she whose origins were in the rocky summit”, and Tecuantlaxopeuh [tekʷant͡ɬaˈʃopeʍ], “she who banishes those who devoured us.”(Anderson Carl and Chavez Eduardo, Our Lady of Guadalupe: Mother of the Civilization of Love, Doubleday, New York, 2009, p. 20)