Fiction: Latin American Fiction and Religion

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As in most places in the world where different cultures and religions have come together as the result of political conquests, in Latin America, fiction, religion and history are inseparably connected. In The Invention of America: An Inquiry into the Historical Nature of the New World and the Meaning of History (1961), Edmundo O'Gorman makes substantiated claims that the New World was already an invention in the European imagination before 1492. Early documents about the conquest and colonization of the Americas tell the story of such invention and of the theological conflicts caused in Western Christian thought by the encounter of a New World different from the known world of Europe, Asia and Africa. The zeal of evangelization, which accompanied political and economic expansion, resulted in theological schisms within the Church that lasted for centuries, vestiges of which can be seen today in the figure of revolutionary priests such as Camilo Torres and Ernesto Cardenal, Liberation Theology and, in various forms, in nineteenth and twentieth century Latin American literary discourses. Christian theology, Judeo-Christian messianic literature, and medieval legends and myths colored the way Europeans perceived the New World. Even Christopher Columbus, who believed he had arrived in India, also claimed in his fourth diary to have found the entrance to Paradise: a claim that the Postmodern Argentinean writer, Abel Posse, humorously engages in his novel Los perros del paraíso (1983). Augusto Roa Bastos, in Vigilia del Almirante (1992), and Alejo Carpentier, in El arpa y la sombra (1979), return to the figure of Columbus to question foundational truths in the history of the New World.

In an attempt to understand native religions, and as a vehicle for teaching Christian faith, Humanist Christian missionaries in the New World established analogies between indigenous religions and Christianity. Even as late as the eighteenth century the association was made between Christ's Apostle Thomas and Viracocha, the white deity of the Incas, and between Thomas and the Aztec wind god Quetzacoatl. Christian theology, fused with pre-Columbian and African myths, and infused with Erasmus's theological treaties on human liberty, dignity, and pure spirituality (De libero arbitrio, 1524), created the conditions for the emergence of messianic movements of different religious and political orders. Some announced an apocalyptic second-coming of Christ colored by indigenous New World and African religions; others longed for political messiahs. Alejo Carpentier's novel The Kingdom of This World (1957), and Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cian aňos de soledad, 1967), find in these religious prophesies a metaphor for a cosmic revolution that, like the Arawak and the Quiché Maya deity Huracán, destroys an old order of things. The already archetypal image in Latin America of the cosmic wind of destruction and creation (Popol Vuh ), brings together in these two novels the Judeo-Christian story of the Flood, the Christian prophesies of a Judgement Day, as well as the Maya-Quiché stories in the Popol Vuh about the gods' destruction of their first creation. In his monumental 1981 novel The War of the End of the World (La guerra del fin del mundo), Mario Vargas Llosa records the tragic destruction of one such movement in the hinterlands of Bahia, Brazil. The novel is based on Euclides da Cunha's accounts in his 1903 Brazilian Classic Rebellion in the Backlands (Os sertoes), about the war the Republic of Brazil waged against Canudos and its messianic spiritual leader. Both texts are meditations on religious and political fanaticisms in Latin America.

Sixteenth-century political and religious conflicts have attracted the attention of twentieth-century Latin American writers. The writers often return to the foundational texts of this period in order to explore the conflictive religious thoughts that participate in the formation of Latin American cultures, and the imprints those thoughts left in local memories and in those cultures. Mario Vargas Llosa's novel, El hablador (1987) is the story of a modern Peruvian of Jewish and Christian background who becomes involved in the life of an Amazonian tribe. He eventually becomes an itinerant tribal storyteller who blends into the traditional tribal tales he narrates, Western literature and Judeo-Christian myths. The novel is a metaphor for the religious and cultural syncretism that has taken place in Latin America.

An example of the religious exchanges that have attracted writers in Latin America, especially in the second half of the twentieth century, is the apparition in Mexico of the dark-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe in 1531, to an Indian man, Juan Diego. This is the single most important religious event for modern Mexico, as she is a symbol of national identity and religious consciousness. Guadalupe served as an icon for the Mexican war of independence, for the Chicano movements in the 1970s, and for the Zapatista movement in the 1990s. What is of interest for contemporary Mexican writers is the fact that, as Jacques Lafaye points out, the Christian Virgin of Guadalupe appeared at the same site, in Tepeyac, where the Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin was worshipped prior to the arrival of the Spanish. Like other contemporary Latin American writers, Mexican fictional literature dwells on the significance of such syncretisms in modern Mexico. Carlos Fuentes's work places a special emphasis on the relationship between pre-Colombian religions and modern Mexico. In his novel, La región más transparente (1958), his novella, Aura (1964), and in his short story, "Chac Mool," Fuentes explores the duality of a pre-Colombian realm masked by modern Mexican culture. In Aura, we find a contemporary Mexican historian, and in "Chac Mool," a modern day collectionist of pre-Colombian art, both drawn into a mythical Aztec-Maya cyclical time of death and renewal. Fuentes is interested in exploring the religious ambiguities of modern Mexico in relationship to the concepts of death and sacrifice. Based on the Aztec notion that time is a living entity rejuvenated through sacrifice, Fuentes establishes a contrast between the Christian veneration of Christ's sacrifice for the salvation of humanity and the Aztec veneration of sacrificial death as a mode of collective salvation. Syncretism, as a literary trope, can be found in Mexican literature as far back as the seventeenth century when Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a Mexican nun and a major writer of the Baroque period, made the association in her play El divino Narciso between Christ, the Classical figure of Narcissuswho through metamorphosis transcends his humanityand the Aztec God of the Seeds, who is reborn after death.

The image of a self-sacrificial crucified Christ and the idea of redemption through death appear frequently in Latin American fiction as a literary trope for social inequality and political injustice. However, the Brazilian writer Clarisse Lispector offers a different metaphor for the Christi sacrifice remembered in the Christian rite of the Eucharist. Clarisse's 1964 novel, The Passion according to G.H., represents an allegorical communion between an artist, the writer, and the very origins of life, through the self-sacrificial act of ingesting a roach. Lispector metaphorically associates the ingested insect, which represents a lower but primal form of life in contemporary urban society, with the sacred Egyptian beetle, also a symbol of life and rejuvenation. In another Brazilian Classic, Grande Sertão: Veredas (1958), João Guimarães Rosa explores the universal struggle between good and evil, from the syncretic gaze of Christian theology and Asian thought, while at the same time proposing that the act of writing is an alchemical search for a higher truth that can only be intimated through imagination. In Grande Sertão: Veredas, the hinterland of Brazil is the stage for the universal battle between good and evil. At the end of the novel, good and evil destroy each other, resulting in a state of nothingness, a nonada that reduces humanity's universal saga to the ritual act of memory, and to a repetitive imaginary act of recovery through fiction. Guimarães Rosas's novel also records, reconstructs, and reinvents a way of thinking in the hinterlands, characterized by the fusion of indigenous, African and Christian religions.

African Religions in Latin American Fiction

Ritual allows its participants to experience and be a part of the source of creation. In Latin American fiction, writers often turn to the representation of ritual in order to record the importance of African traditions in the development of Latin American cultures. The Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier proposes in The Kingdom of this World, that the unwavering faith in the African loas in Haitian Vodou is what gave Haitian slaves the will power and spiritual strength to defeat the French and to gain independence. Twentieth-century Caribbean and Brazilian fiction demystify the demonic image that African religions have endured since the sixteenth century, while recording the drama of African gods in an American context, colored by Christian and Classical myths.

Caribbean and Brazilian writers may refer to a given orisha or loa, with the name of a saint, a religious characteristic or a symbol without referring directly to the deity. For example, terms like red, sun, fire and double ax, may refer to the orisha Shango, while images of yellow, copper, cinnamon, honey and fresh waters, may refer to Oshun. Jorge Amado's title for his novel, Gabriela, Clove, and Cinnamon, alerts the reader to the association in the text between Gabriela and the orixá Oshun. African languages also survived in the Caribbean and in Brazil due to their ritual importance, and to the fact that ritual words that define religious concepts, like ashe or in Cuba aché, do not find exact correspondences in Western thought. The presence of these words in Latin American vernacular languages and in fiction, disrupts, but also enriches the dominance of Western traditions in Latin America by slowly inscribing in them different ways of conceiving life, humanity, and the divine.

African religious thought conceives the cosmos as a dynamic play of forces in which human beings are also players; therefore, through a ritual process of give-and-take, sacrifice, divination, and offerings, human beings can control those forces. This is also the dynamic realm of the orixás, which the Brazilian writer Jorge Amado represents in his novels, always in the syncretic cultural setting of Salvador, Bahia. In Donna Flor and Her Two Husbands, Amado constructs an invisible realm of popular African traditions and beliefs that coexist in Brazilian society with Christianity in a cultural and religious dynamic interchange. This is a process Fernando Ortiz calls transculturation (in Bronislaw Malinowski's introduction to Ortiz's Cuban Counterpoint, Tobacco and Sugar, 1940, 1995) to differentiate it from the concept of syn-cretism.

In Cuba, Lydia Cabrera's work carved out a sacred space in Cuban studies and literature for the religious Afro-Cuban concept of monte, meaning jungle, forest, mount, countryside and backyard, as the space where the dynamic forces of the cosmos are at play; where the give-and-take between human beings and natural forces takes place. In her short stories and fables, from Cuentos negros de Cuba in 1936 to Ayapá. Cuentos de Jicotea in 1971, monte is the creole Olympus where the drama of the Afro Cuban deities takes place, mirroring the strengths and weakness, desires, longings, faith and politics of creole society.

A unique representation of African religions and of a greater African consciousness in the Americas can be found in the 1984 novel by the Colombian writer Manuel Zapata Olivella, Changó el gran Putas. The novel turns to sixteenth-century Latin American history in order to reinvent America from the gaze of African thought. Here the history of America, including slavery, is the providential design of Shango, the ancestral Yoruba orisha- king of ̀ý, lord of lightning, thunder and fire, whose American counterparts in Zapata's novel are the Aztec wind-god Quetzacoatl, and the Supreme Fire-Father Sun, Inti, of the Incas. Zapata's choice for choosing Shango as the Supreme African Patriarch, is based on the historical fact that Shango is one of the most important African deities in the New World (Bascom, Shango in the New World, 1972): a cultural African and African American hero and deity, whose strengths and powers are always balanced by his human-like weaknesses.

In order to place the act of writing within an African tradition from which to retell the same, but different, story of the Americas from the gaze of a triethnic writer, Zapata follows the structure of African ritual recitations and Afro-Caribbean rituals. The novel begins with the act of summoning African and Afro-Indo-American ancestors and orishas. As we find in Zapata's novel, in Afro-Caribbean rituals Legba, or Elegua in Cuba, lord of the crossroads, doors, roads and the Word, is the first one and the last one to speak in all rituals. From a postmodern perspective the novel questions and breaks away from the strictures of literary genres and Western epistemology, and also resists the hegemony of Western thought in Latin American literature and history. It also brings together as one Bantu and Yoruba traditions with Haitian Vodou, in which, significantly, Legba is associated with Christ, in order to propose a greater African, Afro-Indo-American consciousness conceived in Zapata's novel from the gaze of African religious thought. Zapata also collapses the conceptual and rhetorical differences between fiction and religion by claiming that he wrote this novel under the spiritual guidance of Ifá: a system of divination of African Yoruba tradition brought to the New World by African slaves that serves as a spiritual guide to those who follow it. In and through Ifá the natural divine forces speak to humans through a system of letters or figures made by the position in which cowrie shells or kola nuts thrown by the priest or Babalawo fall on the divining table. Each position forms an Odu, or road, of positive or negative outcomes. There are numerous anecdotes with each Odu that the Babalawo recites as part of the divining process. The anecdotes related to Ifá constitute a sacred oral tradition in Africa. In the Caribbean, the anecdotes of Ifá, and those of a similar divining system known as Diloggun, form a written corpus of religious literature (known in Cuba as Pataki) that records the survival of an ancestral African consciousness in America. This consciousness is what Zapata defines in his novel as Muntu. As in Zapata's novel, the drama of the African deities in Latin American fiction provides a record of African religious traditions, while at the same time recording and retelling the greater story of the Indo-African experience in America.


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Stanley, Porter, Michael Hayes, and David Tombs, eds. Faith in the Millennium. Sheffield, U.K., 2001. Numerous papers by different authors that include theological perspectives in Latin America, theology and literature, millenary movements past and present, theology of liberation, art, religion syncretism, and literature.

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Julia Cuervo Hewitt (2005)