Mestizo worship as the life-giving blend of ritual traditions of various religions is a concept that has been introduced by Hispanic theologians of the United States to describe, study, and develop the reality of worship among the mestizo peoples of Latin America, a form of worship that has been evolving since the encounter of 1492. It recognizes and celebrates that modern-day Latin American forms of worship are a powerful synthesis of religious elements inherited from a number of sources, especially the religious traditions of the Iberians of the 1500s, various forms of Mesoamerican religions, and elements of African religions.
While traditionally this synthesis has been condemned by Eurocentered Western church leaders as syncretism and even as a form of underdeveloped Christianity, U.S. Hispanic theologians have demonstrated that the synthesis represents the normal evolution of Christianity as it takes root historically in various parts of the world, an evolution called by the Catholic Church "the way of the Incarnation." Furthermore, it is precisely these forms of mestizo worship that give Latin American Christianity its own proper identity, as distinct from Eastern and Western Christianity. Mestizo worship is the very soul, outward manifestation, and chief characteristic of Latin American Christianity.
As we look into the origins of the various contemporary forms of worship, it is easy to recognize that all worship is mestizo! The feasts of the Jewish people are a synthesis of Jewish beliefs with previous religious traditions—that is, those of the peoples they encountered. The Roman liturgy of Western Catholicism is a synthesis that emerged out of synagogue practices coupled with the cultural and religious traditions of Rome and gradually enhanced with elements such as Gothic vestments for the Mass and various forms of church music, architecture, music, art, and rituals. Established religions strive for purity and fear all forms of syncretism, while in effect all forms of worship are amalgamations of previous forms of religious celebration.
In order to address explicitly the subject of mestizo worship, it is necessary to first look deeper into the meaning of "mestizo," for it is not a common or popular word in the English or German language, though it is quite common in Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese. Because race mixture was prohibited in the United States, there is no ordinary word for the reality. Derogatory expressions such as "half-breed" or even "bastard" have been commonly used to refer to mestizos.
Mestizos are born out of the mixture of human groups of different genetic characteristics—those determining the color and shape of the eyes, hair and skin pigmentation, and the makeup of the bone structure. As the number of mestizos increases with the passage of time, a mestizo culture begins to emerge that relates to the parent cultures very much like the child relates to the parent. There is no difficulty with the biological and cultural mixing of peoples, but it is a completely different story when it comes to the psychological, social, political, and religious mixing of persons and of peoples. Such a development poses a threat to the established and accepted ways of the parent groups, especially their religious expressions. The biological, cultural, and religious disturbance of the group's life, especially through intermarriage, is so feared that in many places it is still prohibited, and in most others it is deeply frowned upon. Yet it is happening more widely and rapidly than ever before.
The mestizo is born out of various genetic pools, histories, cultures, and religions. In the very consciousness of the mestizo begins a new history, a new culture, and new forms of religious expression. This beginning entails the most devastating suffering for the mestizo, especially in the early stages of mestizaje, while at the same time appearing most threatening to both parent groups.
Because the mestizo will be truly a new being, the deepest suffering and insecurity come from what we might call an "unfinished" identity or, better yet, an undefined one, productive of a deep sense of impurity and margination. It produces a profound sense of not belonging fully to either of the parent groups and, most of all, of not being correct by either's standards and norms. From earliest childhood mestizos will struggle with the question, "Who am I?" for they are not regarded as "fully human" by either of the parent groups.
In this "between" or unfinished existence lies the greatest potential for creativity: to pool the cultural and religious genes and chromosomes of both cultures so as to create a new one! The greatest breakthrough comes in moving from the shame of "non-being" to the pride and joy of "new-being." In Latin America, this breakthrough, beginning in 1531, came through the mestiza face and heart of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Juan Diego, who was able to combine the Iberian Catholic religion with the Mesoamerican religions in such a way that both were purified and enhanced but no longer opposed!
The difficult passage from nonbeing to new-being is brought about in many ways but is especially affirmed, manifested, and celebrated through ritual. Mestizo worship is resistance and affirmation—resistance to the various cultural forms of Western religions that try to "annihilate" its adherents through conversion to their Western forms of religious expression, which they see as normative for all cultures; affirmation because it is the spontaneous and festive celebration of who the mestizo people are. As such, it is the legitimization of what others considered false but its adherents regard as true and authentic.
Some of the major examples of mestizo worship are the celebration of the Day of the Dead on November 2, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12, Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent, Good Friday, and the patronal feast of each Latin American country and even of each municipality, such as the celebrations of the Indian pueblos in New Mexico.
Mestizo worship provides a rootedness and a continuity with the past while enabling people to enter creatively and boldly into uncharted situations of the present and the future. It is a deeply mystical experience that allows the participants—and there are no passive observers or excluded persons—to enter the continuum of time and experience the spiritual energy of the entire people in union with their God. In the moments of celebration, everyone experiences the collective oneness of the group.
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