Photo: Catherine Reiland
Photo: Catherine Reiland

Two Virgins that Meet on the Same Path: A conversation about devotion, neighbors and storytelling

Introduction:

On April 6, 2007, a mini-conference was convened at New York University on the topic of Virgenes Viajeras/Traveling Virgins. As part of that conversation, Pedro Lasch, artist; Renato Rosaldo, anthropologist and poet; and Jean Franco, literary and cultural critic engaged in a dialogue with an introduction and participation by Mary Louise Pratt, scholar of Latin American literature. Pedro wanted to tell a story he had heard when he was a child. He said he hoped to make the story into a film one day and the dialogue that followed Pedro’s storytelling focused on the meaning of the short tale he told about two devotional processions that encounter each other in a valley, and also included a vigorous brainstorming session on the visual and logistical challenges posed by its filmic representation. The following pages are a short excerpt from that dialogue that offer ways to think about the nature of devotions that are set into motion, encountering in their travels other devotional traditions. While most of the rest of this issue takes a serious approach to devotional practices, privileging the meanings of processional activities that are described by practitioners, the protagonist in Pedro’s story is an observer and what she observes is by turns disconcerting, startling and finally, comical, but only from her position as a “neutral” observer. For Renato Rosaldo and Jean Franco the story prompts a discussion not only on the practice of devotional processions but on the role of scholars, storytellers and artists who observe them. This is a lively conversation on the globalization of religiosity, the meanings engendered by the circulation of objects of devotion, and the risky zones of encounter when virgenes viajeras meet each other on the same path.

Pedro Lasch: The story I’m telling is something that comes out of oral tradition in the sense that it can exist as a story and if you want to tell the story, then you keep telling the story, that’s its very form. It doesn’t have to be written, in fact I don’t write that story, because I heard it from someone, and it’s based on a true story. It was told to me when I was six or seven years old, and I haven’t forgotten it since. It was told by a very close friend of my parents, whose name is Doña Rosita. Doña Rosita is a zapoteca oaxaqueña. She grew up in the Sierra in Oaxaca and eventually moved to Oaxaca City, but for most of her youth, she was a rural teacher. So she traveled the Sierra a great deal. Basically going from village to village, ranchito to ranchería, sometimes there’s only fifty people living there, starting a school, teaching, then moving to the next village. So Doña Rosita, even at that age, was always an amazing character, this lovely person, so I would always listen with both ears to whatever she said. She was a great storyteller. She started this story where she was basically telling us that one day she had just finished in one of the villages. She started walking to go to the next town. She was descending from this hill. She saw on one side, way in the distance, on this other hill, what looked like a crowd. And she could hear some noises, maybe some chanting, but she couldn’t really make out what it was. On the other side, on another hill on the distance, she saw this other, similar crowd, but with different colors, so this kind of raised her curiosity. So she kept walking down into this valley, and both of these groups turned out to be processions—that’s what she started being able to see. So these two processions were coming down and down, and it was evident at one point they would all meet eventually at the valley. She was really looking forward to this. She can hear these different litanies and songs that they’re singing and prayers and rustling. So these processions keep getting closer and closer and closer, and at that point, she’s literally standing next to them. She assumes that they’re going to make way for each other. Well, that does not happen. These two processions, they keep praying, chanting, but they just start really running into each other. They start elbowing, giving very nasty, ugly looks. Lots of tension, kicking. Eventually, after a few minutes of that, the groups becoming a chaotic mass, they eventually separate, and keep going on their individual paths. She’s really already impressed by this whole spectacle. At that point, she just walks up the hill thinking, “I guess that’s it” and she just keeps walking and all of a sudden, she just hears this yelling voice “Oiga!” She turns around, and she sees that the capitán from this one procession is yelling at the other group that is already back there going up the hill. So the other group turns around and says “¿Qué quieres?” and the capitán says “pues nada más no nos queremos ir sin que sepan algo: nuestra virgen es más chingona que la suya!.” And that’s the end of the story. And now you know the title of the story is La Virgen Más Chingona.

Jean Franco: Well, I do admire people who perform and tell stories. I wish I could do it myself, but I don’t have any stories. But one thing that occurred to me as I was listening to you was, you know, the issue of neighbors because when I was in Oaxaca last year and I was told by Roger Lancaster, who was doing some work there, that there’d been this tremendous fight between two neighboring villages, one of whom was more or less organized by the PRI and the other by the PRD.[1]

It resulted in, I think, about 14 deaths. So something that occurs to me is that neighborliness, being next to one another, is not necessarily a very good thing. So that’s one of my comments on the story…

…But the second thing that occurred to me was that, what is it about virgins? What’s so special about a virgin? We know that Maria was invented in the Middle Ages by the Catholic Church, alone-of-all-her-sex because she managed to be a mother and a virgin as well. …My third comment is about the traveling virgins. I think virgins have traveled for many, many centuries, right. I mean, they traveled with the conquest for one thing. But the other thing that occurred to me was that in this neoliberal era, you know, they travel obviously across borders and so on, and that’s very interesting, but it struck me that one of the best indices of religion, if you like, religiosity, in neoliberalism is the cult of, say, death in Mexico City, Santa Muerte, because the prayers to Santa Muerte are a kind of neoliberal position: make me tolerant, make me successful, things of this kind. These are the prayers they recite. And then the rituals are all about the number nine, you know, you always have to have a magic number. You know, nine in the morning and nine at night you recite your prayers to Saint Death, and of course Saint Death has become almost the saint of the informal economy. It’s Tepito where it starts in Mexico City, the market where they sell, contraband, and everything else. It’s the black market, it’s the drug market and so on. …I mean I don’t want to knock out the traveling virgins, one should also think about these other inventions because what’s happening right now seems to me to be this incredible invention of religion. I mean, new religions are being invented all the time and all over the place, and immediately becoming global, too. I mean, Santa Muerte is already long beyond Tepito, and, in Brazil, the Igreja de Deus has already gone worldwide now. It’s an enormous proliferation of new religions coming often from these very, very marginalized sites. Okay, those are my comments.

Renato Rosaldo: … I do think there’s something about the neighbors. We think of course that good fences make good neighbors. You think of that kind of notion. You also think that often there’s a peculiar notion of how ethnicity works and the notion is one I don’t completely subscribe to, but the notion is that when you’re meeting up with your neighbors that you need to do things to distinguish yourself from your neighbors. And so that the strongest, that when you think about an ethnic group, if you imagine an ethnic group as a circle and say where is the ethnicity most strong, the most visible, one notion would be that in the middle, in the middle of the ethnic group, that it would spread out to the periphery that fades out. But another notion that would be illustrated by this story is that it is going to be on the margins, where you’re bumping up against other groups, because that’s where you have to take out your banner and say ‘I’m me and you’re you’, and you elbow each other. Move through like that, and that’s where the markings of ethnicity and of religion will be the strongest, at those points. Another thing that strikes me very much is all the going downhill. The going downhill and meeting in a valley. The valley is the point of encounter, and the hill is the point of somehow security and autonomy and separateness. But the valley is the place of meeting. It’s almost like historically rivers have been. Like the river would be the place where you all gather, where you all meet, like it’s a place of coming together, as the Rio Grande historically was, at least until the mid-eighteenth century, and later it becomes something else. It’s that kind of meeting place in the valleys – it’s something about how religions tend to take the high places as their sanctuaries. That’s not the combat zone; the combat zone—the encounter zone—is in the valley where they’re doing this kind of thing. It’s very striking to me.

Another thing: one thing about oral story-telling that I don’t think has been remarked on nearly enough is what it is that the story-teller doesn’t say because it’s already always understood, because we all know it if we live in the place. To me a famous example, maybe not to all of you, is a Navajo telling his life story. He was born in about 1868. And he says, in one of the first lines of the story, is “when we returned from Fort Sumner.” What the storyteller, and what the interlocutor knew, but maybe the reader does or does not, is that what he’s saying is that was the period when the Navajo were confined, forcibly driven to Fort Sumner, and lost a third of their population. So when he says, “When we returned from Fort Sumner, I was born,” he means he was born in the midst of a massive historical trauma. And then you say “Geez this guy, I don’t know what Freudians would think of him, he’s obsessed with sheep.” The guy’s hungry, the family’s hungry! Yes, they are obsessed with sheep, because they’re starving. Because their crops were burned, their herd of sheep was all killed. They were massacred. And so he’s telling these details that, if you don’t know the context, mean far less than they would if you just had a little information about the context.

One of the things that I’m most curious about, and especially as I imagine this as a movie, is that some of that context will have to become present visually. I’m wondering, for example, what does a procession look like? Are there hierarchies? Are there differences? What are the differentiations, who comes first, who comes second? Are there as in so many areas of Mexico and Guatemala, are there hierarchies of ritual officials? What is their relationship with La Virgen? How is La Virgen represented in the procession? What kind of incense is there? There must be incense at some point. Maybe not in the procession, but there likely is. I’m curious about if I’m trying to film the story…what position do I take? Because if there’s a hierarchy, one of the most interesting positions to me, because that’s my preference and bias and prejudice, …I would like to look at the people who are not at the top of the hierarchy. There are so many people who are looking at storytelling and then you go, “Well I’ll go to the highest official because he must be the one who knows. Let me go to the Catholic priest and have him explain what those Indians are doing. They aren’t very articulate after all.” And then if you do it the other way around, and if you say, “Well let me go to those Indians, and I guess I better take a little time out and learn their language, and then speak to them in Zapoteco, and somehow get enough so I can have a conversation, and see how they understand what’s going on.” And I suppose if I were being a little less facetious, I would say better talk to both the Priest and the indigenous people, and it’s likely to be especially important to talk to the indigenous people because they are the ones whose stories are most often left out. So you want to be careful that that story does get told and does get heard.

Even within this, Jean’s talking about the invention, the creativity, the inventiveness in religious traditions now. One of the things that has so struck me with la Virgen de Zapopan, …In the 1950s and 60s, my father was taking pictures of the processions for La Virgen de Zapopan. What you had there in those processions were real Indians. They were Huicholes and other people speaking different languages and coming from more remote areas and they were dancing to honor the Virgen de Zapopan. The Virgen de Zapopan was really a viajera. She went from the central church up to each of the parish churches. She went around all summer. She traveled the summer like that. So what’s she’s doing now is an extension of this earlier pattern, in many ways. Now what you see when Mary [Pratt] and I went to witness the procession in Guadalajara in ’98, what you see are these Hollywood-type “Indians”. They had signs that say “redskin”, just in case you thought they were real Indians. It’s actually a highly complex thing that drives anthropologists nuts. The reason it drives us nuts is we just can’t get over looking for the “real” Indians. We want them to be authentic. If someone comes up and is dressed in the plastic stuff that looks like a Hollywood set of the 50s, and is wearing a Comanche type headdress, and you say, “Wait, there were no Comanches in Guadalajara, what is this? Where did they get this idea?” You’re kind of trying to come to terms with the phenomena you’re witnessing, and the only thing you can think is, “This is fake; it’s completely phony. It is not worth studying.” And then, what do you do when it turns out these people are not wealthy. They’re often guided by indigenous people who’d be working the drums, or they’ll be the people who are guiding them and teaching them. They’re not wealthy people, and they’re spending money on their garments, and they’re spending evenings rehearsing, and they do put in a lot of time rehearsing. It’s not a light thing at all. So whatever it is, it is a deep act of devotion of some kind, where in fact there was a tradition not that long before bringing in actual indigenous people. These people are doing something that has echoes of that, something highly complex in Mexico, where they have the privilege of being mestizo, they’re crossing the color line and acting and dressing and being indigenous. They’re doing it as part of an act of devotion that’s not just a Sunday act, but repeated. If nothing else, the evidence of how powerful and deep the commitment is is that they can dance a long way. They have to be in incredible shape to do it. So if they don’t go to all the rehearsals, they can’t do the long procession. And that’s just an index of how painful the devotion is. So those are some of the things that occurred to me as I heard the story...

Mary Louise Pratt: I was going to say that one of the challenges with this is that in a way, in a sort of narratological way, the story isn’t a story, it’s a joke that is resolved by a punch line but the story isn’t resolved. There’s no resolution to the narrative. The narrative it is in narrative terms you say “so then what happened?” because then what happened is the other side has got to say “no…nuestra virgen es la más chingona,” and then you know a struggle, that goes on for 2000 years, starts.

Pedro Lasch: It’s the sequel, La Virgen Más Más Chingona.


We are grateful to Catherine Reiland for her transcription of this dialogue.


Pedro Lasch (Duke University) was born in Mexico City in 1975 and lived there until he moved to New York City when he was nineteen. Since 1999 he has focused on creating multiple art initiatives that bridge the local concerns and interests of recent Latino immigrants in Queens and other boroughs with the current state of international politics. A preoccupation with the theory and practice of socially engaged art has led Lasch to develop his work as a series of public interventions within the flow of the everyday. These interactions or temporal rearrangements form a chain of open routines that develop within specific social situations originating mostly outside of the conventional art context. His various roles as artist, educator, activist, cultural organizer and producer should be understood as building upon one another to form an interdisciplinary practice.


Jean Franco (Columbia University) is the winner of the PEN 1996 award for lifetime contribution to the dissemination of Latin American literature in English and has been recognized by the Chilean and Venezuelan governments for advanced scholarship on Latin American literature in the United States. She has served as president of the Latin American Studies Association in Great Britain and of the Latin American Studies Association in the US. She is currently Professor Emerita at Columbia University. Her most recent books include: Critical Passions: Selected Essays, edited by Mary Louise Pratt and Kathleen Newman (1999) and The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City: Latin America and the Cold War (2002).

Renato Rosaldo (New York University) is a Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences; he has done field research among the Ilongots of northern Luzon, Philippines. He is the author of one of the key texts of 20th century anthropology: Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis (1989). He has been conducting research on cultural citizenship in San Jose, California since 1989, and contributed the introduction and an article to Latino Cultural Citizenship: Claiming Identity, Space, and Rights, published in 1997.


Notes:

    The PRI is el Partido Revolucionario Institucional which dominated Mexico’s political landscape for seventy-one years. The PRD is the Partido Revolucionario Demócrata, a left-leaning party founded by people who splintered off from the PRI. Before the PAN (Partido de Acción Nacional) rose in national prominence, eventually ending the PRI’s hold of the Presidency with the election of Vicente Fox in 2000, the PRD and PRI defined political affiliations in many regions.

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