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Saints of the Shaking Earth

Date:10 January 2018
Author:Dr. Alanna Cant
Saints of the Shaking Earth
Saints of the Shaking Earth

We start the new year with a post by Dr Alanna Cant. Drawing on recent fieldwork in Oaxaca, Mexico, Cant explores church-state relations through the lens of church restoration, religious ‘heritage’, and popular devotion to the saints. 

In September, two large and seismically unusual earthquakes struck Mexico. On the 7th of September, the strongest quake the country had experienced in a century caused significant damage across the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca. Just 12 days later, a second struck the densely populated centre of the country, affecting Mexico City, Puebla, Morelos and the State of Mexico. 468 people were killed and tens of thousands of homes, businesses and public buildings were damaged or destroyed, including more than 1000 Catholic churches. While immediate responses by state agencies were of course directed towards search-and-rescue efforts and emergency assistance to survivors, within days, media attention turned towards the condition of the nation’s churches. Just a week after the second quake, the federal Secretariat for Culture announced that 8 billion pesos (€340 million) would be made available to repair the affected churches and convents. While this promise of funds was welcomed by many communities, it also accentuated the multiple contradictions that inhere in the spaces of Mexican churches, which are simultaneously secular and religious; historical and contemporary; public and particular. In the aftermath of the earthquakes, as churches became potentially dangerous spaces of salvation, these contradictions became especially apparent in the arena of local Catholic practices emphasizing people’s personal relationships to specific holy images.

That the federal government would foot the bill for damage to Catholic buildings is an ironic consequence of the Mexican state’s historically antagonistic relationship with the Church. Under the General Law of National Assets, all Church properties built before 1992 are federally owned as ‘national patrimony,’ and therefore the state is legally responsible for them.[i] This patrimonialisation of Catholic sites is the most recent incarnation of a long process of the secularisation of the Mexican state. This process began after Mexico gained independence from Spain (1821) and continued after the revolution (1910-1920), as the young republic sought to curtail the political and institutional power of the Church by prohibiting it from owning property, or running hospitals or charities. These prohibitions led Mexico to break diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1856; they were not reinstated until 1992. However, while most of the Church’s productive assets were sold off to private landowners or redistributed to peasant communities, religious buildings have remained state properties. They now take pride-of-place in Mexico’s heritage programme, the basis for its highly lucrative culture and tourism economies, and are managed by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).[ii]

When the earthquakes hit, I was conducting ethnographic research on the restoration of one such building: the ruins of a 16th century Dominican monastery in the small Oaxacan village of Santa Cruz Mixtepec. Thankfully, no one in Santa Cruz was injured and the monastery and church only suffered minor damage. On the Sunday following the second earthquake, the parish priest, Padre Luis,[iii] took the opportunity of his greeting to the congregation to discuss the devastation. He described a tragic case in the state of Puebla, where the dome of a church collapsed during the baptism of a two-month old girl, killing eleven members of the family, including the baby. Padre Luis asked rhetorically whether these earthquakes were punishments sent by God, a speculation that had been circulating on social media. This speculation was fuelled by comments made by an evangelical pastor who claimed that the fact that Catholic churches had particularly suffered in the quakes was evidence that God was enfado (angry) with the Catholic faith. But Padre Luis assured his flock that this was not the case; God does not punish those who live in his name. However, he conceded that unlike the new protestant churches, Mexico’s historic Catholic churches are especially dangerous due to their age, but argued that this ancientness is itself evidence of the Church’s lasting spiritual importance and authenticity in the country. At the same time, he warned us that should another earthquake strike, we must immediately run to the walls and not to the door, as trying to exit the building would lead us directly under the delicate domes.

Padre Luis’ comments attempted to reconcile the physical consequences of the earthquakes with a reaffirmation of the spiritual importance of the Church’s physical infrastructure. This reconciliation became all the more important as the damaged buildings’ status as ‘national patrimony’ came to hinder local Catholic practices. In the weeks after the earthquakes, hundreds of engineers and conservation experts from INAH surveyed every church in the affected areas. In the larger parish of Mixtepec, they closed three churches and chapels pending structural repairs.

While residents worried about the safety or structural integrity of the buildings, they were also concerned for the imágenes, the carvings and pictures of Jesus, the Virgin and the saints that reside within the temples. In Mexican popular Catholicism, such images are not only representations of the holy personages they depict, but are themselves individual social beings. Over the course of their lives, believers cultivate affective and deeply personal relationships with the specific images in their church and are responsible for their wellbeing, just as the saints care for the lives of their followers. Although Padre Luis was able to conduct mass as regular outside of the closed churches, people were worried about the saints that were locked inside. While they expressed some concern that the antique figures were physically at risk from the tremors that continued through October and November, they also found it very sad that the saints were left alone, with no one to light candles or convivir (lit. ‘live together’) with them. As one research participant put it: “I can go see San Judas in another church, but it’s not the same as mi Judasito (‘my little Jude’); he is the one who helps me and I should be visiting him.”

The damaged churches are not especially unique within Oaxaca, and the area is not important for tourism. As such Mixtepec was not an immediate priority for INAH. In fact, the designation of Mexico’s churches as national patrimony means that they are less likely to be repaired in a timely fashion: although local authorities may be able to fund ordinary materials and labour for large projects, work on historical buildings is by law required to be conducted by professional conservation experts, using specialist or historically authentic materials. The patrimonialisation of Mexico’s churches through political, legal and economic means thus transforms local religious spaces into national secular ones. But this conversion will only ever remain partial in a country where 83 percent of the population identifies as Catholic. As I investigate in my larger research, the conceptual and aesthetic tensions that exist between church-as-heritage and church-as-temple mean that the material features of historic churches become polysemic, telling different stories to different listeners. But these stories also affect one another: heritage and holiness together constitute what churches are in Mexico today.

The physical damage caused to Mexican churches by September’s earthquakes reveals that the historical tensions between Church and state continue to have wide-reaching effects. However, unlike the large dramas of Mexican national history, in which these tensions were played out through the passing of laws and the fighting of wars, the recent earthquakes materialize these tensions at the local and personal levels of community and faith. As Catholic belief and practice in Mixtepec are grounded in the buildings and contents of churches deemed by others to be of historical importance, they are affected by the legal and discursive regimes that reframe their spaces of lived religion as heritage.

While the acute nature of the earthquakes has rendered these tensions especially visible, they are not particular to the post-disaster context. All over Mexico, Catholic churches are in need of restoration work. While communities can petition the government for assistance, the amount of time and money needed to restore even a single church to the standards required by law mean that oftentimes such licit restorations cannot take place. Instead, communities may undertake the work themselves, risking fines from federal authorities and risking damage to the historical integrity of the buildings and artworks. In such cases, however, local believers rarely regret the renovations, as the work ensures that churches continue to be what they want them to be: beautiful and spiritually active spaces where one can best engage God, Mary, Jesus and the saints. In Mixtepec parish, Padre Luis and the Catholic community continue to wait for news of when the essential repairs on their churches will take place. In the meantime, the saints remain under lock and key.

Alanna Cant is a social anthropologist specialising in the anthropology of art, religion and politics in Latin America. She holds a Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant for her current research on the aesthetics of religion and heritage conservation in Oaxaca, Mexico.

[i] In most other countries Church properties are owned by individual parishes or missions. In Mexico, properties purchased or built after 1992 may be owned by religious organisations.

[ii] In Oaxaca, this property regime is further complicated by the fact that many municipalities are legally autonomous from the state; local civil authorities have much more control over churches than they might elsewhere.

[iii] A pseudonym.

* The title of this post refers to Eric Wolf’s 1959 ethnography, Sons of the Shaking Earth.


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