Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Día de los Muertos: "Yo Soy la Tierra"—"I am the Earth"

For those of us steeped in the Western tradition, experiences that challenge our taken-for-granted assumptions about how the world ‘is’ can startle and unsettle us. But when we lean into these challenging experiences rather than rebuffing them, we open ourselves to a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.

Renowned Mexican anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla studied indigenous traditions and practices. In introducing Bonfil Batalla's master work, México Profundo, his English translator wrote:
"An ancient agricultural complex provides their [indigenous communities'] food supply, and
  • Work is understood as a way of maintaining a harmonious relation with the natural world;
  • Health is related to human conduct; and
  • Community service is often part of each individual's life obligation.
  • Time is circular, and
  • Humans fulfill their own cycle in relation to other cycles of the universe."
At times living in Mexico is a wild ride. We go along day-to-day assuming that we are more or less in the modern world, then suddenly something happens that brings us up short, and we become aware of having landed in a completely different universe. So it was one day when my Spanish teacher Alicia, who is Purhépecha, announced,
Yo soy la tierra”—“I am the earth.”
What?” I asked, startled as much by the abruptness of her announcement as by her words, which I had instantly understood.
She repeated her statement, more insistently, emphatically,
Yo soy la Tierra”.
My face must have betrayed confusion because when Alicia repeated the phrase for the third time, “Yo soy la Tierra” her voice tone had softened ... more inviting than insistent.

Her words left me mute—without a thought in my head, incapable of framing a response. I had never before heard anyone utter words so simple, yet so profound. Words spoken matter-of-factly, with tremendous dignity, Alicia's tone conveyed the urgency that lay just beyond her words.

I reflected. In the Spanish language and in Mesoamerican religious thought, each word in the simple sentence is pregnant with meaning:
  • Yo – I, the ‘me’ that is me—no ‘other’—Alicia was saying that she is, herself, the earth.
  • Soy – am: the ‘essence’ of being itself—in Spanish the verb ser ('to be') is used when referring to an essential, unchanging quality (e.g., “Soy madre”); a second verb estar (also 'to be') is used to refer to a state or condition that can change (e.g., “Estoy cansada” – I am tired).
  • La tierra – the earth, the soil. In Mesoamerican thought, the earth is a complex symbol—domain of the earth goddess, Tonantzin, it is also the locus of the Underworld.
Alicia continued. Before her death, her grandmother had given Alicia three dichos (sayings).

 “La tierra es la madre | Lo que tú haces a la madre, vas a recibir.”
The Earth is the Mother | What you do to the Mother, you are going to receive.
The Earth is the Mother: Tonantzin is believed to be a manifestation of the Earth Mother, known as Coatlicue, the mother of all living things. Conceived by immaculate and miraculous means, Coatlicue is the one who decides the length of life. To the Mexica, the earth was both mother and tomb, giver of life and receiver of human remains at death. The process of decomposition both feeds the earth and culminates in reunion with the Life-Force that animates the universal cycle.

What you do to the Mother, you are going to receive: Alicia pointed out that everything we eat and everything that enters our bodies originates from the earth in one form or another—not just plant foods, but beef, fish and poultry as well.
She then related ancient agricultural wisdom for cultivating the earth, including the custom of planting multiple crops in the same field. Beans and squash planted with corn, for example, deliver nitrogen that nourishes the corn plants in a natural, organic manner, without negative side effects.

It isn't difficult, then, to imagine the sense of honor felt by campesinos working their ancestral lands—their work enables them to maintain a harmonious relationship with natural forces as they care for—in English, we might say husband—Mother Earth herself.

Nor is it difficult, then, to imagine the profound sense of violation occasioned by such extractive practices as open pit mining, illegal logging of sacred forests, fracking—which constitute a veritable rape of Mother Earth.

Moreover, this violation, this rape is not without consequence, for humankind is destined to 'receive' in kind 'what it has done' to Mother Earth, which leads quite naturally to the grandmother's second dicho, saying:

 “No siembres para que no coseches.” 
“Don’t sow that you need not harvest.”

The similarity of this saying with Saint Paul’s injunction to the Galatians is unmistakable: “As you sow, so shall you reap.” There is a similar saying in the Old Testament, “He who sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7). But Alicia assured me that her Purhépecha grandmother intended neither of these meanings.

To explain, she related this anecdote: Apparently in the 1950’s, foreign agricultural companies gave free chemical fertilizers to the campesinos. After using them, the campesinos discovered that not only were the fields unable to grow anything without using these expensive fertilizers, but the people feared eating foods grown with chemicals because they feared putting those chemicals in their bodies. Health is related to human conduct ....

For the same reason, many indigenous people reject western medicine in favor of traditional medicines that originate from medicinal herbs and plants locally grown. Not coincidentally, one consequence of Mexico’s geography are its diverse ecosystems. In fact, Mexico is one of the planet's countries with the greatest biodiversity. It is a resource that Mexico's peoples have drawn upon for three thousand years.

 “Tú eres hijo de la tierra y ella va a darte lo que necesitas, pero el día que mueras ella se alimentará de ti y entonces te preguntará ¿qué hiciste conmigo?”
“You are a child of the earth, and she [Mother Earth] is going to give you what you need, but on the day you die, she will feed herself on you, and then she will ask, 
What did you do with me?

This final saying is perhaps the most profound. When her grandmother died, Alicia felt sad but at the same time peaceful because she felt that now it was her grandmother’s turn to feed the earth. As Alicia observed,
The daughter must to return to her mother….
Traditional burial rituals are helpful. It is the family’s responsibility to prepare the grave. I can only imagine the range and force of feelings expressed by family members as they perform this final task for a loved one. Surely there are feelings of sadness at losing the participation of this beloved family member in the family’s daily life.

But there is also calm in their confidence that they are preparing the resting place for the daughter, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother as she goes forth to rejoin the Life-Force itself.
Time is circular, and humans fulfill their own cycle in relation to other cycles of the universe.
And now we come to the grandmother's last words, “…and [Mother Earth] will ask, ‘What did you do with me’?” A difficult, even profound, question — one each of us is called to answer for ourselves....
Qué le vaya bien—May it go well with you.

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