Decolonization and the Politics of Syncretism: The Catholic Church, Indigenous Theology and Cultural Autonomy in Oaxaca, Mexico

By Norget, Kristin | International Education, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Decolonization and the Politics of Syncretism: The Catholic Church, Indigenous Theology and Cultural Autonomy in Oaxaca, Mexico


Norget, Kristin, International Education


INTRODUCTION

My first experience was with the Icots brothers, in a culture different from our own Zapotec culture-it was with the Huaves, close to the sea. I was there with other priest friends a year and a half. All of us together had an initiation experience that told us that this is definitely the right path. That is, I learned also to follow a slower rhythm, not to reject all the knowledge that the Huaves have, and to ground myself in existence in the daily contact with the people. I learned with them the work of fishing, because they're fishermen....It's a hard life, with a lot of suffering...that of living day-to-day, with only what's necessary for that day. And I learned that you can't say, 'Let's come together to pray7-instead you have to go to where they are, so that also our language and what we want to share can be understood. And for me it was a real wake up.

-GM, Catholic priest and Zapotec from Juchitan, Oaxaca, 1995

(Interview with GM, Tehuantepec Diocesis, October 1995)

These words of a Zapotec indigenous priest working in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca encapsulate the defining ethos of a pastoral program guided by the philosophy of "indigenous theology" (teologia indigena), a praxis advocating the concerted syncretism of Roman Catholicism and indigenous religions. Indigenous theology and its translation into a pastoral program called the "indigenous pastoral" (pastoral indigena) have traditionally been the distinctive agenda of southern dioceses like Oaxaca in particular, and a practical orientation directed explicitly at the special needs of working with the most marginalized social sectors, the indigenous communities which in this region made up 18.3% of the Oaxaca's state population and roughly a fifth of Mexico's total indigenous population (Fox, 1999, p. 26). The socio-economic conditions of rural Oaxacans-the vast majority of whom are indigenous, small-scale subsistence farmers-has become even more precarious since the onset of neo-liberal economic re-structuring (privatization) over the last few decades, spiraling inflation, the continuing deterioration and exploitation of the environment, and government policies favoring large-scale agro-industry.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Oaxacan Catholic Church, with CEDIPIO, the Diocesanal Center of the Indigenous Pastoral, as its driving force, was a ferment of liberation theological teachings and practice. At that time, well-known (now retired) bishops, Bartolome Carrasco in the Oaxacan Archdiocese of Antequera, and Arturo Lona in the neighboring Diocese of Tehuantepec, were adamant advocates of the teachings of Vatican II and the creation of a Popular Church pressuring for social justice and for clergy's direct insertion in the realities of the poor as inspired by liberation theology. Along with their like-minded colleague, Bishop Samuel Ruiz in the neighboring southern state of Chiapas, the Bishops adopted a mode of pastoral praxis known as the Pastoral indigena, or indigenous pastoral. In spite of a backlash within the Church to liberationist theology that emerged in the late 1980s and sharpened through the 1990s, in Oaxaca the indigenous pastoral remains a favorite element of the discourse of pastoral planning. In part this is due to the huge and diverse indigenous population in the state, which resides mostly in small communities dispersed throughout rural Oaxaca. Indeed, roughly 70% of the inhabitants of the state are of indigenous origin, giving Oaxaca the highest proportion of Indians in the country: about 18% of the nation's total indigenous population (Bernal, 2001). While the largest indigenous groups in the state are Zapotecs and Mixtecs, there are also Triquis, Chinantecs, Chontales, Mixes, Chatinos, Mazotecs, Chochos, Cuicatecs, Huaves, Zoques ot Tacuates, Ixcatecs, Amuzgos and Nahuas. There is also a small but significant Afro-Mexican population.

One might readily assume that the intersection of a politicized, progressive Catholicism with indigenous spirituality offers unique possibilities for religion to operate in popular and indigenous communities not as the ideological opiate that secular leftists have commonly identified as its fundamental ontology, but as an important weapon of resistance to hegemonic forces of sociopolitical oppression-or even as a significant contributor to the decolonization of indigenous culture in the current struggle for cultural autonomy.

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Decolonization and the Politics of Syncretism: The Catholic Church, Indigenous Theology and Cultural Autonomy in Oaxaca, Mexico
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