Letter 10: American Syncretism

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Feb 6 – Mar 25 2015 Brazil and Chile

In the USA we are familiar with syncretism of the Northern Hemisphere, especially in what we call The West, meaning Greece, Rome, and Europe. We speak of the Melting Pot especially in that regard. Yet The Americas, meaning the continents of our hemisphere, also share the unique mestizo heritage of our indigenous and European past.   Syncretism often reflects change, hopefully progress. But it can send a message; in several American countries,  Mexico, for example, El Día de la Raza  – or racial day- is celebrated on October 12,  which is Columbus day in North America. But there it is devoted to the mestizo or mixed race.  Syncretism can be seen everywhere.  In the Americas, especially in North and South America there are some curious inversions, geographical, linguistic, and cultural:

In the South, Daylight savings is ‘Spring back, Fall forward’; and Winter lives in the Deep South not the Far North. Santa spends Christmas in South America though he and his reindeer sweat in Summer heat. The global map below is a way of looking at the same world from another viewpoint.

In the Americas we share some holidays that sometimes seem out of place; the indigenous altiplano peoples love dance, song, and colorful costumes and in Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, Halloween is celebrated with wild abandon: jack o’lanterns, witches, trick or treats; the next day is a traditional  Día De Los Muertos, or day of the dead, with feasting and ceremony held at a local cemetery, more strictly a Spanish American religious  holiday.

In Cuzco Cathedral there is a beautiful painting of the Last Supper by an Inca artist – of the  people who actually built the cathedral with stones originally carved by their ancestors, from structures torn down by the hands of the conquered at the command of the conquerors. The Cuzco painting features not wine, but chicha, a purple fermented corn drink. The meal is cui– roast guinea pig. There are corn based dishes the table. Judas clutches his gold in the lower right hand corner wearing the curiously browned face of Pizarro who looks directly out at the viewer, as does Christ. It is a syncretic symphony.

Where the Valley of the Inca meets Lake Titicaca, small groups of Uros live on their floating reed islands; I first was there 40 years ago, when they were isolated, impoverished, fearful, sickly and short lived. The children attend a floating totora reed island public school. They have solar electric panels,  with connections to the world, and have become quite worldly, taking visitors on guided tours in 30 foot long reed boats, welcoming them onto their islands, greeting them with multilingual songs, and coaxing visitors into conversations, story telling and singing. They invite visitors into their reed homes, explain the raising of guinea pigs and birds for meat, speak about potable water and waste disposal, and recycling systems. They welcome overnight visitors. The change from 1975  is almost inconceivable, until one takes into account syncretic development.

The oldest painting in a Sao Paulo museum, was done by a French artist who had never been there; all his native subjects wear white skin and French faces, a curious syncretic error. In North America Spanish and native place names are everywhere, among those of classical Greece, Rome, and Europe. Yet while we myopically worry, pander, and focus on the forever fratricidal Mideast and Europe, we become ever more American—North and South. Ordinary Americans are by most measures relatively apolitical, hardworking, and productive. That is a priceless advantage in a chaotic world; we try to preserve American syncretism, and reject Mideast bad tempered tribal misogynist and vindictive jealous gods who urge us to destroy one another in- of course- His name.

I am writing this at the home of a rancher in the Lake District of Chile. Even in this, the 4th year of drought, his farm is green because of the unique climactic conditions where mountain and sea air clash. He has set up a small hydro-power plant purchased in– of all places–Redding, CA. His home is modern, with automated radiant heating, showers– no tubs, no bidets. It is electronically world connected, but preserves a fancy old wood-burning kitchen stove that conveys a feeling of simpler times past. Even in summer, the old stove is lighted and used for cooking; it is ecologically sound for this region, operating on modest amounts of renewable fuel. It is a perfect syncretism of North, South, old and new.

Language itself a verbal and cultural living recording of syncretism;  indo-european group winds its way across the globe- from Sanskrit to English. Spanish and English in particular are melting pots of Indo-European languages,  rich with related words, ideas, literature.  In the Americas there is constant ebb and flow of language fostered by our proximity and shared past and present. 

While everything in our Americas North, South, or Central, is not ideal, or without troubles and unsolved problems, by comparison we are far more civil than much of the world, avoiding America wars. To young Americans everywhere I suggest this: Don’t just look East or West: Look North and South. The Americas are your home, our home; savor them, save them, cherish them, share them. As the saying goes, if everywhere is your home, Where is your home. While you should not reject the East and the West but your true syncretic  home and your wider American family is here, and now.

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