the Americas

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.

Letter Three, From São Paulo, Brazil

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Feb 6 – Mar 25 2015 Brazil and Chile

Oi, as they say here. It is Tuesday, terca feira, (c cedula, or a tail that makes it an  s). Work on the asilo

 a  rural small town home  that will house about 100 old and handicapped people–is finished for now, the multi-year project showing serious signs of surviving; it was very rewarding to be there as that started to happen.

Now– out of that decent healthy countryside, and into rough tough raucous São Paulo. If  Rio de Janeiro is a beautiful painted lady of Brazil, SP is its body and soul: Futbol, Samba, and Industry. It’s 1830, at night. The 24 hour clock, metric system, day/month/year dating, and periods in big numbers instead of commas are among the many minor differences notable to Norteamericanos.  I use that term because many in our hemisphere feel, and  insist, that people in the USA are not the only Americanos–Americans.

The fading day is trying to hold on to the city . It won’t succeed; or will it? A satellite view of the earth at night reveals a planet on fire with electric lights; São Paulo ,home to about 15 million people,  is a big burning blotch of light. 

I am sitting 3 m above street level, at the corner of Luis Coelho and Bela Cintra, in the open air veranda of a restaurant. Below the rodo dos rodos (wheeling of  car wheels as I imagine in my poor Brazilian) is intermittent and shoes carrying  bodies move along relatively quietly, in sharp  contrast to a couple of blocks away on Rua Agustinas or Rua  Paulista

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 Paulista Restaurant, and an omelet!

São Paulo Subway System                                     

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 Metro at Trianon Museo de Artes SP

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Rua Paulista        

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View from MASP- Museo de Arte SP     

                                                                                                    Vendors in Sheltered area under MASP

It rained this afternoon. Thick wet skies threw down an almost tropical rain on S P, washing, but spoiling, the view. It was very welcome because of the drought here. This was the second storm in the past few days; but it didn’t last more than an hour, like the ‘dry’ season in the tropics. Afterward I walked  up Consolacion, left on Paulista, and left on Bela Cintra to this corner restaurant–Segredos do Minero. I like the name– Secrets of Miners. It reminds me of the 13 little mining towns of my childhood, even though the restaurant has nothing to do with mines, except history, and an extract from a very nice poem. The name, however, doesn’t refer to miners but to about people of Minas Gerais,  the original mining country of Brazil, a place of  old culture,  relative wealth and a  power historically and politically. The country changed. wealth and power moved on,  but Minas remains a treasured part of the lore of the nation.  The State, the miners the mines, and Mineros — those who live there–are family. For a look at the menu of my restaurant,  cliquez   I have come here often, and the owner gave me a menu, where Frai  Betto’s poem appears. *See below: Ser Minero. 

I like the spot. I like the food. I like the chatter, usually subdued, maybe because the fare is relatively expensive… no music, no alcohol driven decibels. I like the restaurant, the name, the view from my table above the street. The menu features meats of many kinds prepared in different ways. When there is a chill breeze at night I order hot soups. They come  boiling hot in big clay pots with a ladle in the middle, to spoon the soup into a bowl. The soup is accompanied by a small roll of buttered garlic bread, I order water sem gas (no gas). And possibly an espresso later but not way late.  Like, Wow.  So? Yes, I’m an old man.

One reason I’m here is my disease: xenophilia, love of the Other. And I have a conceit of being  an American in a place including both our continents; and in that America there are three major languages.  Brazilian is the one I lack. What better way to learn than immersion?  This is my third trip but the others were touristic and short.  I did study some before coming; the overlap between both English and Spanish, and Brazilian, is sometimes helpful, sometimes very misleading! Even so, I can now read almost everything. I can make myself understood fairly well because when my words are garbled I or get totally lost I revert to gestures and to  Spanish. Nonetheless, I can hear almost nada, except when the subject is quite clear, as on TV news about assault, murder, robbery, ads, erudite art show enthusiasts, news… etc. Teen age talk in tongues in Brazil, as they do everywhere.

It seems to me Brazilians are almost reliably tolerant, and considerate, even in crowds. On the SP subway escalators, people politely almost always move to the right (like the sign says!)  to allow those in a hurry to pass. Drivers are courteous even in this city of …what? between 15 and 20 million.

People are always willing to answer questions, (even when they aren’t clear about the question or the answer!) There is a fairly typical Latin American machismo; it’s reflected in the Futbol museum, a multi-million dollar homage to maleness. Yet Brazilians are very tuned to USA and there are prominent informational items everywhere on the social, sexual, environmental and nutritional matters we focus on in the USA.

There is a general tolerance of the Other, with some exceptions: The homeless, the drug addicted, are ignored almost completely. I suppose people assume they don’t vote, or contribute much in any other way. In that sense this is a harsh, or practical reality.  Is it Tough Love? I suspect it is.. Street sleepers are usually gone by 10 AM, in this an upscale area, they are…Where?

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The ‘millennials’, young educated adults here are, it seems to me, like to their  peers all over the world.   My daughter Sandi’s friends, for example. He studied Biology at USF for a year, a scholarship; then came home and graduated. But, didn’t like the field, and took up technical drawing, now works for an advertising agency. She was a lawyer, worked for a while here, changed her mind and is now garnered a 6 month scholarship in Italy to train as a chef. They live relatively simply, marginally by some measures: no car, no home- they rent, public transportation, saving and spending on their big dreams, big Ideas, not big Things. No marriage yet, no kids, not even any pets. They hope and try to live without– or despite and beyond borders; in the physical world or in the personal.

They are not drug oriented, or escapist; their parents Worry; Obviously.   They are very  e.connected, current with  most of  the US and world  TV series  one way or another: like Orange is the New Black, Mad Men, Orphan Black  and many I can’t name. When I mention Walter White (Breaking Bad) they break into a long dissertation about the crafting of the show, the use of metaphor, color, clothing…etc. They feel the series was a timeless classic at birth.   They talk about  the theme of the book Lili sent me: The End of Power by Moises Naim... meaning the power of nations, of government, of industry, of Order… They reference the printing press, which led to an end of the God and King alliance.   Surely, they say, this too is a dangerous time, the inevitable beginning of major world change.

I express a  reservation about the power of individuals over institutions because it seems to me that  who live in relatively free, if clearly imperfect condition, don’t  understand how a ruthless dictatorship of one sort or another can hold its people prisoner in body and mind… Can the of change overcome that? Possibly but not  yet in places like North Korea, which is a black void on the satellite night view of earth. Maybe the change will be universal and irreversible, like the development of the printing press, land earlier, that of language, writing, agriculture. We agree it will not be easy or predictable.

I am in my hotel room watching CNN. People are, they say, concerned about the closing down and evacuation of São Paulo due to lack of water. There is here, yes, a drought; much like ours in CA, it may last several years; in some small towns the water infrastructure is inadequate and people have to go elsewhere for water,  as in some San Joaquin Valley towns.

But at least so far these 15 or 20 million Paulistas have water;  the parks, and rural fields, are green and the SP faucets put out clean chlorinated water, with only occasionally a slight musty smell.  Everyone who can continues to choose bottled water in a determined effort to fill the ocean with plastic garbage, which is of course, oil.

A video taken from my hotel room TV 2 days later deals with the worst storm in recent history, flooding of hundreds of miles of freeways,  portions of the metro, hundreds of cars swept away, a death.

My take, therefore, on  ‘News’ is  it’s not what it pretends; it’s not evil by intent, but degenerate, created or invented, ,and often toxic in fact.  NEWS is not about what happens, it is about entertainment and profits. Once we are imprinted with false or very selected  ‘facts’, or factoids, it is hard to let go.


*Carlos Alberto Libânio ChristoO.P., better known as Frei Betto[1] (born August 25, 1944) is a Brazilian writer, political activist, liberation theologist and Dominican friar, born in Belo Horizonte. At the age of 20, when he was a student of journalism, he entered the Dominican Order. He was later imprisoned for four years by the military dictatorship for smuggling people out of country. Betto is an over the top activist, populist to say the least, communist to say the fact. He is also a fine writer, for which one can forgive most of his political sins, even though he uses his considerable talent to mislead. This is the redacted piece from the restaurant menu, I’ve translated it crudely losing it’s cadence, corrupting its imagery, misinterpreting its more subtle meaning: but that is what translation does!

“To be Mineiro is not to say what you do, but what you will do; to pretend not to know what you know; to speak little and listen much; to let people think you a fool, to sell cheese, and have a big bank account.

“A good Mineiro isn’t a drunkard, doesn’t reap the wind, doesn’t walk in the dark, or in the damp, doesn’t fear speaking with strangers.

“Only believes in smoke when he sees fire, only risks when certain, never gives up a bird in the hand for two in the air.

“To be Mineiro is to say ‘UAI’. To be different. To have a registered trade mark. To have a History.

“To be Mineiro is to be pure and simple, humble, and modest, courageous and brave, faithful and elegant; to be Mineiro is to see the sunrise and the moon’s bright light, to hear birdsong, and the purring of cats; it is to feel the awakening of time and the dawn of life.

“To be Mineiro is to be religious, and conservative; to cultivate letters and arts; to be poetic and literate; to like politics and love liberty; to live in the mountains, to have an inner life; it is to be decent.




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It’s that I suffer from xenofilia. I want to see and to know the entire world: people, languages, customs, lands, seas, deserts, forests, mountains. But I realize that if everyone is your brother, who is your brother. And if every land is your home, where is your homeland. So my true home is Northern California; I always return here, and perhaps here I shall die.

To judge from places I’ve lived over the years, I am 25% Chileno, 10% Mexican, 5% Panamanian, 10% Canadian, 1% Peruvian, 1% Brazilian, 1% Uruguayan, and 1% Argentino, and the rest USA. What irritates me most about my Americas are nationalisms, borderisms, racisims, and sexisms. Xenofiliacs are allergic to all.
Es que tengo xenofilia. Quiero ver –y quiero conocer –a todo el mundo: los pueblos, los idiomas, los costumbres, las tierras, los mares, los desiertos, las selvas, las cordilleras. Pero reconozco: si todo el mundo es su hermano, quien es su hermano; si todo el mundo es su tierra, donde es su tierra. Por eso mi tierra es norte-california, aquí vuelvo siempre, y espero quizás me muera.

De acuerdo a donde he vivido soy: 25% chileno, 10% mexicano, 5% panameño, 10% canadiense, 1% peruano, 1% brasilero, 1% uruguayo, 1% argentino. Lo que mas me irritan de mis américas son los nacionalismos, los fronterismos, y los racismos; y los sexismos. La xenofilia causa un rechazo total a todos.
E que tenho xenofilia. Queiro ver —y queiro conhecer– a todo o planeta: a gente, os idiomas, os costumares, as terras, os mares, os desertos, os bosques, as montanhas.
Mas intendo que si todo o mundo e o suo irmão, quem e suo irmão; si todo o mundo e a sua terra, onde e a sua terra. Por isso a terra central mia e o norte de Califórnia. Aqui volto sempre. Aqui moro, aqui espero morrer. De acordo com as mias residências, só 25% chileno, 10% mexicano, 5% panamenho, 10% canadense, 1% peruano, 1% brasileiro, 1% uruguaio,1% argentino. O que mais dor tem das américas, só os nacionalismos, fronterismos, racismos, y os sexismos. O xenofilico tem alérgia a todos.
Así confieso mi xenofilia, con disculpas por mi pobre portugués do Brasil; y mi ignorancia de los idiomas indígenas,–a pesar de que soy miembro del cuasi extinto tribu Concow del Norte de California.

So I confess my xenophilia, with apologies for my poor Brazilian Portuguese,, and, for my ignorance of indigenous languages. despite being a member of the near distinct Concow tribe of northern California,

Isso e o meu xenofilia, com desculpas por mi pobre portuges do Brasil, y mi ignorância dos idiomas indgeneas,– a pesar de ser parte do quasi extinto tribu Concow do Norte California.

1491 by Charles Mann: Book Review

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By Charles C Mann

2005, Vintage ISBN -10:I-4000-3205-9

Based on many sources of objective evidence from the last few decades, the author makes a solid and extensively documented case that our common concept of the Americas before ‘discovery’ is hugely erroneous. For example:

  • The population several areas was several times that of Europe.
  • The inhabitants were usually taller, more hygienic, and healthier than the ‘discoverers’, the colonists or conquistadores.
  • They actively managed their environment, the land, the animals, birds, estuaries, and forests. They burned the forests and grasslands to promote feed and to clear land for farming. They managed game aggressively over millions of acres of land.  Even in places like the Chihuahua desert, the hillsides still often show rough man made terracing to promote growth of native plants used for food, fiber, fuel, etc. After the ‘indians’ were decimated or conquered, the environment, no longer managed, changed radically.
  • They developed, over centuries, many crops like corn, squash, tobacco, tomatoes, potatoes, manioc; the origin of corn, for example, and the process used to develop it, is still unknown.
  • They domesticated the llama, alpaca,vicuna.
  • The developed and inhabited areas are extensive over our two continents.  In the flood plane of  eastern Bolivia,  which is Serengeti like, there are hundreds of man made raised platforms presumably for farming or living during the time of flooding.
  • When an area of the great mounds near modern St Louis were first  explored, the natives were many, fierce, and so haughty and hostile that the fearful conquistadores passed by quietly as possible. The next large expedition about 70 years later found the place abandoned. There was no one. Why? Very likely microbes and viruses, the real conquistadores, wiped them out.
  • The same microbial conquerors made it  possible for the English colonists to subdue the natives of the East coast U S; and the story is repeated over and over and over again everywhere in the Americas. Neither gunpowder nor horses had much to do with the conquest excepting in the very beginning, when they were strange and frightening. A slow firing musket or pistol, and a steel sword and armor are no match for hundreds of bows and arrows fired from behind cover.

Mr. Mann’s allegations, to use the unfortunate legalistic patois of the modern US citizen, are in sharp contrast to what is still commonly taught in our schools; it contradicts our predominant view of the American past as a virgin land populated by primitive people  who, with few exceptions, lived a nomadic existence in a passive, reverent, and  respectful harmony with the timeless and unchanged environment. While fictional pristine world is one we tend to admire and aspire to recreate, with some justification, it is that is mistaken for the truth.

While is not the first author to present these facts, he is one who brings them together in a readable and gripping account that can be easily enjoyed by the non academic reader.  Read it if you aren’t familiar with these findings; at the least it will change your understanding about the allegation the one world is new and the other is old.