In the Shadow of Santa Rosa

Last night I had a nightmare.

 

I am dressed in a white cloak that obscures all but my face. The robe is splattered with paint and blood. I am awash in every color of the rainbow and dripping paint. I have been raped by strangers and no one is accountable.

 

This morning I could not get this horrible image out of mind but I had the strong sense that it had an impersonal aspect that had nothing to do with me.

 

This weekend at the Pueblo of Abiquiu the community celebrates the feast day of the first official saint of the Americas, Santa Rosa, and I planned to attend…

 

The people of Abiquiu call themselves Genizaros. Representing Apache, Navajo, Comanche, Kiowa, Pawnee, Ute and Wichita, de -tribalized Native peoples from the Plains that were captured and traded during the Indian wars of 18-19th centuries, and sold to New Mexicans as slaves and servants where they were stripped of their identity, instructed in Hispanic ways, and baptized as Christians. The People survived by incorporating Hispanic and Christian cultural practices into a distinct Genizaro consciousness, one that is distinct from the Indigenous Tewa speaking peoples (descendants of the Anasazi) who also live here in six pueblos along the Rio Grande.

 

The Genizaros are devout Catholics and every year a pilgrimage is made on foot from the ruins of Santa Rosa, a mile away, to the site of the present day Abiquiu Pueblo church. I was surprised that the procession was such a small one led by a man and two young women on horseback who appeared in the plaza under light rain followed by other men one of whom held up a wooden cross, a second man wore a cape of roses, another carried an image of the saint and all the men chanted. The group disappeared into the church to pray and to deposit the Santa… presumably at the altar.

 

Across the plaza women were busy preparing for the book sale. Unfortunately this year the new priest had decreed that there would be no booths for the people to sell food or their arts or crafts, and no afternoon dancing on the plaza. For me these activities were the heart and soul of these fiestas, and I am sure I was not alone in this perspective. I couldn’t help feeling disappointed and wondered why the Genizaros of Abiquiu had accepted these changes without protest as I left the Pueblo  until I recalled the influence the Catholic Church still has over it’s people. The priest holds the power.

 

I wish no disrespect but it seemed to me that the people were overshadowed by a religion that might not have the best interests of the Genizaros at heart. It was ironic that this priest’s behavior mirrored what happened to these de -tribalized people in the first place when they were stripped of their identity during the Spanish Colonial Conquest.

 

Because I am not Catholic I had no idea who Santa Rosa was until I did some research on this saint.

 

Santa Rosa de Lima is the patroness of Lima, Peru. She was born into poverty in 1586, one of 13 children. Her father was Spanish and her mother was Indian. As a child she spent her time in a small mining town along the Arahuay River in Peru.

 

Rosa was supposedly possessed by every aspect of religion and spent hours staring at an image of the Madonna and Child as a little girl. She was also apparently quite beautiful and her parents hoped that Rosa would marry ‘well’. But Rosa had other ideas – she chose the religious life, taking a vow of virginity, something her parents couldn’t accept. She devoted herself to a life of abnegation and self-mortification. Despite her family’s objections Rosa practiced extreme forms of asceticism. She fasted, became a vegetarian, mortified her flesh with hard work and went as far as to cut her hair, and rub lye, lime and pepper into her hands and face. She also wore a crown of thorns.

In 1605 Rosa wanted to join the monastery ‘Santa Clara’, but was too poor to pay the necessary dowry. She moved out of her family’s house into a small cottage built by herself on their property and filled her days with praying, hard work, bodily-torture and helping sick and poor people in her community. She sold her fine needlework and grew beautiful flowers that she offered at the market. With her exquisite lace and embroidery she supported her family and charity works.

 

Finally at the age of 20 she attracted the attention of the Dominican Order and was allowed to enter the ‘Third Order’ without payment. Thereafter she redoubled the severity and variety of her penances. She continued in her religious practices, gave up eating normal food and survived on bread and water, which she combined with herbs, grown in her herb garden, and juices made of natural plants. Rosa continued to wear a metal spiked crown, concealed with roses. She also wore an iron chain around her waist.

 

After more than fourteen years of martyrdom she died on the 24th of August 1617, at the age of 31. Her funeral couldn’t take place for two days because so many people queued to see her body. Rosa was worshipped at that time to such an extent that the Viceroy, the archbishop, representatives of all religious fraternities and many public authorities of Lima attended her funeral.

 

Pope Clement X canonized Rosa as the first Saint of the Americas designating August 30th as her Feast day.

 

How could such a woman  be deified?

 

Suddenly I remembered my nightmare. Had I dreamed an image of Santa Rosa?

 

Surely, this woman had endured the worst form of psychic/physical rape through her own heinous acts of self hatred, while being supported by a culture that elevated women who engaged in this total splitting of female mind from body through daily acts of cruelty and martyrdom. For any woman, this splitting leaves us vulnerable to an inner/outer takeover by Patriarchy, and without the defenses we need for our own survival. Our bodies carry our feelings, our instincts, and our truths.

 

The feminist in me was frankly horrified by the story of Sant Rosa’s life. It occurred to me that it might be a good practice to phase this festival out permanently since it modeled such self -destructive behavior for women. Maybe the priest was on the right track after all without realizing it!

 

Contrast this with Guadalupe who for more than 300 years has been celebrated and revered in Mexico as the Mother of Mexican and Indian peoples, although she has never been officially canonized by the Catholic Church (who still did its best to turn her into another version of the Virgin Mary when they realized the people refused to give her up).

 

She stands on home altars, lends her name to men and women alike, and finds herself at rest under their skin in tattoos. Guadalupe’s image proliferates on candles, decals, tiles, murals, and old and new sacred art. Churches and religious orders carry her name, as do place names and streets. Far from vulgarizing her image, these items personalize her and maintain her presence in daily life. She is prayed to in times of sickness and war and for protection against all evils.

 

Her story begins in 1531 when Guadalupe, a dark skinned Indian woman appeared to a young Indian (Aztec) peasant on a hill outside Mexico City in December. Many songbirds surrounded her. A healing spring of clear water rose up at her feet and flowers abounded. She requested that a shrine be built in her honor on Tepeyac, the hill outside Mexico City upon which she was standing. Scholars know is that this particular rise has been identified as the site where the earlier Aztec Earth Goddess Tonantzin once had a temple and was worshipped, especially at the winter solstice.

 

To make a long story short Guadalupe’s request was finally granted when she presented the peasant whose name was Don Juan with “proof” of her divinity – a tilma full of Castilian roses. Don Juan took the cloak of red roses and presented it to the Bishop who was finally convinced the apparition was that of the Virgin Mary!

 

Today, Guadalupe is heralded as the Indigenous Mother Goddess of the Americas and she is associated with Nature and the powers of Earth and Water. Unlike her unfortunate Spanish sister who was so saintly and died a victim and a martyr, Guadalupe’s power and strength live on.

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