Despite the general success over the past two centuries of the church and state in the creation of an enduring and coherent new society, the complete replacement of Indian life had never really been possible. In countless ways and in thousands of Indian communities, Spanish culture was adapted, transformed, and incorporated into traditional cultural frameworks in which the rhythms of life were governed by age-old aboriginal notions of time, space, and the relationship with nature (10).
Mary Miller would have us remember the horror of 1521 and what followed. She ends The Art of Mesoamerica with a grim statistic: "By the end of the sixteenth century...the ravaged indigenous population had shrunk...from twenty million on the eve of the Conquest to a mere million. Perhaps not quite the cosmic cataclysm predicted by the Aztecs, it was nevertheless one of the worst catastrophes in history" (230). But she and Karl Taube in An Illustrated Dictionary of The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya are also able to conclude that the
eradication of native Mesoamerican customs was by no means total. Many of the more profound and lasting religious beliefs continue to the present day.....Although this volume specifically concerns Preconquest Mesoamerican religion, it should be remembered that we are describing but the ancient origins and history of a still living and vibrant culture (35).
Taube defines the dynamic further in Aztec and Maya Myths:
Although modern Mesoamerican myths do often contain elements that are not pre-Hispanic in origin--such as Catholic saints and relatively recent historical events--these are not indications of a dying or decadent mythical traditions, but rather proof of a thriving oral legacy that continues to respond to a constantly changing world ( 77).
Throughout my reading, I have been struck not only by the acknowledgment of scholars such as Coe, Townsend, Miller, and Taube, but by the way popular writers have drawn upon these same perceptions. In her novel for middle school readers, The Corn Grows Ripe , Dorothy Rhoads' young hero has an official Western name, Dionisio, but the name "Tigre," by which everyone but the schoolmaster calls him, is precontact, connecting him to the jaguar, a creature that "played a prominent religious role in every Mesoamerican civilization" (Miller and Taube, 102). As a good Maya boy, Tigre understands that everything comes to his family from the bush and its gods. As part of the corn harvest feast, he and his father "offer the first cooked ears to Kunku Chac chief and to the Balams, and atole-of-new-corn to San Diego in the church" (83).
So also in Shark Beneath the Reef, Jean Craighead George's 14-year old Tomas Torres calls upon Quetzalcoatl, the great plumed serpent, "Tomas's hero and a god-hero of the ancient Aztec and Toltec Indians of Mexico." George explains,
Although Tomas Torres went to the Catholic church, the gods of his Indian past were still very real to him and his family. He was, like most Mexicans, a mestizo, part Spanish and part Indian. And although Spanish was his native language and Spain his motherland, Tomas's memory--like that of his fellow mestizos--did not begin with the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico. It went back to the glorious Mexican past, when gods of good and evil reigned and warriors were eagles, jaguars and feathered serpents to a time when Mexico was young and ambitious (4).
In the same chapter, she lets us read his own thoughts on the matter:
It did not seem strange to Tomas that he was calling on two histories, the history of the Mexicans before the Spanish conquest and the history after. Tomas called on the Lady of Guadalupe to help with his quest just as freely as he had called upon Quetzalcoatl. They were very much alike. Both were good (6).
A third novel, Heart of a Jaguar, leads readers not only into the mind-set of the ancient Maya but to those who are drawn to their culture. To save his village, Balam, the young hero, offers his own blood and finally autosacrifice to the gods. In the introductory note, the author Marc Talbert writes,
I present this story of the Maya without apology and with reverence for their beliefs and practices. To make sense of the universe is not easy even today with our modern technology and our cultural sophistication. Indeed, perhaps our technology and sophistication create barriers to making sense of the seen and unseen forces and things around us. We have much to learn from the Maya about the universe, and about ourselves (3).
D. H. Lawrence's The Plumed Serpent is worth rereading in this context. For
its two Indian revolutionaries, Don Ramon and Don Cipriano, and increasingly for the Irishwoman Kate Leslie, who comes to Mexico and finds that she cannot bring herself to leave, Quetzalcoatl is a living presence, a source of power and hope. "The Plumed Serpent is plainly mythical," writes William York Tindall in the Vintage introduction. "It owes this character not to the employment of Aztec myths...but to a recovery of the way of knowing that produced the myths" (xiii).
A recovery of the way of knowing seems key for understanding that, for example, the continued weaving and embroidering of cosmic designs in garments is far more than attractive decoration and the skill of the folk artist. Walter F. Morris, who has lived among the weavers and knows their language, tells us that
the design of the universe is woven, with clarity and purpose, line by line into Maya cloth. The weaver maps the motion of the sun through the heavens and the underworld, through time and space. Through the repetition of the universe design the lordly sun is prompted to continue his journey (103).
Thus placing one's bed so that it faces East is not just a quaint superstition. It is prudent and a sign of spiritual health to start the day looking towards "blood, birth, and beginnings" (Becom and Aberg, 14), never towards the black of the West and death. One wishes to be part of "the cosmos as it awakens" (Morris, 103). And the smudging or offering of incense to the four directions by Native American priests at the start of communion reflects their acknowledgment that they and their sacrament are part of the whole natural order, a fact that can be forgotten only at the peril of priest, people, and cosmos.
By working in a number of modes with some basic assumptions about the Mesoamerican design of the cosmos and the way that design created and creates a pattern for daily life, my students will prepare themselves for understanding these cultures. They may also begin to internalize--recover the way of knowing--one of the fundamental themes of Mesoamerica, namely, that nature is sacred and that men and women are indissolubly connected to the forces that control nature and the universe.