What did the Aztecs and Spanish colonizers have in common, you ask?


The answer: A penchant for obscuring the divine feminine.


Introduction

Roughly, from age five to eighteen our ideas and ourselves are molded in the shape of our state’s dominant culture through the school system. For us “Zoomers”, these were the years where our phone alarm clocks bellowed at six in the morning so that we could embark on days filled by breakfast, classes, lunch, more classes, and extracurriculars. Of course, retiring to evenings that held the promise of our chosen form of relaxation softened the day's responsibilities. But truthfully, this was a hectic and demanding time of our lives.


I hope not to have cast an unfair light on these experiences. Naturally, I have some very fond memories of my school years– largely due to the beautiful people with whom I shared those spaces with. However, I believe it to be a kind of ‘self-duty’ to admit this institutional structure is substantially responsible for my learned neglect towards my multifaceted identity. I hope the following paragraphs will provide some background as to why I am now so enthralled by decolonial study.


Background

For the state, the most important part of the socialization process undergone by children is the (re)building of nationality facilitated by schoolteachers who develop shared meanings among students. Hopefully (in the eyes of the state) this faciliates a shared understanding of the world amongst the citizenry. I was born in Washington, D.C., so I will speak to the U.S.public education system. Admittedly, I always found it strange that the federal government (whose roots arguably lay in libertarian sentiment) mandated curriculum requirements which were– by my judgement– myopic in scope.


Take, for example, history classes– which uniformly centered the anglo-american experience. Surely, this is– to be charitable– a silly practice considering the public education system in my school district was mainly composed of multi-ethnic communities of children. At the time, I kept thinking to myself…Why on earth am I being forced to learn about the history of a continent a day's travel by air away? Why not instead learn about local tribes? Why not appreciate the ground we walk on by learning about the people who cultivated it before us?


Frankly, I was frustrated. As a child longing for understanding of the ‘close’, I still feel as though the curriculum should have placed equal weight on non-western studies. In an even more intimate sense, the learning environment created by the curriculum neglected my own history, filling me with a strong sense of disillusionment.


So, given the context, perhaps you (dear reader) will find it understandable how this whole scenario might seem confusing (or even angering) for any child whose ethnic background exists outside a given dominant culture. Even moreso, maybe you’ll be sympathetic to those of us who want to change existing circumstances. As such, with this hope in mind, I came to university to pursue a degree in politics.


During my studies I’ve realized that the biggest privilege of higher education is access to a university library. I've tried to take as much advantage of this resource as I can. Ultimately, I’ve spent an overwhelming amount of time trying to make sense of what public education couldn't offer me: information about my identity. Indeed, it’s taken me until my twenties (and the privilege of a world-class library) to find thinkers who have spent their life studying this phenomenon.


Academics such as Lugones, Anzaldúa, and hooks have devoted large parts of their scholarship to understanding the fragmentation contemporary society has wrought on those of us with multifaceted identities. It’s these women who have given me the courage to explore what orthodox academia has forgotten—to begin to carve out an idiosyncratic and decolonized understanding of reality.


As such, it’s as if I’ve been on a self-possessed mission regarding my identity during these years. So, after countless reflective conversations with new and old friends alike who (like myself) come from one or multiple ethnic backgrounds, I’ve concluded it’s common that one’s perception of Self fragments in youth. It seems my friends and I are using the first few years of our adulthood in an attempt to finally put this fragmentation of the Self to bed. We want the discomfort we have felt since childhood squarely put away. We seek integration. We seek decolonization.


As for myself, the shared nature of this realization is striking. Why is it that communal space is spent parsing out identity-trauma? Why is it that at this age we still struggle to find the words to explore “aspects” of ourselves that seem incompatible? And, more intimately… How can I reconcile my womanhood with Chicanismo? How can I reconcile my colonized heritage with my colonizer heritage? What effect has mestizaje had on me?


I won’t lie, I haven’t been able to fully answer those questions. Nonetheless, I know that I am headed in the right direction... Since I was a child, I have always looked to my elders for answers to questions surrounding my identity. That’s why, in this Juncture Review I will be exploring my feminist heritage as far back as I can take it: the Nahuas. So, let’s finally get this decolonial feminist exploration off the ground.

Patriarchy as dominant culture

For thousands of years, history witnessed the devalorization of femininity by and through the (re)construction of patriarchal cultures. As a matter of necessity, patriarchal norms have been met by women throughout the centuries seeking to reassert the value of the feminine. In other words, as rational political agents, women have seldom had any choice but to rebel against heinous practices of patriarchal instantiation.


Male dominance routinely actualizes as overt degradations of the feminine body. However, this is not the sole location of power solidification by men. Interestingly, in times of political turmoil (where morals seem to be thrown out of the window) warrior colonizers have a tendency towards the devalorization of the goddess in favor of more ‘virile’ gods.


Colonization is a longstanding tradition of ambitious (often male) leaders. As a matter of historical, anthropological, and archaeological fact, many conquerors choose to subjugate newly conquered peoples to the dominant cultures' religious and spiritual views. This is a practice seen all over the world, throughout various ages.


Consider the Celts during the Roman Empire, African slaves during the Triangle Trade, or (my focus of this piece), Nahua peoples as they faced the Aztecs and later Cortez and his conquistadores. In all these cases (and many more) longstanding minority culture traditions put practitioners in peril, so they were forced to assimilate. This practice is what anthropologists often refer to as the concept of religious syncretism, which functions as a “survival strategy of one religion in the face of domination by another”whereby religious elements are fused, lost, or subsumed by the dominant culture from the minority culture (Spica, 2018: 238).


At first glance, this is glaringly bleak. However, the legacy of feminine rebellion against masculine vices has now been extended to academia. Decolonial feminist scholarship allows us to re-examine western epistemology which categorizes history as a ‘static’, scientific discipline. Instead, I’ve found that decolonial feminist enquiries into history encourage us to question why certain worldviews were discarded for others, while perhaps even prompting us to reconnect with with that which was lost. In this vein, I will now provide a sketch of religious syncretism throughout Mexican history.


Sketching a Lineage of Religious Syncretism in a landscape of Empires

There is a consensus amongst researchers that prior to Zoroastrianism (circa 5th century BCE) most cultures held cosmologies reliant on polytheistic pantheons. Naturally, regional cults worshipped female and male deities alike. But, as I mentioned above, this article will give attention to divine femininity.


A basic starting point for exercise in ethnoreligious study is the epistemic premise that localities revered specific deities, although they respected and believed in a polytheistic pantheon. Accordingly, we are able to devise an ontology in which cults practice unique rituals and their shamans typically weave circumstantial tales to impart the values of a given local deity. However– to pull back our focus to the goddess– irrespective of cult locality, traditional female deities often symbolized a combination of concepts such as fertility, creation, destruction, and romantic love. So, then… Where did these goddesses go? What happened in Mexico prior to colonization? What is the origin of the devalorization of the feminine?


Surely, Mesoamerican indigenous tribes had no contact via trade with the ancient Iranians (practitioners of Zoroastrianism). Thus, the panacea-answer for Eurasian religious syncretism is inapplicable in our case. Indeed, tracking the origin of religious patriarchal power structures in the Americas is a tricky endeavor due to colonization… Unsurprisingly, records are sparse. However, despite the difficulties, scholars have been able to trace patriarchy to empire in the Americas long before Cortez and his lackeys arrived…


“The changes that led to the loss of balanced oppo-

sitions began when the Azteca… made the last

pilgrimage from a place called Aztlán… The migration

south began about the yearA.D. 820. Three hundred

years later the advance guard arrived near Tula, the

capital of the declining Toltec empire. By the 11th

century, they had joined with the Chichimec tribe

of Mexitin (afterwards called Mexica)into one religious

and administrative organization within Aztlán, the Aztec

territory” (Anzaldúa, 1987: 32).


So, it seems the Aztec’s and the Spanish colonizers shared a practice: love of empire rooted in masculine symbolism such as ‘war’ and ‘virility’. As Anzaldúa teaches us, to trace back the lineage of the divine feminine in the Americas we must travel back long before the Aztecs instated their warrior empire.


Unfortunately, “the Aztec ruler, Itzcoatl, destroyed all the painted documents (books called codices) and rewrote a [masculine] mythology that validated the wars of conquest” ultimately obscuring the divine feminine (Anzaldúa, 1987: 32). Indeed, to encounter a Mesoamerican divine feminine we need to look to tribes the Aztecs themselves conquered: the Nahua people. The Nahua peoples were heterogeneous tribes sharing a language (Nahuatl) and certain cultural features located throughout modern Mexico.


The Nahuas practiced a polytheistic religion seeped in spiritual symbolism. The center point of the Nahua faith, Ometeotl translates ““from ome, “two,” and teotl,“god.” Yet Ometeotl does not mean “two gods'' but rather “god Two” or, better, “divinity of Duality.” The name results from the fusion of Omecihuatl (cihuatl meaning woman or lady) and Ometecuhtli (tecuhtli, man or lord), that is, of the Lady and of the Lord of Duality” ((Marcos, 2009: 35-36). For the Nahua’s, it is through Ometeotl that all divinity and quotidian-ness is actualized. Ometeotl is the substance of reality.


It is important to mind that the center of Nahua cosmology focused on an equal standing of divine femininity to divine masculinity. Of course, this is not to say pre-Hispanic America was a feminist sanctuary. It was not– in fact, the patriarchy has deep roots in the Americas. Nonetheless, it is certainly a fascinatingly different spiritual value system. Personally, I know that western culture's emphasis on the masculine has tainted my self-perception at times. Indeed, I’ve often wondered if I’d be different in a culture that placed equal inherent (spiritual) value in womanhood.


Nahua Spirituality

The most well-known feminine manifestation of Ometeotl is Cihuacóatl (“snake woman”). To the Nahuas Cihuacóatl was “a warrior deity, but one who would be likely to play a major role in particular rituals and in childbirth” and this spiritual understanding of sexual duality extended to the quotidien as “Nahuas closely linked the maintenance and expansion of the political system and the structures of governance with fertility rites” (Sigal, 2010: 539-540).


The Nahuas revered Cihuacóatl. Hence, she survived history despite Itzcoatl’s gross destruction of the codices. Indeed, the title of the Aztecs second-highest position in city-state government was Cihuacóatl (despite the fact only men filled the position). At first, this practice may seem curious. However, when situated alongside Itzcoatl’s penchant for maculine deities, it is clear Cihuacóatl’s devalorization was of political design.


Upon closer look, an ethnohistorical account provides us with improved clarity about the specific Nahua tribes who cult-worshipped Cihuacóatl. Cihuacóatl’s followers were mostly from southern areas and they happened to coincide with Itzcoatl’s most powerful enemies (and later, most wealthy tributary city-states). This ethnohistorical context provides Itzcoatl’s reasoning for devalorizing the divine feminine through Cihuacóatl. Cihuacóatl “always powerful and always dangerous, must also remain always defeated, or else the Aztec empire could end. Thus the performance of the cihuacoatl priest, always second-in-command, signified the continuing re-enactment of defeat” (Sigal, 2010: 544).


Other feminine manifestations of Ometeotl also survived through the Aztec Empire. Of these, Coatlicue (“snake skirt”) and Tonantzin (“our sacred mother”) are the most important. These goddesses represented important dualities such as of that of life-death, creation-destruction, and fertility-sexual impurity. Additionally, Mesoamerican worshippers of divine femininity tied these goddesses to the earth, it was through Cihuacóatl, Coatlicue, and Tonantzin that humanity was and continues to be born.


Mexican-Catholic Spirituality

Today, the spiritual symbolism of Cihuacóatl, Coatlicue, and Tonantzin are embodied through worship to La Virgen de Guadalupe (Mexico’s patron saint). To understand this phenomenon, we have to fast-forward in our understanding of Mesoamerican history. Like the Aztecs, the Colonial Spanish Empire relied on a warrior culture and shared a fondness for masculine deity. Spanish Catholic missionaries (alongside the conquistadores more generally) believed Mesoamerican religious beliefs and rituals to be demonic. Thus, a core task of the colonial period was the eradication of indigenous religious beliefs, rituals, and values.


In order to establish colonial dominance over the indigenous peoples of Mexico, the Spanish demolished indigenous sites of worship and replaced them with Cathedrals . For instance, the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de la Santísima Virgen María a los cielos (the Cathedral for the Roman Catholoic Archdiocese of Mexico), was built atop the Aztec sacred precinct. As horrid as the desecration of indigenous temples was (is), this practice was not the linchpin of indigenous religious assimilation. To that, we owe credit to a more covert religious syncretism.


The story goes something like this… According to Catholic canon, La Virgen de Guadalupe appeared on Tepeyac Hill to a Chichimec (a Nahua tribe) man by the name of Juan Diego. The Marian apparitions are long-winded, but the gist is that Juan Diego pleaded with the archbishop to build a church for La Virgen upon Tepeyac Hill (“coincidentally”, the site of a temple to Tonantzin). Juan Diego was not taken seriously until he brought back Castilian roses (after his 4th encounter with La Virgen) in the dead of winter to the archbishop, who then remarked he saw La Virgen’s figure in the fabric of Juan Diego’s coat.


Many (myself included) insist this Catholic tale was an ingeniously coy plan by the Spanish to garner support for religious syncretism. However, regardless of whether a Marian apparition occurred (at the site of Tonantzin’s temple), this cultural shock marked the colonial murder of the indigenous goddesses. Today, in place of the ancient polytheistic pantheon worship, modern mexicanos and chicanos are some of the most pious Chrstians in the world. Indeed, five hundred years after the apparition, Mexico boasts the second largest Catholic population in the world.


The Present: Decolonial Scholarship

Admittedly, I find the dissolution of wide-scale prayer to indigenous feminine deities depressing. However, the rebel in me appreciates the sublation of Cihuacóatl, Coatlicue, and Tonanztin into La Virgen as an incredible covert victory of the Nahuas. Of course, La Virgen does not perfectly encompass the values of the Nahua people. Although, I am quick to admit she succeeds as a non-material representation of mexicanos and chicanos lucha for a continuous identity. Indeed, for reasons that may seem ineffable to some, La Virgen’s hold is all encompassing to this day.


Like most chicanos, my grandparents have paintings and figurines scattered throughout the house to remind us of La Virgen’s importance. Frankly, I always found La Virgen’s importance a bit off-putting– she seemed a subordinate character, a means of appeasing us “women-folk”. However, understanding the lineage of La Virgen has changed my perception greatly. Even moreso, the great tradition of divine femininity La Virgen represents has opened up a love (dare I say, ‘reverence’) for my womanhood that I can’t honestly say I had before.


Like a lot of us diasporic folks, I think I will always be fighting to integrate a seemingly fragmented identity. Indeed, as I conceded earlier, I still struggle with mestizaje (and probably always will). Yet, I’ve found looking to my elders (and in this case my ancestors) seems to deterritorialize my identity. La Virgen is the epitaph of indigena; the aspect of my heritage which represents la lucha; the legacy which partly constructs my mestiza identity.

Where do we go from here?

In the past, the power of femininity was revered by entire civilizations. Temples were built, offerings made, and worldviews shaped. This is diametrically opposed to the dominant cultures’ concept of femininity today which is largely symbolized (and practiced) through rampant consumption and subordination.


It seems clear that we have lost our way, and I do not think the blame can be placed solely on late-stage capitalism. Although, as any good leftist would, I’m eager to argue it holds a lion’s share of responsibility. Regardless, to me, this is a sickness recognizable as much older… My core Self appreciates the loss of dual epistemology as a core component of our fall. Duality is not a stagnant concept for two related opposites, but rather a conceptual lens through which we ground our perception of the truth.




Masculine - Feminine

Light - Dark

Heaven - Underworld

Dry - Wet

Day. - Night

Life - Death






Duality is “the essential ordering force of the universe” (Marcos, 2009: 36). Thus, an indigenous sensibility reminds us that to facilitate gender equality, we need to reclaim Antigua, the conceptualization of masculine and feminine as intertwined substances of the same importance. Until we remedy this, the patriarchy’s need to structure its dominance will continue to devalorize the feminine, and in doing so further injure our understanding of duality more generally. Nevertheless, I’m hopeful. Perhaps, if we all continue to investigate our origins “[t]he responses from the fragmented loci at the colonial difference can become creatively aware of interdependence, transforming the resistance into coalition” (Lugones, 2012: 85).

Some Final Words

I’m not sure how attentive you may have been as a reader, but you may have noticed I used spatial adverbs in reference to time and temporal adverbs in reference to space when reflecting on my own experiences. This is something I have done my entire life—I simply have never been able to separate the two when I am categorizing my own experiences.


For a long time, I thought I was simply a poor rhetorician… I’d often get frustrated with myself, wondering why I couldn’t wrap my head around the bifurcation of time and space Standard English adverbs require. Yet, now that I have had access to Nahua philosophy I’m aware that space and time need not be opposites in lived perception, but rather dual epistemic concepts. To my ancestors at least, I make perfect sense. It’s romantic of course, but I can’t help but imagine there’s something to this.


My point in this tangent is to praise the effect decolonial study can have on the psyche. In the contemporary diasporic landscape, it’s too easy to see through the eyes of the kyriarchy. Instead, I suggest we peel back the western epistemic vignettes and embrace the understandings of our ancestors. If we try, it’s possible we may become more in touch with ourselves.

P.P.S

Although this Juncture Review specifically references Nahua spirituality and deities, I recognize that many indigenous peoples around the world have faced similar assimilative processes and thus their deities (both female and male alike) have been nearly eradicated from history. I encourage anyone reading this piece to investigate the indigenous peoples of your home (whether it be ethnic or residential).

References

Anzaldúa, G. (1987) Borderlands: La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1st ed)

San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.

Lugones, M. (2012) “Methodological Notes toward a Decolonial Feminism.” In A.M

Isasi-Díaz and E. Mendieta (eds.) Decolonizing Epistemologies: Latina/o Theology and Philosophy: Latina/o Theology and Philosophy, pp. 68-86. Fordham University Press. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1c999dr.7

Marcos, S. (2009). Mesoamerican Women’s Indigenous Spirituality: Decolonizing Religious

Beliefs. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 25(2), 25–45. https://doi.org/10.2979/fsr.2009.25.2.25

Sigal, P. (2010), Imagining Cihuacoatl: Masculine Rituals, Nahua Goddesses and the Texts

of the Tlacuilos. Gender & History, 22: 538-563. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0424.2010.01610.x

Spica, M. (2018). Pluralism With Syncretism: A Perspective From Latin

American Religious Diversity. Open Theology, 4(1), 236-245. https://doi.org/10.1515/opth-2018-0017



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