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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Pachamama and the Virgin Mary: Religious identity in Bolivia



Looking out over the bridge towards Miraflores stands the statue of Isabel Católica. Her cold marble eyes having witnessed centuries of religious intolerance; a poignant symbol of the religious freedoms that were taken from the indigenous people when the Spanish invaded and colonised Bolivia. The Spanish monarchy at the time of the conquest - Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile - were sentinels of the church, using Catholicism to justify and legitimise their invasion of the Americas; a ‘just war’. Conversion was the divinely ordained rationale for conquest. 

Even after Bolivia’s independence was declared in 1825, the Constitutional Convention continued to declare a regime of absolute religious intolerance. The constitution stated that "The Roman, Catholic, and Apostolic Religion is the one of the Republic, excluding any other public worship. The Government will protect it, and will enforce respect for it.’[1]
This kind of absolutism can still be encountered today in religion; constantly examining and interpreting the world in terms of binary oppositions: believers and non-believers, indigenous religion and Catholicism. The Spanish conquerors and Catholic authorities tried to establish and enforce wholly disparate religious identities, but the people of Bolivia did not adhere to such strict and unyielding dichotomies. Christian polemical texts enhanced their unique identity, but beyond written articulation the barrier between Catholicism and indigenous religion was far less pronounced.

In reality, an individual did not have to forsake their traditional beliefs in favour of Christianity, as both religions could be adopted simultaneously. This seems to be what happened in Bolivia, despite the constitution; belief transcended legislation. The indigenous gods were strong against Catholicism, strong in the face of the destruction of their temples, strong in the wake of colonialism. ‘The Spanish were able to eliminate the natives’ temples, but they couldn’t eliminate their beliefs’[2] argues the historian Fernando Cajias.

This notion is evident within the deity Pachamama; the mother goddess affiliated with the natural world. Such a powerful deity could not be suppressed with fear: violence would not prevent the sun from rising, the grass from growing or stop rivers flowing. Threats would not extinguish the glory of the mother goddess, and thus the Spanish had to accept elements of Pachamama. Cajias states that 'the missionaries realised they couldn't completely destroy the indigenous belief after struggling to force Catholicism on the people. They then decided to mix Catholic beliefs and figures with native beliefs and figures.’[3]
 
As such, the Christian figure of the Virgin Mary merged with the indigenous idea of Pachamama,[4] which, although far removed from Catholic orthodoxy, allowed Catholicism to flourish in Bolivia. This is evident in the knowledge that pre-colonial Pachamama was sometimes seen as a fierce and unforgiving goddess[5]; in fitting with her affiliation to the natural forces, but appears to mellow into a solely benevolent being following the arrival of Christianity. The festival of Urkupiña, just outside Cochabamba, also exemplifies this union. Its origins lie in the worship of a sacred hill with a tangible spiritual energy known as a waca. This was prominent in pre-colonial Cochabamba until the Virgin Mary made herself visible to a young shepherd girl upon the waca. Since then the festival has been celebrated every August to document the merging of colonial and indigenous belief. The two religions exist side-by-side, logically incompatible but contemporaneously accepted. 

It is only with the new constitution that Pachamama has been recognised publically as a vital aspect of Bolivian religious belief; whether it is the almighty mother goddess of pre-colonial times or the tempered mix of the Virgin Mary and Pachamama. Félix Cárdenas, the Vice Minister of Decolonisation stated recently that ‘the churches here are built on top of our sacred places. We won’t do what colonisers did and tear down Christian churches. We must recover our sacred sites without destroying those who belong to others.’[6] In this statement Cárdenas echoes centuries of constitutionally unacknowledged religious belief.  He aptly encapsulates the idea that Bolivia is a country of many nationalities and beliefs; a country that will not repeat the mistakes of the past; a country that will never forget its history but can move on from it.

Written by April Waites
Edited by Sarah Cassidy


[1] Article 6 of the 1826 Bolivian constitution.
[4] Merlino, Rodolfo y Mario Rabey (1992). "Resistencia y hegemonía: Cultos locales y religión centralizada en los Andes del Sur". Allpanchis (40): 173–200. 
[5] Molinie, Antoinette (2004). "The Resurrection of the Inca: The Role of Indian Representations in the Invention of the Peruvian Nation". History and Anthropology 15 (3): 233–250.
[6] Bolivian express: Reinventing Progress #26.

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