Monday, July 2, 2012

Of Gods and Tacos

One of the most consistent themes in this blog has been my constant search for good examples and/or metaphors that make anthropological ideas more accessible. In another effort to get my blogging momentum back, here’s a quick take on a recent inspiration.

This summer, I’ve found a couple good examples in a novel. I’ve been slowly reading The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea. The novel takes place in the last quarter of the 19th Century in northern Mexico focusing on the early life of Teresita Urrea--a young woman with truly may be a saint.

During Teresita’s early training, an old midwife, Huila, provides instruction about the nature of God and the universe. I found one of these passages to be a particularly good example of describing how religious beliefs can be intrinsically intertwined into mundane, “natural” things.

Skeptical of some of Huila’s teachings, Teresita half-mockingly attempts to push her to nonsensical conclusions. In this particular scene, Huila had just been explaining how “life” and “God” were everything. I’ll quote the following passage because it’s so much more well crafted than anything I could put together. The first line of dialogue is from Teresita.

This was pretty strange talk, in Teresita’s opinion.

“In a rock.”


“In a bee?”


“In a taco?”

“You think you’re funny.”

Huila was irked. A tortilla, made of holy corn, corn made of rain and soil and sun, that tortilla, round as the sun itself! Was God not in the rain? Did the corn not come from God? What of the sun? Was the sun simply some meaningless accident in the sky? Some ball of light meaning nothing, signifying nothing? No! Only a heretic would fail to see God in the sun!

And the meat of the goat, and the flowers the goat ate, and the chiles in the salsa, and the guacamole, and the hands of the fine woman who slapped the tortilla into shape then laid the sizzling meat into it, and the fire, and the fire ring, and the house in which the fire ring burned, and the ancestors who raised the generation that led to the woman making the taco. Only an idiot would fail to see God in a meal!

"If you are too blind to see God in a Goddamned taco," she exclaimed, "then you are truly blind!"

Teresita said, "Then everything is God?"

"Don't be a heathen," Huila said. "God is everything. Learn the difference." [Urrea 2005:95]

There’s a lot to like in that quote. It’s well-written, funny, poignant and makes me wistful for the food of my youth. From an anthropological perspective, it also illustrates many important ideas (I’ll get to another in a future post). In particular, it elegantly describes how phenomena that many of my students would consider fundamentally separate, are not necessarily so conceived and that those other ways of knowing can be made contextually logical and understandable.

While contemporary anthropologists have a more nuanced take on Durkheim’s notion of the sacred and the profane, most of my students easily buy into the vast gulf between the two. The quote above, however, demonstrates in an evocative manner that what many would consider mundane vs. sacred are not separate phenomenon. But that both are built into the DNA of the other. I subscribe to a listserv focused on teaching anthropology at community colleges, and one of the most common topics is the difficulties in teaching about the biological evolution of human beings because of the strong thread of Christian fundamentalism that runs through the US. I, however, don’t usually face those students...not quite sure why. The students that I do often encounter, however, are those from the opposite end of the spectrum--those who see all religious thinking as backwards superstition. They are Enlightenment fundamentalists--Western science can and will know all. Subsequently, many of the cultural beliefs discussed in an introductory anthropology course are automatically viewed with derision (despite my damndest attempts to foster a non-judgmental, anthropological perspective).

For me, Urrea’s quote shows how logical and consistent it is to view the world that can be seen, tasted and smelled in non-positivist ways.

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