The Spaniards came to our village in 1524, but they couldn’t get anybody to go to their church, so they demolished our old temple and used the stones to build a new church on the same site. (This was a common practice.) But the Tzutujil people are crafty. They watched as the old temple stones were used to build the new church, and they memorized where each one went. As far as the Tzutujil were concerned, this strange, square European church was just a reconfiguration of the old. (When I was learning to be a shaman, I had to memorize where all those damn stones were, because they were all holy. It was like being a novice taxi driver in London.)
The Catholic priests abandoned the village in the 1600s because of earthquakes and cholera, then came back fifty years later and found a big hole in the middle of the church. “What is that?” they said. By then, the Indians knew the priests destroyed everything relating to the native religion, so the Indians said, “When we reenact the crucifixion of Jesus, this is the hole where we put the cross.”
In truth, that hole was a hollow place that was never to be filled, because it led to another hollow place left over from the temple that had been there originally, and that place was connected to all the other layers of existence.
For four and a half centuries, the Indians kept their traditions intact in a way that the Europeans couldn’t see or understand. If the Spaniards asked, “Where is your God?” the Indians would point to this empty hole. But when the American clergy came in the 1950s, they weren’t fooled. They said, “This is paganism.” And so, eventually, they filled the empty place with concrete.
I was there when that happened, in 1976. I was livid. I went to the village council and ranted and raved about how terrible it was. The old men calmly smoked their cigars and agreed. After an hour or so, when I was out of breath, they started talking about something totally unrelated. I asked, “Doesn’t anybody care about this?”
“Oh, yeah,” they said. “We care. But these Christians are idiots if they think they can just eradicate the conduit from this world to the next with a little mud. That’s as ridiculous as you worrying about it. But if you must do something, here’s a pick, shovel, and chisel. Dig it out.”
So some old men and I dug out the hole. Then the Catholics filled the hole back up, and two weeks later we dug it out again. We went back and forth this way five times until, finally, somebody made a stone cover for the hole, so the Catholics could pretend it wasn’t there, and we could pull the cover off whenever we wanted to use it.
That’s how the spirit is now in this country. The hole, the hollow place that must be fed, is still there, but it’s covered over with spiritual amnesia. We try to fill up that beautiful hollow place with drugs, television, potato chips — anything. But it can’t be filled. It needs to be kept hollow.