The God of Fiesta

"The Amerindian ancients looked to beauty as a reflection of the presence of the divine. Their intuition survives in the Spanish phrase flor y canto, flower and song, a translation of the pre-Columbian Náhuatl metaphor for the truth of the spiritual world. Not only did beauty signify the blessing of divine presence, but indigenous ancestors historically used flower and song to communicate back with the Sacred. This approach reveals an aesthetic conception of the universe that approaches philosophy through poetry, conflating truth with beauty. Rather than arriving at truth through universal, abstract concepts governed by linear logic, the mind grasps truth intuitively through the imagination of the heart: 'to know the truth was to understand the hidden meaning of things through "flower and song," a power emanating from the deified heart' (Léon-Portilla). In this context the details of the Guadalupe event reveal their true significance:

"In the Náhuatl world of Juan Diego, beauty is truth and truth is beauty: flor y canto. It is in the singing of the birds, in the aroma of the roses, and above all in the encounter with the Lady of Tepeyac that Juan Diego comes to understand the truth of who he is, who she is, and who God is. (Goizueta)

"This sense of beauty, intertwined with divine truth and goodness, animates awareness of God in the spiritual imagination of Hispanic communities. The glimpse of God discerned in popular symbols, rites, music, dance, enactments, and stories is simply pervaded with an overarching aesthetic sensibility. Without it, talk of God seems cold and irrelevant. With it, an experience of the sacred attracts the whole person in an open, creative, and searching way.

"This beauty does not invite the community into a purely aesthetic experience devoid of the experience of suffering and the concomitant concern for redemptive justice. One example of how the two are always interacting can be found in la pastorela, the shepherds play, a quintessential piece of Christmas theater with roots in the Middle Ages brought to the Americas by the missionaries. On their way to the crib after the angels' announcement, the shepherds get distracted by Satan. With biting, insulting humor, the play depicts one temptation after another that keeps them from arriving. Basically a commentary on evil, the play teaches that Christmas is not just about joy, but about joy that occurs in the midst of struggle. It sees deeply into the tragic nature of human waywardness, while discerning hope at the center. Finally, the shepherds are shepherded toward the crib by the angel Gabriel, who instructs them to pick all the flowers in the field as their gift: repentance begins with a gathering of flowers! Their arrival in the presence of the Savior makes clear that Jesus' birth humbles the evil spirit without violence, 'as a beautiful reality humbles a lesser vision,' by the sheer power of its attraction, writes Alejandro Gatda-Rivera. Through the story God is revealed to be a 'Passionate Lover of Beauty' who creates the world as a unique and beautiful whole and, laid in a manger, comes in love to restore its wholeness.

"The aesthetic quality of relationship to the sacred comes to full expression in the fiesta, an essential part of the life of Hispanic communities. A festival filled with merriment and music, the fiesta is not just a party. Held to commemorate a founding event of the civic or religious community or a significant moment in an individual's life, it is a collective mystical experience that celebrates life. Theological analysis points out that the fiesta is deeply rooted in the sense that life is a gift; that the Source of this gift is the Creator; that the first act of the human being is to receive this gift and respond with thanks. This is done in community, with others aware of the pain and tragedy that mark their history but aware, too, that the joy experienced now points to a fullness still to come. In this sense the fiesta 'expresses life in the subjunctive mood,' as Goizueta elegantly puts it, meaning the mood of desire and future possibility as compared to the indicative mood of factuality that controls economic life in society.

"Inspired and challenged though it may be by Latin American liberation theology, U.S. Hispanic theology finds that its southern colleague falls short on precisely this point. Dealing with forces that crush the life of the poor, liberation theology envisions the human person as homo faber, the maker. To be human is to be engaged in the transformation of society, to become an agent of change. Since popular religion does not immediately lead to such action, liberation theology has been inattentive to the value of celebration, ritual, and family life in the ongoing struggles of the poor. While the sociopolitical implications of faith are indeed crucially important, Latino and Latina theology emphasizes that the human person is also homo ludens, the player. To be human is to celebrate, to cease being a maker of quantifiable products and become connected to the deep meaning of life. This is what fiesta accomplishes. Drawing on the affective, imaginative, aesthetic resources of the community, it enables a 'feeling' of being at one with God, the others, the cosmos, oneself. Not based on rational discourse nor oriented to timely, efficient action, it 'represents precisely that attitude of trust in the ultimate goodness of life, both as a reality in the present and as an unrealized future that challenges and subverts the status quo' (Goizueta). The community is not just a doer, but a receiver and grateful responder to the gift of life. Once this is in play, then the commitment to social justice receives a wellspring of motivation. As Ada María Isasi-Diaz stresses from her work with circles of Hispanic women, the commitment to justice will not survive without love and tenderness in people's lives to sustain them.

"As 'an aesthetic praxis,' the fiesta and the glimpse of God it embodies have much to offer the dominant society. By celebrating the goodness of the gift of life even in the midst of suffering, its flor y canto joyfully express the beauty of God's love unto a new creation. Linking the sociopolitical approach of liberation theology with the aesthetic approach of prayer and celebration, Roberto Goizueta sums up this insight when he underscores that for the U.S. Hispanic community and the theology that reflects upon its faith, 'God is known in the form of the Beautiful.' Journeying with the people through the many dislocating migrations of history, the accompanying presence of God bears them up through the myriad daily practices of popular religion, most especially through the beauty of fiesta."