by Carlos Motta
Text commissioned by the Camel Collective for The Second World Congress of Free Artists, a 6 hour performance held at the Aarhus Arts Building, Denmark in 2010 and published as a book in 2013. Download PDF of the hole book here
Dios es Pobre
Stage left, a simple wood lectern and a straight-backed chair. Father Juan Guerrero reads from a prepared letter, obviously memorized; he rarely refers to it. He is elderly but youthful, melancholy, dressed in a priest’s robe and collar. He carries the hat of a Jesuit but never puts it on his head. It should be obvious to the audience that he is a gifted orator, at home behind a lectern.
Father Guerrero solemnly approaches the lectern, places his hat on it, and withdraws a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles and a letter from his robe.
Father Guerrero. [putting on his spectacles] Dear audience of this the Second World Congress of Free Artists. My priest’s robe may come as a surprise to you in the context of a conference of artists. I am not an artist, but I am speaking here today because for five hundred years I have been an active participant in and witness to pedagogical projects initiated by Catholic theologians and priests that have been thwarted by imperial, economic, and ideological interests.
Pause, measuring the audience.
My name is Juan Guerrero. I am a Jesuit priest born in 1700 in Spain, where I was ordained in the Society of Jesus. In 1730, I joined a mission in the highlands of Paraguay, in South America. I was involved in the evangelization of indigenous communities; we brought the word and ways of God to the natives of the jungle, for the world as they knew it had started to change because of the presence of the European settlers who had discovered them there. From the outset, I have been a fervent believer in the Christian faith. [fervently] God is spirituality and His command is that we construct a better world for all, but in particular for those who have been less favored as a result of social inequality.
Mira, Dios es pobre! God is poor! Our vocation as workers of God has been to confront the deceptive earthly powers, to stand in the way of Satanic influences that have oppressed minority groups for the benefit of the few.
[with sorrow] Our project in Paraguay was both a success and a tragedy that resulted in the expulsion of the Society of Jesus from those regions, and later on from all Spanish territories. For decades we strove to understand the difficulties the natives had learning our ways. We developed strategies and methods to connect these seemingly humble beings with their souls, always using God’s instructions and manifestations of His spiritual presence. Our missions taught them to live in a new present, to respectfully accept the oppressors, and helped them to construct a self-sustained society and culture that could coexist with the newcomers. This was a reciprocal process; we learned from them as much as they did from us.
Early on, we understood that we didn’t belong in what was a raped land and that our teachings had to address this inherent violence. We saw ourselves as a path to a new present and a potentially healthy future.
We failed! The powers of evil were stronger than our faith; Satan’s envoys were unstoppable and indestructible because they easily recognized that the new land was richer than Europe and that it would become a source of wealth. Indigenous people were nothing but an obstacle to this; they were a despised race that had to be eliminated, exterminated, or oppressed and dominated. They had to become the European’s slaves!
Gazing out over the audience, taking his time with them. Then, less priestly.
In retrospect, I would claim that our work, while problematic, was essential. Without our commitment, these threatened communities of natives would have been exterminated faster than they eventually were. Our method consisted in teaching community organizing, a new conception of self-empowerment, agricultural techniques, crafts, and leadership. We also taught them our language, Spanish, and connected them with the aesthetic manifestations of spirituality: the riches of music and art, which always reflect the divine sensibility of God.
[recollecting] In 1750, some Portuguese men, with the consent of the Catholic Church, burned down the mission. We were betrayed by our own fathers! All of my fellow Jesuits, who courageously objected to the invasion, were assassinated, along with most of the native community, including all of the women and children. The chapel we had built collapsed to the ground, a ground that later became valuable for its mines of gold and other precious metals. The Church that had nurtured our work had become complicit with the oppressors! I can’t remember how I survived. [to God, or to the air] Perhaps it was His wish for me to become a transhistorical ghost, a living witness of what was to become a common destiny for the oppressed.
For the next two hundred years I could not bear the weight of my existence, my sense of responsibility and complicity in that tragedy. Believe me, the image of death, the rivers of blood, and the smell of burnt skin are not easy crosses to carry. I walked throughout the Americas in sin because I wanted to abandon God: I couldn’t understand why a divine being would allow these atrocities to occur. But He never let me go: the strength of His teachings, the freedom of His spirit, the overwhelming sense of knowing what is right that His voice has whispered to me at night, and the conviction that there is potential for change in the future made me want to seek those who continue to oppose oppression, just like my fellow missionaries who confronted power in the service of the poor.
He cleans his glasses in silence.
Pedagogy is a dangerous affair, you know. Its far-reaching consequences should be empowering, but they are often lethal. To teach is to assume a position, to follow your heart and to act politically. In order to teach, you have to understand the social sphere around you, and you must be responsive, never arbitrary. You have to listen, to hear, to perceive, and to respond carefully based on what you’ve heard. Teaching is loving. Loving is giving. Giving is learning. Pedagogy is a spiritual affair.
He abandons the podium to move about the stage.
Dear audience, isn’t art also a spiritual and dangerous affair? Perhaps theology and art are more connected than we like to think. Art to me is a transformative and critical act. In art, there is a potential for social and aesthetic responsibility. Like theological work, art, I believe, is rooted in conviction and in the liberation of propositions that are communicated through an aesthetic method. Art is faith. Not faith understood as an unmediated divine gift but rather as an active commitment to a cause, a just cause. Art is justice.
By the mid–twentieth century I found myself old and tired but not less inspired. I witnessed the emergence of a radical theological model propagated by theologians and priests throughout Latin America: Liberation Theology. I encountered fellow priests like armed revolutionaries who fought for the rectification of the social order. They were armed, too: with the true word of God, with intellect, with the belief that as a collective Catholic community we could transform society. We were new missionaries! Our struggle wasn’t simple this time, either. The dehumanization of minority and oppressed groups had never ceased. Their lives had continued to be denigrated by the newly established colonial class (do they still call it bourgeoisie?) and a dignified life seemed more than ever an impossible dream for them.
The chair. Behind the chair. Seated.