So I hurry toward the Arena, where the opening plenary is about to begin, and run into a small group of Encuentro presenters, staff and volunteers, and tag along with them. The Parliament’s Mexican team has done a great job recruiting young (mostly in their early twenties, it seems) regiomontanos – the term people from Monterrey use to describe themselves – to volunteer for the event, and so far all the ones I’ve met have been very enthusiastic and solicitous.
A couple of the volunteers in our small group fall into step with me, and want to know about paganism, and what I’ll be talking about. “I’m here to tell you about your ancestors,” I reply, “your ancestors from
“¡Qué padre!,” they exclaim. (¡Qué padre! – literally, 'what a father!' or 'how father!' – and its variant, muy padre – 'very father' – I soon learn, is the current slang expression of approval in vogue in Monterrey and, they tell me, all over México, similar to our 'cool,' 'awesome,' 'word,' 'wicked bitchin’,' or whatever happens to be in fashion nowadays in the States. Here, everybody uses it, and no, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the conventional meaning of 'father' [end of Spanish lesson]).
We needn’t have hurried. Though we’re two minutes late, the plenary hasn’t started, and won’t start for another half hour. I sit with my two new young friends and, without my asking, they get me a couple of bottles of water, since I’m panting and dehydrated from standing in the sun for a few hours during the Walk ceremony. They want to keep talking about paganism, but Dena Fokas, the Parliament staffer who is helping to organize the Encuentro, sees me and asks me to move up to the second row, with the rest of the presenters.
From there, I get a pretty good ground-level view of the Arena Monterrey, and it looks quite a lot bigger than from the sides. The place seems to be only half full, but then somebody tells me that it holds about 18,000 people, so that means there could be close to10,000 attending an event that apparently has hardly been advertised – not bad.
The plenary finally begins, with the usual introduction of, and speeches by, various political dignitaries. Both the governor of Nuevo León (
They do so diplomatically, of course, so as not to unduly upset the Catholic hierarchy which wields such political and economic power in this land. Needless to say, they don’t mention that it’s one thing to have those rights in principle, and quite another to be able to actually exercise them (to a one, all of my Mexican pagan friends who’ve attempted to avail themselves of those rights – by trying to create pagan churches with legal standing, for instance – tell me they’ve been thwarted by government bureaucrats and by the actual regulations that define the establishment of religious entities, which are heavily based on the Catholic model. And not just pagans, but other small religious communities such as the Unitarian-Universalists and the Quakers, have had the same problems).
The governor is sitting in the front row, just two chairs away from me. As he returns after his speech, I lean over and tap him on the shoulder and tell him in Spanish how inspiring and welcome his stand in support of equal religious rights was, and that I hope he would be willing to champion the cause of minority religions should they encounter discrimination. He is startled, but like any good politician recovers quickly, thanks me, and assures me that he will do anything in his power to insure the religious rights of all Mexicans, and that, should I hear of anyone having such problems, to refer them to his Secretary for Religious Affairs. I thank him, we shake hands, and as he turns there is an immediate huddle of the advisers that flank him, surely wondering what the hairy man in the weird clothes had to say. There’s a lot of nodding, and the plenary resumes.
One of the speakers is the man in charge of the Dialogues section of the Forum, of which the Encuentro is the first; I've been told by several people that he seems to have some 'attitude' toward our event, and has been rather uncooperative. He greets everyone, then apologizes to all the Jews for the unfortunate scheduling of the event during Hannukah, but says it was unavoidable. Of course, it isn’t Hannukah, but Yom Kippur, a mistake that probably slides right by most of the audience who may have never met a Jew in their lives (not a lot of them in Monterrey, it seems…), much less be familiar with their religion and holy days. But it doesn’t for a second escape the notice of the presenters, among whom there is a lot of looking around and head-shaking. And, of course, he has not a word of apology to the pagans for holding the event over the autumnal equinox. The gentleman doesn’t know it, but he’s now scheduled to have a little chat with me a bit later on…
Bill Lesher, president of the Parliament’s board of trustees, gives a brief talk in his usual engaging, folksy style; then Dirk Ficca, the Parliament’s executive director, discusses the event at length, but reads his remarks completely in Spanish. I am so proud of him! Most Americans don’t seem to understand how very much it means to people from other lands when we make an attempt to communicate in their language. This is particularly true of Hispanics, and goes at least double for Mexicans, who generally feel slighted and put down by their northerly neighbors (I wonder why?)
I make a point of telling Dirk later on what a great thing he did. He blushes a little, then gives me a bit of a shy smile. “Was it really okay?,” he asks, “I thought I stumbled a lot.” I assure him that he did just fine, that to Hispanics, every little stumble and mispronunciation is actually something endearing, and that he won over a lot of people's good will tonight. As he walks away, he’s beaming, as well he should.
Then, all the presenters are invited to go up to the microphone, introduce ourselves, say where we’re from and what spiritual path we follow, then sit on a long row of chairs they have set up for us at the back of the stage. When my turn comes, I introduce myself in Spanish, which is what I’ll speak at all the events of the Encuentro. When I mention the part about 'indigenous pagan traditions of
It is fascinating – essentially, a reprise of what I had just witnessed barely an hour before, at the end of the Indigenous Walk outside the Forum: the clouds of burning copal; the blowing of bone whistles and conch shells; the painted, costumed dancers and drummers, both women and men, some wearing elaborate headdresses made of very long and multicolored plumes…
But something is different, something is missing – and then it hits me: there are no elders. Outside, there had been easily two-dozen or more people in their sixties or older, some of them quite aged. Here, onstage, the oldest person seems to be a man in his late thirties, perhaps early forties. Then I begin to notice other small, but telling details: here, all the dancers have lithe, athletic bodies, and their dancing is just a little too polished, too professional; and yet, occasionally I’ll catch one or another of them casting sidelong glances at the rest, as if to make sure they are in the right place, making the right moves. In contrast, among the dancers at the Walk there was a much greater variety of body types, and their dancing had seemed completely unselfconscious, yet totally focused, with the easy grace and confidence that comes from having performed the same movements over and over since childhood.
More than anything, though, the ceremony at the Walk had been charged by a raw, visceral, compelling power; what I am witnessing at the Arena is much more aesthetically pleasing, but has no power beyond its beauty.
The 'ceremony' on stage goes on for quite a while and – perhaps because I am now carefully looking for them – more revealing details emerge. At one point, the dancing stops and a couple of the dancers sing and speak, addressing the audience. Their voices, like their movements, are theatrical, professional, revealing the patterns and emphases so typical of Spanish oratory, which sound quite familiar to a native speaker like me, though they might easily go unnoticed by someone from a different culture. The speakers at the Walk had done so extemporaneously and totally from the heart, with the deep sincerity that grows from what is lived, and which casts a mantle of inconsequence over such concerns as proper grammar and clear enunciation. My thoughts go to that ancient, frail Wixarrika singer, with the voice that sounded like a wavering, withered string on a primitive violin, threatening to snap at any moment – surely he would not have passed whatever audition was required to stand upon this stage.
So here it is, plain as day, the contrast between traditional religious ritual on one hand, and artistic folkloric performance on the other. Surely, to most of the audience at the Arena – and almost certainly to my fellow presenters at the Encuentro – what we are witnessing onstage would appear to be 'the real thing;' and perhaps it truly moves and inspires them, making it, in effect, 'real.' Doubtlessly, I would have thought and felt exactly the same, had I not had the opportunity to experience something different, something which went beyond the 'reality' of the Arena stage.
This is what we lose through cultural erosion, through religious repression and marginalization, through a mindless drive toward a 'progress' solely defined by materialism and consumerism: we lose important levels of reality, we lose layers of experience and of meaning, we lose some of our deepest, most primal and direct connections to the Sacred.
I am reminded of The Witness, the brief but incisive parable by Jorge Luis Borges, and ask myself some of the same questions he raises: What dies with me, when I die? What is lost? What is forgotten? This subtle, but deeply meaningful distinction I have witnessed so clearly today between religion and folklore, between spirituality and performance – will it still be there for my grandchildren, yet unborn, to experience? (Because the telling of it is not enough, it must truly be experienced.) Or will one be subsumed by and disappear into the other, and be lost as so much else has been lost from so many other cultures, from so many other lands?
Finally, the plenary comes to a close. As we begin to exit or to mill about on the Arena floor, attendees and presenters alike, I espy the Director of Dialogues off in a corner, talking to an assistant. I make a beeline for him and, as soon as he’s free, introduce myself and ask him, as politely as I can, if he’s aware that he apologized for holding the event on the wrong Jewish holiday. He immediately winces – which tells me that probably some other presenter has beat me to the punch – and apologizes profusely for that. I inform him that this is, indeed, not just a sacred time for Jews, but for pagans as well, and that it would have been very nice if we could also have been included in his apology, since there had been some of us in the audience tonight. A glazed look comes over his eyes. “Pagans?,” he says, “What do you mean, pagans? There are no pagans in
I’m about to give him the five-minute version, when I feel a tap at my elbow. It’s Eduardo, a local pagan university student with whom I’ve been corresponding, and had arranged to meet after the plenary. I decide I don’t really want to waste my time with the director, who seems rather close-minded, so I just say, “Pardon me, but this is one of those non-existent pagans from
Eduardo and I start to chat, but we are interrupted by a small group of young people. They ask if I am the pagan presenter. When I say yes, they request to have their picture taken with me, which is fine, of course.
Eduardo and I resume our conversation, but almost immediately the previous scenario is repeated. May we have a picture with you? Yes, of course; pardon me for a moment, Eduardo. Here you go, nice to meet you. Now, where were we? Oh, sorry; yes, sure, a picture is fine. You, too? All right, wait one second…
And so it goes, for more than half an hour – one person after another, or groups of them, interrupting our conversation to have their picture taken with me. I’m so focused trying to juggle both things, that I don’t really pay attention to what is going on around me, but at some point, when I do, I have to stop in disbelief. The Arena is by now essentially empty but for a handful of Forum officials standing in a corner, and security guards who are busy ushering out the few remaining members of the audience. But there I am, on the Arena floor, still surrounded by somewhere between forty to fifty people waiting to get a picture with me.
I am stunned. Such a thing has not ever happened to me before in my life. This may be commonplace for rock stars, for famous actors, but not for the likes of me. There’s a brief moment of something like panic, because I don’t understand what’s going on, because this is so very strange and surreal. Then I catch a glimpse of the Director of Dialogues, still standing in the same corner where I left him. Some assistant is talking to him, but he’s looking straight at us, shaking his head, his mouth open, an incredulous expression on his face. I realize what he’s thinking: "are all of those people pagans?" Fine, let him think a little, it’ll be good for him…
So, I relax and go with the flow, bantering with the crowd amidst a succession of camera flashes, until I feel a hand firmly gripping my arm. It’s Susana, my assistant, coming to my rescue. She’ll tell me, a bit later, that she was up in the stands, looking for me to see if there was anything I needed, when she suddenly saw me down in the Arena, in the middle of what she described as “a sea of people.” She didn’t know what was going on, and feared that I might be in trouble, so she hurried down the steps to come to my aid.
I’m only too glad to see her. She tells those remaining in the crowd that I must leave now, but that I’ll be around all weekend if they didn’t get a chance to have a picture taken with me (I’m beginning to imagine what Brad Pitt's life must feel like, a very sobering thought…) She flies in her high heels up the steep Arena steps and I gladly follow along, a little shaken by what has just happened. When we get to the top we meet up with Silvia, who, along with their friend Miriam (another volunteer), has made arrangements for us to go out for dinner and drinks. They already have two of their cars waiting for us outside, and they take me to La Cañita, a Spanish restaurant in the Barrio Antiguo, the old part of town which is experiencing a revival as the trendy area for restaurants and nightlife.
There, in a blessedly calmer environment, they tease me mercilessly about my being a rock star (a spiritual rock star, one of them clarifies), about how they’re going to be my bodyguards for the rest of the weekend, and are going to start charging people money for getting their picture taken with me, and also will start charging for giving out their own autographs, since they fully expect to get famous by hanging around with me. It would be hilarious, if I weren’t still in a mild state of shock.
We order some food, and they tell the waiter that I am in desperate need of a vampiro, which seems to be their cocktail of choice. It turns out to be a sort of tequila-based Bloody Mary, an interesting combination of sweet and sour which can easily be downed too fast if one’s not careful. After a couple of those, and a variety of sausages, cheeses, and omelets, I finally start to feel a bit more settled.
But I am still bewildered by what just happened at the Arena, and ask my new friends, in all seriousness, if they have any idea why all those people had wanted to have their picture taken with me. I tell them that I've always found the popular fascination with 'celebrity' to be something puzzling and distasteful; and, while I've occasionally been in some small way on the receiving end of it within the pagan movement, it's usually made me feel uncomfortable, though at least there I could understand it, in that I've been around that community for a long time and so have built up some level of name-recognition, if nothing else. But what's so baffling about what happened tonight is that I’m completely unknown around these parts. It’s obviously not about me as an individual, I say. It’s not like I’m a famous author or anything like that; and I didn’t play any special role in the plenary, nor did I say or do anything noteworthy, other than introduce myself along with all the other presenters. I could imagine that the mere fact of being a presenter at this event could lead somebody to think I was somehow prominent, and I suppose it wouldn't have surprised me to get a couple of requests for a picture or an autograph, but not however many dozens there wound up being – that's what I still find so confusing.
Miriam, who’s an inveterate tease, replies that it must be that people saw me in their company, and therefore decided that I obviously have to be someone very special or important. Silvia says she doesn’t really know, but that clearly something unusual is going on: she saw small groups of people getting their photos taken with some of the other presenters, but nothing like what happened with me, where there were easily over a hundred. She also recognized some of the faces at the Arena from the ceremony at the Indigenous Walk, and wonders if, having heard my remarks there earlier, perhaps some of them had been talking about me and somehow the word had spread. Susana thinks that may be part of it, but that there’s something else going on; that, somehow, my being there represents something special to people, even if they don’t know what it is, but that they feel a need to respond to it.
“What do you think that might be?,” I ask her. “I'm not sure,” she says, “but when you first told me what paganism was, I got goosebumps and I had this sudden urge to hug you and to cry.”
As I am about to find out, she’s not far off the mark.