House of Rain and Fog: Indigenous Culture in the Mixteca Alta

I am just a few weeks back from a  visit to Plant With Purpose’s program in Oaxaca, Mexico. It is always so inspiring to have the privilege of visiting and seeing the good things that are happening in the lives of the local farmers and their families. I’ll have a few posts to reflect on this trip.

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Carlos, a Plant With Purpose agronomist artfully installs a wood-saving stove

One thing I learned more about this week was how the Mixtec people have suffered for many years under the message that their culture and tribal identity is not valuable. This began with Cortez and the Conquistadors who killed and enslaved the Mixtecs, and took their land. The Catholic and Evangelical churches have not done a whole lot better, and as a result much of their cultural traditions and language has been lost.

Plant With Purpose’s approach of building long-term relationships in communities is done with great respect to local customs. While the team clearly works from a Christian perspective, they make every attempt to be a force for affirmation and encouragement rather than judgement or paternalism. Because of this respect, they are welcomed to work in a many different communities, and we as visitors have the opportunity to learn about aspects of Mixtec culture that we might not otherwise ever know about.

For example, on this trip to the village of La Union one of the local leaders named Alier told us about Mixtec the custom of the Festival of Rain. He confided that he felt like he was taking a risk sharing it with us, as many church leaders had told the Mixtecs that this was a bad custom.

Alier built a model of the small stone house that sits at the top of an important local mountain, Cerro Nuxino, a “Rain House”. Every year in the early spring the male leaders of the community go at night to the top of the mountain to ask for rain, a good harvest, and health for their community. They roast a goat or sheep, musicians, and bring mescal, cookies and chocolate. Then the oldest person in the community, who knows the right words, talks to the Lord of the Rain: He says something like “Lord of the Rain, owner of the land, in this moment we come before you to ask you for rain, health and that we would have a good harvest to sustain our families.” After, they have a little party until about 8 AM. They do this every year.

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Rain House, with feet for scale

Now, Alier is a committed Christian, so we were super interested to ask him about how he understood the Festival of Rain in light of his faith. It was fascinating to hear him describe how the two fit together, and how he experienced both continuity and discontinuity between the two. His understanding of God in Christ did not lead to him discarding this practice, but gave it a fuller and deeper meaning, as if he now truly knew the God to whom his people had been praying in the past.

The next day we were with some other leaders, lead by a man named Avel, planting trees in the local watershed, which is the primary project we are working on in La Union. After the first hole was dug, Avel had all of us pause while he prayed a traditional prayer to the goddess of the mountain and to Jesus for the health of the watershed and community. I was so glad that Alier had shared about the Festival of Rain the night before. It seemed to me to be a very great privilege for us as visitors to be a part of something so unique to Mixtec culture, and so fragile in light the rapid changes happening in their communities.

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The La Union watershed, on the way to plant- and pray

There obviously is a lot that could be said about how traditional Mixtec culture integrates and is also changed by the coming of Christianity. For me, what comes most immediately to my mind is Richard Niebuhr’s classic differentiation of three views regarding “Christ and Culture:” Christ of culture- where the Christian message takes on the trappings of whatever culture it finds itself in. Christ against culture- Where the Christian message engages culture from a posture of hostility and supremacy. And thirdly, “Christ transforming culture,” where the Christian message both adapts to local culture but also calls for change and transformation. (Christian abolitionist movement, etc.) Regardless, what I was most impressed by in the whole interaction with both Alier and Avel was how they responded so positively to the posture of humility taken by the local Plant With Purpose staff. Rather than reinforcing the old pattern of cultural domination by outsiders, Plant With Purpose is helping encourage greater confidence in indigenous Mixtec communities, including the belief that they have the capacity to figure out the direction of their faith and culture for themselves. It is a privilege to see first-hand the expressions of that confidence.

What do you think?

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