It began with a two-foot tall sculpture. Headless at that.
Three fishermen were casting their nets in the Paraiba River in Brazil. The year was 1717. Their nets were turning up empty until one of the fishermen pulled up a dark brown headless statue of a woman. Intrigued the fisherman cast his net again and pulled up the head. After finding the statue, the men’s net grew heavy with fish. They called the idol Nossa Senhora da Aparecida–Our Lady Who Appeared.
For the first 15 years, the small black Madonna was housed in one of the fishermen’s homes. Legends grew around the doll and the miracles it performed, including one legend about a slave who visited the shrine, whose chains broke when he came in contact with the idol. It became a symbol of hope for the oppressed in Portuguese-controlled Brazil. By the 1760s, due to its popularity a basilica was built to house the shrine, and the town itself became known as Aparecida.
The basilica was renovated in the 19th century. In the 1950s a new, larger basilica was begun to accommodate the overwhelming amount of visitors.
The Pope declared Our Lady of Aparecida the patron saint of Brazil in 1928, and today the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida is widely considered the second largest church in the world after St. Peter’s. It can accommodate 45,000 people and receives almost 7 million visitors a year.
October 12th is the national saint’s feast day, but these days the holiday is also celebrated as Children’s Day. Children throughout Brazil look forward to this day all year, for it’s the day they unwrap gifts from their parents. In many places in Brazil, Children’s Day is even bigger than Christmas.
Mexican philosopher Jose Vasconcelos coined the term La Raza Cósmica, the Cosmic Race (for lack of a better word), to describe the people of Latin America, and what he considered the future of the human race. Vasconcelos theorized that:
“the different races of the world tend to mix ever more, until forming a new human type, composed of the selection of each of the existent peoples…”
…and that the Americans were a mixture of all races: the Asiatic tribes who crossed over the Bering Strait, and the Iberian colonizers and African slaves who crossed via the Atlantic. Vasconcelos’s theories were not without bias: “A religion like Christianity advanced the American indians, in a few centuries, from cannibalism to a relative civilization.” But you will hear echoes of Vasconcelos’s optimism on Dia de la Raza.
Raza means “race”, but not entirely in the English sense of the word. In the context of the holiday, raza refers to the birth of a new breed of humanity, the synthesis of cultures, races, religions, and ideologies that make up Hispanic America today.
Thus, Dia de la Raza, takes this day of tragedy and turns it into a celebration of life across Latin America.
October 12, 1492. Perhaps no date in Pan-American history is as important or controversial.
By October 11, 1492, Columbus’s crew had had enough. The trip was too long. They had spotted weeds and birds—signs of land—for weeks, but not a hint of soil. And at the rate they were going, many were afraid there would hardly be enough headwind to take them back to Spain.
Each day, Columbus lied to the men about how far they’d traveled, so as not to worry them more about the distance between themselves and civilization.
Finally a sailor aboard the Pinta by the name of Rodrigo de Triana spotted a speck of land on the horizon. On October 12, Columbus disembarked at an island in the Bahamas whose exact location is lost to history, and met with the island’s residents. His first impressions were that the people were young (all under 30), unclothed, painted black or various colors, and were a people who could be easily converted to Christianity, as “it seemed to me they had no religion of their own.”
Also, he noted how when he showed them his sword, they had never seen such a thing. They gripped it by blade and were surprised to find themselves cut. It was a foretelling symbol of the future of the two peoples and their relations.
Throughout much of the Americas, Columbus is derided as the bringer of devastation to two continents and the precursor to the genocide of millions of people.
“When Columbus sent back hundreds of Taino indians to be sold as slaves, Queen Isabella ordered them free and returned to their land. Eventually, the European colonists and sovereigns became so discontent with Columbus’ mismanagement that he was arrested and shipped back to Spain in chains. He spent the rest of his life trying to regain his governorship over Hispaniola.
“The government of Columbus was brutal and violated human dignity and the moral senses of his contemporaries. He was the first to establish institutions of slavery and brutal conquest that would lead to the demise of the nations and people who already called the Western Hemisphere their home.
Historians have still not settled upon a psychological portrait of the man around whom so much of world history hinges upon. Unlike the kings of the day whom history recorded so fastidiously, Columbus was a relative nobody until 1492.
And that may be the root of his popularity in 18th and 19th century United States. Here was a man not descended from royalty, but who attained fame and (supposedly) fortune merely by heading west into the great unknown—a fitting hero in the days of “manifest destiny.”
Had Columbus turned back on October 11, the New World would never have been discovered, and the indigenous tribes of the Americas would have lived in peace for hundreds of years. Unlikely. The idea had flourished in Europe that if the world was round a quicker way to the Orient must exist, and had Columbus turned back, it was only a matter of time before others would go the distance. Whether the actions of another discoverer could have stemmed the brutality, slavery and genocide, we will never know.
Today in the United States, over 500 years later, Columbus is one of four individuals honored with a federal holiday. The others are Martin Luther King Jr., George Washington, and Jesus Christ.
Cities and countries around the world celebrate St. Anthony’s Day, from Lisbon, Portugal to Wilmington, Delaware, not to mention cities in Brazil, Mexico, Italy, and even India!
The Brazilians get the jump on the celebrations by commemorating June 12, the day before his feast, as Día dos Namorados, or Day of the Lovers, a Brazilian Valentine’s Day, in honor of the matchmaker saint.
St. Anthony was born in Lisbon, Portugal in 1195, so understandably the Lisboans claim him as their own. Like the Brazilians, the celebration begins the night before…
“When the sun sets, the whole town goes out to honor the saint with alfresco dining, grilled sardines with salad of peppers, irrigated course, with much red wine, and dancing to the beat of popular music…” (Lisbon at its Best)
In the morning, special services are held in the church built over the spot where he was born, and vintage convertible cars carry throngs of “St. Anthony’s brides” down the Avenue Liberdade.
Women write prayers and wishes on paper and tuck them into specially baked “St. Anthony’s bread”, a tradition that dates back to 1263 when…
…a child drowned in the Brenta River near the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua. The mother went to St. Anthony and promised that if her child were restored to life, she would give to the poor an amount of wheat equal to the weight of her child. Of course her son was saved, and her promise was kept.” (Sardine Heaven: Lisbon’s Feast of St. Anthony)
The award for the most unusual St. Anthony’s Festival goes to San Miguel de Allenda, Mexico. There laborers originally celebrated May 17 as San Pascual Bailon (St. Pascal Baylon) Day, in honor of the patron saint of field and kitchen workers.
“To keep the paraders and observers separated, some paraders were dressed as scarecrows and their characteristic movements were described as “loco,” i.e., crazy. Somewhere along the way, paraders dressed as clowns replaced the field and kitchen workers, though the music and the dances stayed the same.” (El Dia de los Locos)
The popularity of the San Pascual Bailon parade overshadowed that of the more established San Antonio (St. Anthony), and the two festivities merged. Now the festival is held the Sunday after June 13 and is known as El Día de los Locos, or Day of the Crazies.
“…as many people will die in Argentina as is necessary to restore order.”
— Jorge Rafael Videla, October 1975
The film opens in the 1990’s with a teenage girl being called to the school office; there, Christina is essentially kidnapped by the government, taken away from her parents without even a phone call home, and forced to live with total strangers. Cautiva is a real-life horror story, where at first we believe we know who’s ‘good’ and who’s ‘bad’.
As the film progresses, we learn, along with Christina, a murkier, darker truth. The strangers are her real grandparents, and the people Christina believed were her parents, are not.
It turns out Christina was a child of the Disappeared, one of hundreds of babies taken from their true parents who were executed during one of the darkest chapters in Argentine history. Though Christina is a fictional character, her story is by no means unique.
In the 1970’s leftist guerrilla groups staged terrorist attacks on the conservative government in Argentina and foreign conglomerates. The violence caused President Isabel Martinez de Perón to appoint Jorge Rafael Vadila to head the army, and the government granted permission to law enforcement agencies and the military to “annihilate… subversive elements throughout the country.”
On March 24, 1976, Vadila and the army overthrew Perón in a military coup. The military junta—officially known as the “National Reorganization Process”—disbanded the legislature, revoked basic freedoms, and by 1977, had extended their targets far beyond mere combatants:
“First we will kill all the subversives; then we will kill their collaborators; then…their sympathizers, then…those who remain indifferent; and finally we kill the timid.”
— General Ibérico Saint Jean, governor of Buenos Aires, 1977
But they weren’t killed. They were ‘disappeared’.
Between 1976 and 1983, somewhere between 12,000 and 30,000 Argentineans “disappeared.” The true numbers will never be known. There were few official records. Thousands of ‘subversives’, activists, and those with the slightest association to them (or none at all) were taken from their homes in the middle of the night and never seen again. Many were brutally tortured in detention centers before being killed. But it was impossible for families of the victims to file murder charges since there were no bodies, no evidence of an arrest, no graves, nothing.
Through all this, the military junta still received support from the United States government, which was more concerned about protecting the Western Hemisphere from leftist elements.
Overestimating U.S. support, the military junta tried to increase popular approval by retaking the Falkland Islands from the British. But the U.S. supported Britain’s counterattack. The operation’s failure was partly to blame for the military junta’s loss of support from the people. Elections in 1983 returned a civilian government to power, which ended the disappearances, but granted immunity to the perpetrators, a pragmatic compromise to appease the still-powerful military. Relatives of the disappeared protested for years, demanding to know what happened to their loved ones and to see justice. The “Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo” met at 3:30 every Thursday for over two decades to protest the seven-year massacre and to honor their ‘disappeared’ children.
One crime the perpetrators didn’t receive immunity for was the kidnapping of children. During the ‘Dirty War’, hundreds of babies were taken from their ‘disappeared’ parents and given to families who supported the junta. It was for these kidnapping charges that many perpetrators were eventually convicted.
In the late 1980’s and 90’s the government chose to return many of the Children of the Disappeared, like Christina, to their biological grandparents.
In 2002 the Argentina National Congress declared March 24, the anniversary of the coup, as the Día Nacional de la Memoria por la Verdad y la Justicia—the Day of Memory for Truth and Justice.
Today is the annual Alasitas festival in Bolivia’s capital city of La Paz.
Alasitas isn’t a Spanish word but an Aymara one. It means something akin to “Buy me.” And if you thought El Norte held a monopoly on consumerism, don’t put your money on it.
Alasitas is all about prosperity in the coming year. People buy miniatures of whatever it is they hope to achieve. Actually it’s better luck if someone else buys it for you. And you can buy just about anything for what your heart desires: miniature houses, miniature cars, miniature diplomas. Even miniature barber shops for aspiring hair stylists.
It’s not all about materialism though. There are miniature symbols of love for those seeking their soulmate. And miniature divorce certificates for those on the other end of the spectrum.
But the most omnipresent celebrant of the festivities is a little chubby guy named Ekeko. Imagine a cross between a cherub and your cigar-chomping great uncle Luigi. (I don’t have a great uncle Luigi but if I did, I imagine that’s what he’d look like.)
Ekeko is the Aymara god of abundance. Ekeko, like Alasitas itself, is one of those pagan traditions the Spanish never fully wiped out. Small Ekeko idols can be found at every shop and vendor’s stand.
They did manage to change the date of Alasitas however. It was originally a harvest festival celebrated in September. It was changed to January 25 in the early 19th century to commemorate the victory of a famous battle.
Your good luck wish isn’t complete until you have your miniatures blessed by one of the many priests wandering through the streets just for the occasion.
This year Alasitas precedes a momentous event in Bolivian history. Tomorrow Bolivians will vote on a new constitution. President Evo Morales calls it a milestone for indigenous peoples:
This fine land belongs to us: Aymaras, Quechuas, Guaranies, Chiquitanos … The rights of those that were born in this land are recognized in the new constitution. — Reuters
An Aymara Indian, Morales is the country’s first indigenous President, even though indigenous descendants make up over half Bolivia’s population. He’s also a controversial left-wing leader, whose nationalization policies have received criticism from the previously right-wing government. Politics is personal in Bolivia; clashes have led to violence over the past couple of years.
The Catholic Church has not taken an official stance in the political debate, but one group calling itself “Iglesias Re Unidas (Reunited Churches) opposes the new constitution with the slogan, “Choose God. Vote No.”
Either way, as the vote falls one day after the start of Alasitas, you can bet Ekeko will have his say.
Today is the Foundation Day of Peru’s capital city. Francisco Pizarro founded Lima on January 18, 1535 as La Ciudad de los Reyes (City of Kings). Pizarro has been at various times the most reviled, revered, and again reviled figure in South American history.
Pizarro was a Spanish soldier in Panama who earned his stripes by bringing his former commander, pig-farmer-turned-Conquistador Vasco Nunez de Balboa, to Balboa’s rival, Governor Dávila. Dávila tried Balboa and his associates for allegedly betraying the Spanish crown and had them immediately decapitated. Dávila rewarded Pizarro by making him mayor of Panama City.
In the 1520’s, stories of gold and riches filtered north from the land that would be Peru. Pizarro joined forces with a priest (Luque) and a soldier (Almagro) to lead an expedition south in search of these treasures.
Their first expedition was a dismal failure. And while the second expedition succeeded in bringing back some treasure, it wasn’t enough to entice Panama’s new governor to approve a third. Not one to take ‘no’ for an answer, Pizarro sailed to Spain, and attained funding directly from King Charles and Queen Isabella.
Pizarro returned to Peru with less than 200 men. The Battle of Cajamarco in 1532, between those soldiers and, according to Spanish accounts, 80,000 Incas, is perhaps the most staggering military upset in recorded history.
The small pox virus, brought by Europeans, helped. Not only had small pox devastated the Incan population, it killed the previous ruler, leading to a civil war between the king’s sons.
Atahuallpa, the apparent victor of the fraternal struggle, commanded an army of tens of thousands. When he was invited to meet Pizarro at Cajamarca, he didn’t consider a force of 200 men any threat.
Historian Jared Diamond combines the testimony of 6 Spanish eyewitnesses into a full description of the battle in the chapter “Collision at Cajamarco” from Guns, Germs, and Steel, the text of which can be found here. Go there. Read it. Now.
“On reaching the entrance to Cajamarca, we saw the camp of Atahuallpa… We were so few in number and we had penetrated so far into a land where we could not hope to receive reinforcements. The Governor’s brother Hernando Pizarro estimated the number of Indian soldiers there at 40,000, but he was telling a lie just to encourage us, for there were actually more than 80,000 Indians.
Through a messenger, Francisco Pizarro invited Atahuallpa to meet with him at Cajamarco, promising, ‘I will receive him as a friend and brother… No harm or insult will befall him.’
“At noon Atahuallpa began to draw up his men and to approach…In front of Atahuallpa went 2,000 Indians who swept the road ahead of him… Many of us urinated without noticing it, out of sheer terror…”
“Governor Pizarro now sent Friar Vicente de Valverde to go speak to Atahuallpa… the Friar thus addressed him: ‘I am a Priest of God, and I teach Christians the things of God… What I teach is that which God says to using this Book…’
Atahuallpa opened the Bible, and showing no expression, tossed it on the ground.
“The Friar returned to Pizarro, shouting, ‘Come out! Come out, Christians! Come at these enemy dogs who reject the things of God. That tyrant has thrown my book of holy law to the ground!…’
“…The booming of the guns, the blowing of the trumpets, and the rattles on the horses threw the Indians into panicked confusion. The Spaniards fell upon them and began to cut them to pieces…
“Although we killed the Indians who held the litter, others at once took their places and held it aloft…Atahuallpa was captured, and the Governor took Atahuallpa to his lodging. The Indians carrying the litter, and those escorting Atahuallpa, never abandoned him: all died around him…
“When the squadrons of Indians who had remained in the plain outside the town saw the other Indians fleeing and shouting, most of them too panicked and fled. It was an astonishing sight, for the whole valley for 15 or 20 miles was completely filled with Indians…
“Six or even thousand Indians lay dead, and many more had their arms cut off and other wounds… It was extraordinary to see so powerful a ruler captured in so short a time, when he had come with such a mighty army. Truly, it was not accomplished by our own forces, for there were so few of us. It was by the grace of God…“
Pizarro explained to Atahuallpa that God permitted his defeat so that “you may know Him and come out from the bestial and diabolical life that you lead… When you have seen the errors in which you live, you will understand the good that we have done you…”
Atahuallpa offered to fill a large room with gold and treasure for his release. After Atahuallpa made good on his promise, Pizarro executed him anyway. But not before baptizing him.
Pizarro paved the way for three centuries of Spanish colonization in Peru. He crushed Cuzco and set up the city of Jauja as his capital in 1534, but it was too remote. The following year he established Lima; he later claimed that the creation of Lima was the greatest thing he ever did.
Today Lima’s 7.8 million residents celebrate the 475th anniversary of Pizarro’s founding, though its founder has grown less and less popular in Peru in recent decades. (I can’t imagine why.)
Here upon the plains
The Great Calichuchima
Was burnt at the stake by the conquistadores;
From the flames he called upon the sun for justice.
Now with its golden figure the same sun
Points to you, Pizarro,
The greatest criminal of the New World.
— Jorge Carrera Andrade, “El Pacificador” (about Pizarro’s brother Gonzalo)
Bernardo O’Higgins is known as the liberator and national hero of Chile, but he had humble beginnings.
He was the illegitimate son of an Irish engineer and a young Chilean socialite. His father Ambrosio, had been a servant boy in Ireland. Ambrosio emigrated to Spain as a young man, then to Spain’s colonies in the Americas. He settled in Peru, studied to be an engineer, and eventually worked his way up to becoming the Spanish Viceroy of Peru, the highest office in Spain’s greatest colony.
It’s believed that Bernardo never met his father; he was raised by his mother’s family. But through correspondence Ambrosio made it possible for Bernardo to be schooled in England. Bernardo lived briefly to Spain where he met the future Argentinean liberator Jose de San Martin. When he returned to Chile, Bernardo took his father’s name, O’Higgins, and was determined to fight for an independent Chile.
As with other South and Central American colonies, Chile’s initial declaration of independence can be seen as a bizarre act of loyalty to Spanish royal family. Chile refused to recognize Napoleon’s appointment of his brother to the throne of Spain, after the French emperor had deposed the royal family in Madrid. At a public meeting on September 18, 1810, Chileans demanded that the Spanish government in Chile be replaced with a junta of Chilean citizens.
By the time Spain regained control of its homeland and expelled Napoleon’s forces from Iberia, the South American colonies had already tasted independence, and it tasted good.
Bernardo served as a soldier, an officer, and then as one of three leaders of the Chilean rebel forces. But he was defeated by the Spanish, and was forced to retreat east to Argentina. He crossed the Andes to combine forces with his old friend San Martin. After liberating Argentina, he and San Martin made the most spectacular military maneuver in South American history. The entire army crossed the Andes mountains, fell on Santiago from above, and drove out the Spanish.
San Martin took the army north to drive the Spanish out of their stronghold in Peru. O’Higgins remained in Chile to become that country’s first leader. Five years later, when political elements demanded his resignation, he stepped down without a fight, and went into voluntary exile in Peru, where he lived the rest of his life.
“Since my childhood I have loved Chile; and I have shed my blood on the battle-fields which secured her liberties. If it has not been my privilege to perfect her institutions, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I am leaving her free and independent, respected abroad, and glorious in her victories.”
The Chileans celebrate Dieceocho with a slew of Fiestas Patrias, parades, feasts, and open-air dances that go on for days. The day after Independence Day is Armed Forces Day, the main event of which is a large military parade through the capital.
Over a hundred years ago a territorial dispute over the Argentina-Chile border in the Andes nearly led to war between the two nations. The conflict was settled diplomatically. Soon after, a statue of Christ was erected between Argentina and Chile, atop the mountains O’Higgins and San Martin once scaled together. The plaque reads:
“Sooner shall these mountains crumble into dust, than Chileans and Argentines shall break the peace to which they have pledged themselves at the feet of Christ the Redeemer.”