My host family runs the largest wood shop in the town. It was built around 20 years ago by my host dad Miguel and his brothers who since then dedicated their lives to sculpture-making. In this business, you have to start pretty early to master the craft. Miguel started when he was 15. Church-related sculptures make up for majority of orders they get, and the rest of orders come from private clients who ask for pieces of furniture and gifts for family and friends. I usually spend my afternoons in the wood shop, watching nine men carve exquisite sculptures out of pine and citrus wood, make furniture and restore old sculptures – of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and archangels.
As I chat with the guys and learn basics of wood carving, the atmosphere in the wood shop makes me think about magic realism. This genre is so prevalent in Latin American literature, and I get why. It seems like magic realism couldn’t be born anywhere else other than on this continent – amidst rainforest trees and vibrant colors, where people are loud and cheerful and the days are hot. In the wood shop, miraculous somehow is a part of mundane reality. It’s in the way Miguel hunches over a soon-to-be sculpture, tools in his hand give a rectangular piece of wood a human form. It’s in the way a wooden sculpture comes to life once two hand-painted glass eyeballs are put in their place from the inner side of the face.
My host mom Ximena is the only woman who works in the wood shop. I admire her for the sense of warmth she imparts to the people around her, her compassionate heart and entrepreneurial streak. She specializes in gilding. This means she applies fine sheets of gold to wooden altars, picture frames, sculptures, and so on. It’s done by hand and is a time-consuming work – Ximena can spend weeks working on one project. She likes to repeat that to be able to do gilding, you need to have a) good eyesight, and b) more patience than you do with your kids. While Miguel is a craftsman and solely enjoys making sculptures and furniture, Ximena is in charge of the business – she travels to Quito and the south to find more work, and is exceptionally good at talking to clients. No surprise she virtually runs the place.
I have a deep respect for all the people working in the wood shop for making a high quality work, showing professionalism and bearing with high competition in town, irregular income and hard work. For them, what they dedicate 40 hours per week to is more than just a job. They’re invested into making religious art not just for the profit, but because they believe in what those pieces of art represent – Catholic faith and its ideals, like the promise of heaven and the glory of God.
Religion can be a hard topic to talk about since it’s up for a personal interpretation and therefore is a controversial subject. Maybe that’s why I’m still trying to wrap my head around Catholicism in Ecuador – I’ve encountered here a belief system I wasn’t quite used to.
I was brought up by committed atheists and agnostics who preferred to be discrete about their beliefs. Growing up, my sisters and I have never been pressured into sharing the same views the rest of our family had, but neither have we been encouraged to make religion a part of our lives. And although my parents baptized us in the Orthodox Church, it carried more of a symbolic character than it was a sign of belief.
Fast forward to my second month in Ecuador, I started to live with a Catholic family; and to be completely honest, it really took me time to get used to the fact that daily life and faith go hand in hand in this household. From making religious art in the wood shop to saying a prayer before each meal, to using religious medicine, to believing that good and bad spirits live in our house. For the first time in my life, I saw someone directly conversing with Jesus about mundane problems. Many times I tried not to betray how unusual some of my family’s beliefs and practices seemed to me.
I thought my family interprets events in a way that fits their current beliefs only to realize how strong my own biases are; I understood that I hold on to specific beliefs just for the same reasons my family agrees with Catholic dogmas – we’ve been influenced by historical, geographical and social factors, let alone our constantly developing personal world-outlooks.
I’m constantly reminding myself to ask questions, for it’s the best way to understand why religion plays such a big role in lives of my family members. It’s the key for cultivating empathy and tolerance. The beautiful thing about humanity is the diversity of opinions. There is a great value in living with people who seem least like me and whose opinions oppose my own – it solidifies my view about the world that is growing more complex. After all, I realized that my detachment from religious practice can indeed exist alongside Bible readings, an occasional Sunday Mass, and a prayer.
This realization aside, there was another thing I wasn’t previously aware of. Since the first day I arrived to San Antonio, my attention was drawn to all kinds of images of Catholic saints in churches, houses, and wood shops. Saints were portrayed as white men.
This was striking indeed, keeping in mind where I was, and am at the moment, – in a country with a large dark-skinned mestizo population and numerous indigenous and Afro-Ecuatorian communities spread across Ecuador. Religious sculptures and paintings of people with light skin seemed out of place in a small town where no one nearly looked like those Biblical characters. Statues of Caucasian-looking Jesus pushed on his knees under the burden of the cross filled churches and wood shops. In our dining room, on the wall hung a four-foot image of a white Virgin Mary standing in a wreath of flowers, her hands joined together.
As I got more familiar with Catholic art in Ecuador, two questions occupied my mind: Why would people keep on making representations of Biblical characters in wood and on canvas that look so different from them? And is there a place for black, mestizo and indigenous people in this narrative?
I saw a certain damage in this one-sided representation of a Biblical narrative as it reinforces the idea of white supremacy if not in all Latin America but definitely in Ecuador. I started reading about it more, and a cause for this representation in Catholic church can be summed up in one paragraph, although to explain all factors one would need to write a book.
Sadly, but truly enough, such images is a result of Western hegemony and cultural imperialism of Europe that was brought to this land at high cost. Paganism has been a predominant religion in Latin America until recent years; and I say recent advisedly because in the great march of time Christianization of the indigenous populations started in sixteenth century didn’t happen so long ago. To seize a political control over the New World, hundreds of thousands of Indians were massacred while the rest was forced to convert into Catholicism. As the European colonialists spread Catholicism among the native populations, they lay the foundation of worshiping the White Man and the saints of “Western descent.”
At Pre-Departure Training at Stanford Stace Lindsay suggested us to look for anomalies when we travel. He said that things that stand out and exceptions to the rule bring to the surface complex issues that started in the past but influence of which can be traced to this day, even if it’s not talked about enough. For me in Ecuador, the major anomaly so far is an inadequate representation of Biblical characters and Catholic saints as white men in this context which disregards other ethnic and racial groups.