On December 29, 1953, S. Vernon McCasland began his Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) Presidential Address with the following words:
Once each year with undisguised premeditation the members of this
Society subject themselves to an address of unpredictable length
and quality by one of their own colleagues, and in advance they cast the
mantle of charity about whatever may be brought forth. This annual
venture of faith is nothing less than a demonstration of the impregnable
optimism of the professional species to which we belong.
In his quasquicentennial review of SBL presidential addresses, Patrick Gray notes, “In most years, the audience for the presidential address is larger than the audience for any other scholarly address devoted to the Bible anywhere in the world.” After its presentation by the outgoing president as the last official act of the yearlong term of office (an act described by Fernando Segovia in his own 2014 presidential address as the “main function” of that charge), the presidential address receives a position of honor in the opening pages of the first issue of the following year’s volume of the Journal of Biblical Literature (JBL).
For all intents and purposes, it would appear that for the SBL, the ritual practices associated with the presidential address fall in line with the ritualization of the three dimensions of scripture outlined by James W. Watts, and as explained by Professor Jacqueline Hidalgo. These are the “semantic dimension,” that is, “the practices of interpretation that attend to ‘the meaning of what is written’;” the “performative dimension,” that dimension “wherein aspects of the words and/or the content/larger ideas of a scripture are performed;” and an “iconic dimension,” namely, “visual and artistic representations of scriptures, especially visualizations that ‘distinguish [scriptures] from other books’.”
By attending to “Revelation in Aztlán” in her study of Chicanx use of scriptures during the civil rights era (focusing especially on El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán and El Plan de Santa Barbara), Professor Hidalgo is eminently successful in grappling with the question of why people scripturalize. She describes her work as a matter of “thinking about Chicanx engagement of ‘scriptures’ as concept and practice, while also contextualizing those engagements within the legacies of biblical imaginations of the Americas by concentrating on the book of Revelation.” In so doing, I would—somewhat playfully but quite seriously—suggest that Professor Hidalgo is carefully attending to, engaging with, and successfully advancing critical practices set before us in El Plan de Vincent Wimbush, by which I mean Vincent Wimbush’s 2010 SBL presidential address, entitled, “Interpreters—Enslaving/Enslaved/Runagate.” Wimbush urged the SBL to be about the business of “talkin’ about somethin’” and pointedly asks:
How can we be students of Scriptures in this century at this moment without making our agenda a radically humanistic science or art, excavating human politics, discourse, performances, power relations, the mimetic systems of knowing we may call scripturalization? How can we remain a Society only of Biblical Literature and not of comparative Scriptures? How can we in this big international tent in this century of globalization not include as our focus the problematics of “Scriptures” of all the other major social-cultural systems of the world as well the older dynamic systems of scripturalizing of the so-called smaller societies? How exciting and compelling and renegade would be a Society of interpreters that excavates all representations of Scriptures in terms of discourse and power!
In her book, Professor Hidalgo takes up Wimbush’s challenge and very impactfully talks “about somethin’”. Revelation in Aztlán is not by any means business-as-usual for biblical studies! The business-as-usual of the guild is vividly sketched by Wimbush in the following terms:
With its fetishization of the rituals and games involving books and THE BOOK, its politics of feigning apolitical ideology, it’s still all too simple historicist agenda (masking in too many instances unacknowledged theological-apologetic interests), its commitment to “sticking to the text,” its orientation in reality has always contributed to and reflected a participation in “sticking it” to the gendered and racialized Others.
What does “talkin’ about somethin’” involve? Wimbush insists: “plainly put: there can be no critical interpretation worthy of the name, without coming to terms with the first contact—between the West and the rest, the West and the Others—and its perduring toxic and blinding effects and consequences.” Revelation in Aztlán succeeds in doing just that, examining not only the ways in which readings of Revelation—that is, John’s Apocalypse—powerfully shaped the colonization of the Americas beginning in 1492, but also the perduring effects and consequences of that first contact on the Chicanx movement centuries later, on its people and on their scripturalizing practices. By attending to El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán and El Plan de Santa Barbara), as well as Cherrie Moraga’s “Codex Xerí,” among other textual formations, Professor Hidalgo is mindful of the critique that Wimbush levels against the guild: “How can the ever more sophisticated methods and approaches of the operations of its diverse members focused on a single text tradition or, at most, two complexly related text traditions, avoid functioning as apologetics—for the nation or empire and satellite orders?” As a fellow member of the rather small circle of Latinx critics who attend to apocalypse, I would also give a shout-out to David Sánchez, who also succeeds in “talkin’ about somethin’” in From Patmos to the Barrio, another incisive example of business-NOT-as usual in biblical studies.
CRITICAL CONSIDERATIONS: EXCAVATING FIRST CONTACT IN OU/EUTOPIA
Permit me to continue these reflections in conversation with Professor Hidalgo’s important—and, I would venture to suggest, even game-changing—book by inviting us to be conveyed by these pages en pneumati to a place that is betwixt-and-between, an island that is now an ou-topia (an uninhabited no-place) that was once an eu-topia (a good place). Located thirty-eight miles from the east coast of the island that the Taínos called Haytí and forty-one miles from the west coast of the island that the Taínos called Borikén, we travel to an island that the Taínos called Amona, a name that means “what is in the middle,” a name that is entirely appropriate for the purpose of our brief visit.
Situated between the Dominican Republic to the west and Puerto Rico to the east, this small island that covers only twenty-two square miles has no native inhabitants, and it is now designated as the Reserva Natural Isla de Mona, the Mona Island Nature Reserve. Sometimes called the Galapagos of the Caribbean, Mona’s only regular occupants are employees of Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (Departamento de Recursos Naturales y Ambientales, DRNA), including biologists and other scientists who go there to conduct research on the island’s rich and rare flora and fauna, together with the police and rangers who attend to the campers and other visitors, with no more than one hundred visitors at a time permitted on the island.
We are not the first non-indigenous visitors to make our way to this island-in-the-middle because of John’s Apocalypse. Christopher Columbus preceded us by more than five centuries, having made his way to Mona in 1494 during his second journey to the Americas, the second of four such transatlantic journeys that were motivated—he claimed—by an urgent sense of eschatological mission. In a letter to Doña Juana de Torres, nurse to the late Prince Juan, son of Fernando and Isabela, probably written in 1500 when Columbus was being returned to Spain in chains, he insisted, “God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth of which he spoke through Saint John in the Apocalypse, after having spoken of it through Isaiah, and he showed me to that location.” Yet what has brought us en pneumati to the island of Mona is not Columbus’ biblically scripted concern with “the islands of the sea.” Neither have we journeyed here in an Endzeit als Urzeit return-to-Eden move, escaping for a little while to Mona’s unspoiled beaches in a wishful flight from all everything that so profoundly disturbs us in the days after 11/8/2016. What we have come for is to explore—perhaps even to excavate—the implications of an encounter that has left its centuries-old marks well below the surface of this place-in-the-middle. I have brought us here especially inspired by chapter six of Professor Hidalgo’s book, and by Figure 1.1 in chapter one.
As archaeologist Jago Cooper and his co-authors have noted, “Isla de Mona is one of the most cavernous regions, per square kilometer, in the world. Limestone cliffs predominate, providing access to the island’s 200 Pliocene-era cave systems in the geological interface between the hard, lower Isla de Mona Dolomite and the porous upper Lirio limestone.” Thus far, some seventy of these extensive cave systems have been explored, and some thirty of these show evidence of use by the indigenous population. What is most remarkable is the discovery that these caves contain thousands of examples of Taíno cave art—the largest assemblage of such art anywhere in the Caribbean—with archaeologists recently announcing the results of radiocarbon uranium-thorium analysis to conclude that these images date to the late pre-Columbian period (13th to 15th centuries CE). The images, some drawn with charcoal, others with wet paints, and most created by scraping the soft surface of the cave walls either with fingers or with finger-sized tool, include “figurative-geometric motifs, facial iconography, and animal/human bodies.”
Most of the images are found in dark zones of the caves, that is, areas where no natural light is available, and they are “closely related to water sources, whether seasonal drip pools, or underwater lakes.” As Cooper and his colleagues explain:
There is a clear association between underground sources of fresh water and concentrations of indigenous mark-making. The role of the caves as a source of life-giving water is referenced in the iconography. The markings on the cave walls and extraordinary acoustic, olfactory and haptic properties of the environment offer a powerful experience of alterity, enhanced by the lack of usual sensory stimulation, disorientating and heightening awareness, and morphing perceptions of spaces and time. Hundreds of metres underground, torch or lamplight flickering across representations of cemies on walls and ceilings, some reflected in pools of water, would have made a powerful impression on all visitors to the caves.
As archaeologist Alice V.M. Samson explains, the European colonizers quickly enough became aware of the symbolic significance of these sites to the indigenous Taínos: “In a treatise on indigenous religion written at the time of Columbus’ first voyages to the Americas, Fray Ramón Pané named specific caves in Hispaniola from where indigenous peoples believed the first humans emerged, and where the sun and the moon originated.” She also notes that it was Fray Pané who was the first European to refer to rock art in the Americas, “describing a painted cave (‘toda pintada a su modo’), much revered, called Iguaboína, where objects with ancestral agency (zemies) resided. Associated with indigenous cosmogonies and with life-nourishing water, these caves were eutopian spaces, places apart from the daily life that took place in the villages up above them.
For the purposes of the present discussion, we will have to make our way to cave 18. To do so, even if only en pneumati, we can only reach it “by traversing the foot of a cliff, climbing a vertiginous cliff face and scrambling through a human-sized entrance. Chambers and tunnels run for more than 1 km…Tunnels emerge into a series of low rooms, high vaulted chambers and areas of water pools and flowstone. After around 50m of walking, in darkness,” we encounter “the material record of indigenous, followed by historic mark-making.” Some two hundred and fifty indigenous images cover “the walls, ceilings and alcoves in 10 chambers and interconnecting tunnels over some 6500m2,” and these images can be dated to the 14th and 15th centuries CE, that is, to the late pre-Columbian period.
What sets cave 18 apart from the many others where indigenous images have been found is that this cave also contains more than thirty inscriptions made by Europeans early in the sixteenth century, among them “phrases in Latin and Spanish, names, dates and Christian symbols…all within the area of indigenous iconography.” Archaeologists have determined that the technique used for these images and inscriptions was different from the indigenous finger-fluted techniques, the single-lined strokes indicating instead the use of edged tools. In contrast to the indigenous iconography, the Christian marks are “predominantly at or above (European) head height, occupying flat, vertical wall surfaces and visible while walking upright through the space.” Evidence in support of the conclusion that the Christian marks and inscriptions are later than the indigenous images is provided by the finding that “there are no indigenous marks overlaying written inscriptions or Christian symbols.”
Among the thirty or so Christian inscriptions, there are seventeen crosses, some of them more elaborate than others. With respect to their location, Jacobs et al. explain that the “Crosses are placed in visually dominant positions on cave entrances or on high walls, most being set vertically above indigenous iconography rather than superimposed.” These archeologists go on to observe that “This vertical ordering is a clear and cross-culturally understood visual convention of hierarchical relations, and seen elsewhere in rock art sites across the Americas.” In addition to the crosses there are several christograms (IHS), incised in the walls of cave 18. If the Christian inscriptions in Mona’s cave 18 amounted to no more than crosses and christograms, we could easily enough conclude that this practice amounted to no more than a somewhat subtler variant of the Spanish practice of burning the indigenous Mesoamerican codices, to which Professor Hidalgo refers in chapter six of her book. The positioning of the crosses above the indigenous images, and the use of edged tools to inscribe them are unmistakable expressions of colonial dominance and of the symbolic conquest, subjugation and subordination of indigenous scripts. Yet it is curious that the colonizers appear to have made no effort whatsoever to erase or to deface the Taíno glyphs, nor did they superimpose Christian symbols over them.
The negotiations between indigenous Taíno and Spanish colonizer signs and symbols are further complicated by the three inscriptions—one in Spanish and two in Latin—found in cave 18, all of which date to the sixteenth century. Perhaps these inscriptions shed indirect light on the non-erasure of the Taíno glyphs. The Spanish inscription reads, “Dios te perdone,” (May God forgive you) while the Latin inscriptions read “plura fecit Deus” (God made many things), and “Verbum caro factum est” (the Word was made flesh). In an interview published in The Guardian shortly after the publication of the archaeological research team that explored cave 18, Alice Samson the team’s co-leader noted, “We have this idea of when the first Europeans came to the New World of them imposing a very rigid Christianity. We know a lot about the inquisition in Mexico and Peru and the burning of libraries and the persecution of indigenous religions,” and then explaining, if somewhat breathlessly, “What we are seeing in this Caribbean cave is something different. This is not zealous missionaries coming with their burning crosses, they are people engaging with a new spiritual realm and we get individual responses in the cave and it is not automatically erasure, it is engagement.”
Stepping back to consider each of the three inscriptions individually, I would suggest much more modestly that each offers a specific and very local take at a moment of first contact “between the West and the rest, the West and the Others” in the early decades of the Spanish colonial project in the Americas. We know very little about the individual or individuals who were responsible for the inscriptions. Even though the Spanish inscriptions in cave 18 include the names of several individuals and dates (1550 and 1554), there is no indication that they were responsible either for the crosses or for any of the inscriptions. Yet, according to Cooper et al., another visitor added his name—Bernardo—to the inscription “Verbum caro factum est,” indicating that he was responsible for the inscription. This Bernardo, according to the archaeologists, was an ecclesiastical official, a canon. Why did these individuals, Miguel Rypoll (1550), Alonso Pérez Roldán el Mozo (1550), and August and Alonso de Contreras (1554) inscribe their names and the year of their visit to cave 18? Was there any more to this than the sort of practice that persists to this day whereby tourists make their mark on a place to signify that they have been there?
With regard to “Dios te perdone,” Cooper and his colleagues suggest that this “common Christian petition” “implies a separation between the author and the subjects, or acts that require forgiveness, and the intercessional role of the author.” “Another implication,” they suggest, “is that the attendant practices, now invisible to us, require forgiveness as well as the images themselves.” Whatever else the author of the inscription may have thought, the inscription suggests that the individual or the individuals who were responsible for the Taíno images had committed an offense against the Christian deity. Of the three inscriptions, this first contact reaction to the unfamiliar scripture is the most resistant to the Taíno “text.” Whether or not the Spanish commentator actually understood significance of the glyphs to the Taínos, “Dios te perdone” implies that the Taíno glyphs are evidence that a sin of idolatry has been committed.
A second inscription, “plura fecit Deus,” (God made many things) suggests a substantially different position vis-à-vis this instance of first contact between someone from the West and the rest. Samson, Cooper, and Caamaño-Dones note that similar phrases appear in the widely circulated Speculum Maius, an encyclopedia authored by Dominican friar Vincent of Beauvais. If so, they suggest, “the words are an expression of wonderment at the indigenous ceremonial space.” Yet, if “the phrase is a spontaneous reaction, its very brevity and inarticulateness, may be a genuine expression of awe.” “Plura fecit Deus” indicates at the very least a sense of wonderment at the assemblage of Taíno iconography in such a spectacular and inaccessible space, “homing” the indigenous texts in a Christian worldview by attributing these texts to the work of the Christian deity among whose manifold works they belong.
For the purposes of these reflections, “Verbum caro factum est” is the most compelling of the three inscriptions. A quotation from the Vulgate translation of John 1:14, the inscription frames this encounter between a Spaniard and the Taino glyphs very explicitly as an encounter between texts. The Christian text served Bernardo, the sixteenth century Spanish visitor to cave 18 who inscribed it there, as a prism through which the Taino texts could be understood and contextualized within a European Christian frame of reference. It might be possible to interpret this inscription as a matter of pushback against the cave’s indigenous iconography, taking “Verbum caro factum est” as an affirmation of the primacy of text (verbum) over image. Yet the importance of images in sixteenth century Iberian Catholicism suggests another direction in reading this expression as we find it in the soft limestone of a cave deep below the surface of the place-in-the-middle that is Mona.
Cooper and his colleagues write, “This well-known chapter of the Bible would have been familiar to even to Christians without formal Latin education.” Yet the phrase and its deployment in this instance of first contact between the West and the rest should be understood against the background of what was taking place in Spain just as these encounters between indigenous peoples and Spanish colonizers were taking place an ocean away. From 1572 to 1576, Fray Luis de León was imprisoned by the Inquisition at Valladolid because he was alleged to have critiqued the Vulgate, and because he had translated the Song of Songs from Hebrew into Spanish. A renowned poet, theologian, and translator, Fray Luis advanced an important theology of the vernacular, a framework that he put into practice in his own work at a time in the history of the Catholic Church when translations of biblical books were regarded with deep suspicion. At the Council of Trent, for example, the Spanish cardinals Pacheco and Alfonso de Castro considered such translations “mothers of heresy,” insisting on tight control over texts and their diffusion.”
What, then, might the otherwise unknown cleric Bernardo possibly have meant by inscribing “Verbum caro factum est” in the sacred space of cave 18? While we can only speculate, might it possibly be that Bernardo regarded the Taíno iconography he encountered there as scripture, as sacred texts in a sacred place in the Taíno vernacular, whether or not he had the slightest inkling of what it signified? Could it be that the particularity of which John 1:14 speaks, that is, the enfleshment of the logos in a particular body, in a particular place, at a particular moment did not and does not exclude other incarnations in other particular vernaculars? John 1:14 ends with “et vidimus gloriam eius” (we have seen his glory). Could it be that Bernardo was suggesting that he caught a glimpse of that glory in the Taíno iconographic vernacular of cave 18? If that was the case—and we can only speculate—then might we possibly find ourselves with an instance of first contact where the Christian scripture was not brought to bear on the Other in order to efface or to erase?
There is much that remains unknown about what happened in cave 18 and the hundreds of other cave complexes on the island-in-the-middle, and much remains to be excavated and explored by archaeologists and other researchers. While the thirty or so sixteenth century Christian inscriptions give us some clues about what the Spanish colonizers made of the indigenous petroglyphs, the Taíno side of the conversation is no longer available to us. We do know that there was a church on the surface of the island, and that Taínos on the island at the time of the Spanish colonization were baptized and catechized, but there is no record of what they may or may not have said to the newly-arrived Europeans about the caves or about the symbolism of the iconography that they and their ancestors created.
Furthermore, the story does not have a happy ending. By the end of the sixteenth century, there were no longer any Taínos living on Amona, and so the place that for centuries had been an eutopia became an outopia, not because the place where they lived had disappeared but because they had been displaced. As for cave 18, the sad irony is that the lasting testimony it bears—carved in stone—to this instance of first contact between the indigenous scriptures of the Taínos and the Christian Bible of the Spanish colonizers, were read by we know not whom until 2013 when archaeologists Cooper and Samson and their colleagues began to explore the eu/outopia beneath the island’s surface. We have no idea of whether or not insights like theirs may have informed the debates at Valladolíd in 1550 between Bartolomé de las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepulveda.
AMONA AND AZTLÁN
What, if anything, has Amona to do with Aztlán? While I want to resist a correlational move, I would offer that in the middle of the sixteenth century, far from their native Spain, in a cave below the surface of the place-in-the-middle, Christian colonizers found themselves in a place full of signifiers not of their own making, entirely different from the Christian scriptures with which they were familiar. They were neither masters of the sacred space in which they found themselves, nor were they masters of the texts that surrounded themselves there. In the dark spaces of cave 18 they inscribed their first impressions of the scripturalizing of the Taínos who inhabited that island for many centuries before their arrival. Ranging from “Dios te perdone” to “Plura fecit Deus” to “Verbum caro factum est,” the inscriptions offer lasting—and still perplexing—testimony to moments when the colonizers found themselves overwhelmed by the abundant texts that surrounded them, an experience that would never have been theirs on the familiar soil of their own homeland. For the first time, in that liminal space below the surface of the place-in-the-middle, they had to reckon with very different scriptures that unsettled and even de-centered their own.
I would submit that Revelation in Aztlán demonstrates a complex and nuanced broadening of the category “scriptures” in its analysis of Chicanx processes of scripturalization. Even in that regard, the book does not engage in biblical studies business-as-usual by simply transferring the reading practices and strategies that the guild applies to ancient texts to the Chicanx texts under consideration. Those who approach Revelation in Aztlán expecting a line-by-line exegesis of the Plan Espiritual de Aztlán will come away disappointed, and I am glad about that. So too will those who expect that the book will begin with John’s Apocalypse and then move in straightforward linear fashion to discuss the appropriation of the biblical book in Chicanx texts. In so doing, the biblical text is de-centered and granted no privilege aside from the entirely appropriate acknowledgment of the breadth and the depth of its influence as Christian scripture.
In his contribution to True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, Vincent Wimbush offers this disclaimer:
I am not recommending that texts not be engaged. What I am suggesting is that we question taking up the master discursive intellectual project developed by masters in relation to the master text. I want to challenge us to think differently about and orient ourselves differently around interpretation, about what to interpret, where and how to begin, how to proceed, with what approaches, and with what agenda.
Revelation in Aztlán prods and provokes us to think differently. In so doing, this provocative book advances in important ways the reconfiguration and reorientation of academic biblical studies as charted in the Plan de Wimbush. The open-ended question with which I conclude these considerations is of how the reading strategies so well-deployed in Revelation in Aztlán also equip critics to wrestle with the strategies outlined in the Plan de Fernando Segovia, the agenda set forth in his 2014 SBL Presidential Address, “Criticism in Critical Times: Reflections on Vision and Task.” Reflecting on past presidential addresses, Segovia concludes that “in critical times presidents have kept the world of criticism and the world of politics quite apart from each other.” Segovia challenges us to imagine an interpretive project for our times, an approach that he provisionally calls “global-systemic,” and which has as its aim “to bring the field to bear upon the major crises of our post-Cold War Times.”