Produced in 1979, translated into 1,100 languages, available as a free interactive application both on iTunes and Google Play; the Jesus film “…is perhaps the most-viewed motion picture of all time” according to The New York Times, as many as 2 billion views the BBC reported in 2003…today the website representing the film claims “6 billion views worldwide”. The majority of these views designed to take place in the most ‘unreached’ areas of the world as the film is used by Christian evangelists working to convert populations who have potentially never heard of Jesus or do not have a single Christian among them.
An example of one such missionary crusade – an organization in my home state of Colorado – “Joshua Project is a research initiative seeking to highlight the ethnic people groups with the fewest followers of Jesus Christ” quoted from their website. A visitor to this website can easily access details about “Unreached People” around the world, organize missionary activities and check the “Unreached of the Day” calendar with lists of customized prayers. After acknowledging the political function the missionary tradition performs in terms of spreading religious “reach”, after addressing the inherent power of privilege and class divide that a potential interaction between missionary and ‘unreached’ groups presents, such an intensity of emotional urgency to inform on a perceived dearth of spirit regardless of invitation is what remains curious for me.
Growing up in my father’s house and in his commercial design office, both filled with his curated collections of Mexican art, I gradually became aware of distinct artistic traditions and their correlating geographical origins. When I learned of the Wixáritari (Huichol in Spanish) I was surprised there was not more of their art represented in my fathers collection. And when I decided to move to Guadalajara I saw my opportunity to explore beyond my fathers cartography and into the unknown. This quickly grew into a quest of a reasonable size and it was not long after arriving in Mexico when I announced my interest in ‘staying with the Huichol’ to Antonio. Completely inexperienced in planning either the intellectual or logistical goals for such an impulse, I asked him to help me. Soon after I realized that the situation was far more complex than I had understood.
First, the Huichol are historically a highly private people and very rarely welcomed strangers into their communities and second, they had long been the conversion target of Catholic missionaries traveling from Guadalajara. Combined with the fact that Antonio and his family were highly religious themselves (attending Catholic mass every single morning) their participation, even facilitation, of my exposure to an animistic “blue-deer worshipping-people” was…questionable. In the end, after months of persisting, Antonio found a way to negotiate between his spiritual hesitation and the loyalty to my fathers – and by extension my – artistic appreciation. One afternoon he took me to the Templo Expiatorio del Santísimo Sacramento, a neo-Gothic style cathedral stretching its spires skywards from central Guadalajara. After consulting with the local religious authorities in Tlaquepaque, Anotnio had secured an audience with a church official responsible for contact with the Huichol. Unaware of this plan until it was already happening, I quickly found myself confronted with a decision. Was the ‘how’ important to me? It was. Although extremely appreciative of my friends efforts to stretch significantly outside of his well-defined comfort zone, I declined the offer to join a group of missionaries attempting to gain access to a group of Huichol living north of the city.
This was the first of many ethical crossroads I would encounter as I continued my travels that year and ultimately it set the tone, color and texture of my life as an anthropologist.
The light of the tunnel eventually faded and we were birthed into a dark, sleeping town of colonial masonry. Almost immediately a boy of ten ran alongside the car and offering himself as guide. Initially our auto response denied him the chance to do so, but after driving on for a few blocks without seeing any signs of other options, he climbed right into the car with us and began pointing us down the narrow streets and around the plaza until we stopped in front of an imposing set of wooden doors. Calling passwords out to an invisible host, the doors opened and we were greeted by a middle-aged man, who had obviously been asleep somewhere inside moments ago. We parked the car and tipped our young guide before the heavy doors were closed behind us.
The man casually led us through the courtyard, passing a thriving garden of potted plants and drying laundry until we reached a small room at the back of the building. Before leaving us to rest, we asked about horses, actually my friend wanted a donkey, but I definitely was interested in a full-sized horse. Without explaining further he responded with a sleepy nod and replied “Si, si mañana. / Yes, yes tomorrow.” as if the initial request his guests always made was for a horse at sunrise. The donkey, he paused reflecting, may not be possible… but “mañana” either way.
We needed toothpaste and I needed a snack, so by default it was me who returned back out into he night in search of a tiendita. I found one still open at the far end of the plaza, out front an animated group of teenagers were playing foosball on an aging table below a flickering fluorescent bulb and a smoking griddle was keeping an older man company as we watched in his periphery. I ordered three tacos without meat and was served a mystified pile of grilled onions and bell peppers in corn tortillas before returning to our quiet room. It was dark and surprisingly cold when the alarm roused us the next morning.
Unsure if we had clearly expressed ourselves the night before, we made our way back through the courtyard and the still quiet building beginning to doubt if in fact horses would be waiting for us. Passing through a collage of sprouting plastic bottles, leafy terra-cotta and prolific recycled cans of all kinds we noticed a single light had been switched on near the entrance. Turning the corner three large horses dominated the doorway, their frosty breath forced out in plumes from moist nostrils, as they waited impatiently. No donkey. A quick discussion about the price to time ratio has satisfactorily agreed upon by all involved, we were launched atop leather saddles and were following a young man out of the cobbled stone and onto a dirt path out of the town.
The sky was slowly fading to violet and the stars seemed to contrast against it even more fantastically. The vegetation around me was unlike anything I had ever seen. In town the roads were dry and dusty, coating your mouth with a residue of desert as you took breath. But atop the horse and making my way into the mountains which grew upwards in every direction from the sleepy plaza, we had entered a soft green, low lying lushness that was completely unexpected. Dew clung to everything and in it appeared the first signs of sunlight as the water droplets began to refract light with a gradual intensity illuminating our silent climb upwards. The horses circled, our guide indicated a place for us to dismount and he took the leather reigns from us without a word exchanged.
The Sierra Madre Occidental reached their own spires of rock and earth skywards and sunlight began to breach the diffused humid glow of dawn, until finally spilling over their peaks and into green valleys, layered infinitely towards the horizon. Our guide had led us to that peak specifically because of a building no taller than 10 feet. Displayed prominently on the ground in front of the building was a repeating circular design of gathered stones and inside the structure was filled with countless Ojo de Dios – God’s Eye, one of the principal forms of Huichol religious artwork. Called Sikuli in the native dialect, the brightly colored weaving of yarn around branches or wooden sticks in a pattern that is meant to represent “the power to see and understand things unknown” and sometimes are understood to be direct representations of the experience a Huichol has had looking directly into the eyes of god. As the morning warmed the air around us, birds began to replace stars, and I was certain of my decision. Although my adventure had not led me to “staying with the Huichol” I had been able to understand a part of why they so seldom gave access to those who would attempt to convince them something was missing.