Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Imaginary and Nepantla in Chicano Dwellings

Chicano painting with Nepantla manifestations. See the Virgin Mary inside an Aztec image. The moon below is part of Virgen de Guadalupe image. Web download.

Interior space in Chicano dwellings contain clear manifestations of their Mexican culture. And more, because per their nature as Mexican immigrants’ descendants in USA, they create something new from the feeling of in-between-ness, a culture in-between other cultures as a junction between Anglo –Mexican- Indigenous culture. The sense of a group boundary still persists and this can be sustained by shared habits and characteristics, and the sense of a tied group with a common past. At this point, I want to introduce the concept of “Nepantla” which is considered as a transitional phase.

“Nepantla” is a Nahuatl (Aztec language) term connoting “in between”, “the space of the middle”. The postmodern paradigm refers to the creation of a New Middle, the rehabilitation from the colonial occupation as a psychological means of survival. Some literature authors refer to the term as living in “Borderlands” or cross roads, and the process of creating alternative spaces in which to live and work.
One strategy of cultural survival is the process of transculturation, as a reinterpretation of a cultural difference.
“Chicana and Latina spiritualities are diverse, they are complex, they are old, and they are new. They embody and reflect the ambiguity of mestizaje, the chaos and richness of the borderlands, and the tension and creativity of nepantla, a Nahua term, meaning in the middle.
Nepantla is not syncretism in the traditional sense, but an example of transculturation, or a continuous encounter of two or more divergent worldviews. Once the tensions of nepantla are understood and confronted, and the native Self is recovered and continuously healed, nepantla becomes a psychological, spiritual, and political space that Chicanas/os and Latinas/os and other marginalized peoples transform as a place of meaning-making. Nepantla spirituality does not exist merely to make us feel good. It is spirituality concerned with recovering ancestral ways rendered silent so that contemporary struggles for justice can be heard.”
(Excerpt from Nepantla Spirituality: Negotiating Multiple Identities, Faiths and Practices, by Lara Medina).

Nuestra Madre (Our Mother), acrylic by Yolanda Lopez. The Virgin of Guadalupe is transposed to an Aztec god image. Exposed breast and snakes are enough proof....1988.

Henry Lefevre (1999:33) suggests a triad of space that incorporates social actions.
1) Spatial practice: which embraces production and reproduction.
2) Representation of space, related to the production of “order”, as signs, codes.
3) Representational spaces, embodying complex symbolisms, sometimes coded, sometimes not, and generally related to the clandestine side of life. This is the space lived through its associated images and symbols that “This is the dominated –and hence passively experienced- space which the imagination seeks to change and appropriate. It overlays physical space, making symbolic use of its objects”. (H. Lefevre:39)
The third space or “Nepantla” would be included in the third classification.
The origins of “Nepantla” are close to the baroque images of the Spanish conquest period. The image is tied to space; however, the Aztec images have been in principle, erroneously contextualized in the medieval Latin environment of popular beliefs and terror; what has become to false categorizations. This way, the word image whose root comes from imago -ghost-, has gone through the ghost-demon-idol denomination. This last one, an object of annihilation, unless it becomes object of art... This idoloclastic scenario could not be separated from the Cortesian project, founded in the Iberian piety. The fixation of those "old Christian" with the images arose reinforced in the Reconquista.
The conquerors disembarked with colored and sculpted celestial images, among architectural volumes of “new” space organizations and, without being able to confirm the nonexistence of the autochthonous divinity by means of the substitution and absolute destruction, the persistence of the ambiguity of the imaginary was allowed, amidst partial destructions, exchanges, substitutions, and associations with the divinities of both universes, until conforming a new one imaginary as expression without speech of the organizational principle of the universe, reproduced everywhere.
The ancient institutions had been condemned, while the ones that friars imposed were still strange and incomprehensible. In consequence the natives found themselves “in between” (Nepantla).
The Virgin was welcomed for the tribes, probably as Mother of her gods. To the point that, in periods of peace, in the Templo Mayor, the cross and the Virgin were exposed together with pagan idols - inevitably associated with demons -.
The imaginary was constituted, this way, in opposition among the goodness (the Christian figure, colored, sculpted, carved images) and the evilness (the idols). This situation of beliefs, has left an indelible print in our times.
The Christian figure in the times of Cortés, understood each other as tricotomy from the celestial pattern to the terrestrial copy: the celestial pattern (in itself); the copy in the object (constituent material); the emanated power of the image (action).
The indigenous adoration was not limited to the anthropomorphic figure. The repression and the wisdom, led them to cohabit among objects of insconspicous appearance, which were attributed divine presence. These objects, are very familiar for us today, and they are still found inside the Mexican-Chicano houses in California: flowers (originally offered to Camaxtle; stones with heart shapes (the heart of the sacrifices); mirrors (with the property of the "speaking"); a seat in front of which a recipient was located with chicken, corn pasta or tamales. It is debatable if these objects were "in memory of" or an "object of memory" which was adored.

Chicano’s house. Behind the screen brick wall, Aztec and Jesus Christ small statues are displayed. Picture by Myriam Mahiques.

At the moment, the accumulation of object-images in a Chicano house persists, and it could be considered excessive and confusing if the historical aspects that originated this model are not taken into account: to consider the objects in itselves, isolated from their contexts, would be a serious mistake. The current saturation of space is intimately bounded to the Baroque pictorial production at the end of SXVI and the arrival of European painters to Mexico, I refer to the Baroque image, covered with allegories in search of the sophistication and multiplicity of meanings - Eruditio and Artifice -. Under the Inquisition of Torquemada, in Mexico, God became a collage of attributes and symbols: birds, butterflies, vegetation; God was forged in the cloth like absolute creator that governed on the men and the nature.
Not only in the art, but also in the religious architecture we see the same cognitive constructions; among the proliferation of columns, cornices, piazzas, the frescos that still remain in several places, all of them give sample of a treatment of recurrent decoration: the saturation of the images covering the walls.
In the domestic interiors, Aztec images still coexist with the Virgin of Guadalupe intermingled with crosses, prints, - that is a representation of Nepantla - and there will be no lack of flowers, neither the kitchen in full activity, neither souvenirs, armchairs with floral printings, pictures, several statuettes, etc. We understand that the community, already divided in Christian and Catholic groups of deep rooted faith, has lost the understanding of the original meaning of the object, however, the objects are still exposed like in the first times, also containing, an emotional value that the collective memory has assigned to them. If the object is religious, it is believed that it is capable of emanating power and "to grant answer to the prayers". This way, the object becomes a symbol, a code of ideas that difficultly can be explained with words.
“The symbol is direct and does note require linguistic mediation. An object becomes a symbol when its own nature is so clear and so profoundly exposed that while being fully itself it gives knowledge of something greater beyond”. (Yi-Fu Tuan, 2007:114)

Gruzinski, Serge. Images at War. Mexico from Columbus to Blade Runner. EEUU. Duke University Press. 2001
Gruzinski, Serge. The Mestizo Mind. The Intellectual Dynamics of Colonization and Globalization. New York. Routledge. 2002
Medina, Lara. Nepantla Spirituality: Negotiating Multiple Identities, Faiths and Practices.
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  1. Thank you for this inspiring reflection -

  2. Hi Raechel, thank you for your visit and comment. I´ve seen your work, congratulations!



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