Oct/Nov 2010 Travel

Keepers of the Faith

by William Reese Hamilton

Photo by Bill Hamilton

Jenny's little sister is having her first communion up in the mountain village of Uraca, and because Jenny spends a couple of days a week cleaning our house, we are graciously invited to attend. I take my camera to record this important event in the young girl's life.

Some repair work is being done at the small local church, so the service has been moved to Agua Fuerte, a cultural foundation created by a Jesuit named Ignacio Castillo. Agua Fuerte, or Strong Water, is a dramatic setting for any production, secular or religious. The large square building, built in the industrial style of the 1920s, stands in a clearing of the thick forest on the edge of a rocky gorge cut by Rio Choroní as it plunges down the steep valley toward the sea.

The spot was chosen by the engineers of Juan Vicente Gomez as the site for the Maracay's first hydroelectric plant. Germans built the canal system to collect water from mountain streams and deposit it in the large holding tank from which rushed the powerful river of water along monstrous iron pipes to drive the French and Swiss-made turbines.

But when Ignacio Castillo took his first bus ride over the mountain from Maracay to Choroní in the early 80s and heard about this place, it had been abandoned for some 20 years and the jungle had crept back in on it. Perhaps only a man with years of study in philosophy, anthropology, and the humanities could imagine this decaying cement hulk as the staging ground for the arts. And perhaps only a man backed by family wealth and strong connections could bring it off.

The grounds were cleared, the outer walls painted, the large, many-paned windows repaired and cleaned so the sun shone through to light the interior like a cathedral. Artist friends created exotic primitive murals on the walls. One turbine was removed to create space for a stage; the other left like a great prehistoric sculpture among antique statues of saints, painted angels, birds, and flowers. Along the left interior wall, a narrow staircase ascends to what was once a control room but now provides private office space and a small bare nook where Ignacio can hang his hammock and dwell like an ascetic amid tropic splendor.

Agua Fuerte provides the people of the valley with workshops in music, painting, and ceramics, and on certain weekends, small audiences of locals mix with the elite of Caracas for chorales, dance, guitar concerts, and obscure plays from Spain or Argentina. I once witnessed here a dramatization of a picaresque Spanish novel in the style of Candide in which a prostitute writhed in a most secular imitation of sexual orgasm, prompting a loud tittering from the children in the first row.

Padre Castillo has given no less attention to today's little religious drama. He has shopped and scrounged for long strips of purple and gold cloth which have been pieced and stitched together to fall from the lofty roof like a multi-colored waterfall behind the stage. Giant palm fronds rise at each side fronted by bright red riki-riki, bastón emperador and bird-of-paradise. At the center stands a golden antique statue of Virgin and Child.

Outside, children are gathering like a covey of peacocks. Country boys are dressed up like city slickers, dark pants neatly pressed, white shirts fitted with ties, hair shaved up the sides and obediently slicked down on top. Little girls are offered up like debutantes at a cotillion, flowing white dresses accented with pink and blue sashes, golden coronets, wild flowers stitched into their braids. They will never look this way again.

As they file in, singing their joy in a loud, simple anthem, I notice that this perfect little procession has been thrown wonderfully off kilter by a tall, lusty girl decked out in a long white, violet-lined cape designed and executed by a proud mother. This is, indeed, a kind of masked ball.

"You can take the girl out of the country," I whisper to Marisol.

"Pero no al campo de ella," she smiles.

Up on the stage, two priests welcome them: the Jesuit Ignacio on the left, in white cassock and gold vestments; the newly appointed parish priest of Choroní on the right, tall and dark in long flowing white robes. Even in the cloth of the church, Ignacio is not a prepossessing figure. He is a man of the mind, not the body. His physique has grown into a series of ovals, his head white-haired and balding, his hands small and delicate. He speaks to the children about this moment in their lives with such a soft, shy voice, I find myself leaning forward to catch the words.

We rise, we sit down. We rise, we sit again. I follow along as best I can. As I get older, I find I like my religion better in a foreign language. It drifts by like the obscure lyrics of a badly enunciated rock song, playing across my mind much more gently than some stark protestant sermon striving to draw a parallel between some distant proverb and our present lives. After all, as Joseph Campbell has pointed out, the language of religion should be taken as poetry, not prose. Soon I find my mind is engaged much more with the two men on stage than anything being said.

I'm thinking Ignacio's life choice is an interesting one. These Jesuit soldiers of Christ, unencumbered by marriage or parochial office, are freed to roam about like some sort of modern paladins, searching out the divine among the mundane. Perhaps they are the true romantics. I have run across Ignacio in Chuao at Corpus Christi, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt like some ecclesiastical tourist at the Devil Dance, and at the nighttime festivities of San Juan Bautista, lamenting to me that the young have forgotten how to carry out the old ceremonies. But more than anywhere his heart seems to be here in Agua Fuerte, this old electric plant filled with mysticism—a place where he can play host to worldly art with the prestige of the church behind him. Not a bad gig.

The parish priest on the right seems more conventional. Younger, taller, sinewy, with an olive-shaped head that is a little small for his body, and a crop of curly black hair designed for an imaginary tonsure. I don't know him at all, have only seen him at a distance and heard a few things about him. Some say he's a Chavista, but I wouldn't hold that against him, since it applies to most of the population here. There are rumors that he likes the women; better than young boys, I'm thinking. However, there's something about the way he carries himself. Of course, as with Ignacio, I take for granted his sincere love of Christ, his deep desire to serve. But isn't there something else? I imagine him a poor boy, like Julien Sorel in The Red and The Black, who has seen that devotion to the Lord and office in His church could bring him position and authority he could not find elsewhere.

Then, as Ignacio leads us in prayer and response, this simple parish priest makes a gesture that takes my mind in another direction.

"Did you see that?" I nudge Marisol. "See how he's looking at Ignacio, the way he's wringing his hands. My God, it's Uriah Heep. So 'umble, so obsequious."

"I think he's been praying in front of the mirror," she says. "Look at how he rolls his eyes heavenward." She's right, the whites of his eyes against the deep complexion, the divine tilt to the head bring back memories of old Spanish paintings. Something practiced. Something posed.

Of course, these are all reverie, idle speculation, against a colorful background of song and incantation. Outside, in the bright sunlight, we take pictures of these beautifully dressed children with family and friends, framed by the two smiling padres before another statue of Virgin and Child. With these snapshots Jenny's family will be able to remember the day, their beautiful little girl and the two kindly men who guided her toward a life of devotion and morality.

And so we leave them there and drive out along the newly garlanded streets of Uraca. For this is not only a day of confirmations, it is the most important day in the annual cycle of the village—the celebration of their patron saint, la Virgen de Carmen. Tonight, Padre Ignacio will lead them in a long candle-lit procession from Agua Fuerte up the hill and along the main road through the village to the grotto of the Virgin. There among banks of flowers and showers of fireworks, they will offer their devotions to her image and then, just as importantly, party through the night. For each village has its saint and its saint's day, and each rivals the other in its celebration.


A couple of weeks later, I am invited to attend just such an important night in Choroní—the beginning of the celebrations for their patron, Santa Clara.

"What happens tonight?" I ask my friend, Rodolfo, the best blacksmith in the valley.

"We'll have a few beers, we'll get together with everyone in Plaza Bolivar, we'll go to mass, and then at midnight, the very last moment of July, we'll raise the banner of Santa Clara before the church."

"Seguro, I'll be there," I say, for it's always pleasant having a few beers with Rodolfo. So at nine I walk the four kilometers up to the lovely old village of Choroní and settle into my favorite bar, which sits cattycornered to the plaza, for a few Polarcitas with friends. It's a great spot to hang out. There's good, simple conversation, salsa on the boom box, and laughter out the back door where the old-timers are playing dominos.

I ask Rodolfo about his new house in La Invasión, he asks the health of Marisol, we share opinions about the Fania All Stars, Ruben Blades and Willie Colon. We never speak of Chavez, but lament the failing economy and all the malandros moving into the valley—people without work or the desire to find it.

"And how are your neighbors, Rodolfo?"

"I'm building a high wall."

"Very high," a friend adds.

We chat about the Fiesta de San Juan and the great party the fishermen of Puerto Colombia gave.

"Did you see that toro?" I ask. "He almost ran me over."

"I didn't see him, but I tasted him after they slaughtered him."

"Míra, that meat was tough."

A thin, dirty character sidles up to me, babbling on in a loud voice about Venezuela being a caballo, a horse. A horse that will run fast. He's obviously drugged out.

"Fuera," the barman says. "Get lost." Rodolfo edges between us, to protect me from this abuse.

"No, mejor una mula," I say, as if he is in any condition to understand me. "Mule has to work, like Venezuela. Necesita trabajar." The druggie staggers past me over to a table in the corner, where he slumps into a chair next to an offended young woman.

"Venezuela es un caballo," he shouts, slamming his fist into the table top. "Caballo."

About eleven-thirty a man comes into the bar to tell us the mass is off.

"Y porque?" we ask.

"No sé."

All the doors of the three-hundred-year-old church are open and, as if awaiting mass, light streams out onto the cobbled street and plaza. But on the raised steps the young Padre in his elegant white robes is in heated argument with a smaller, older woman. On a post beside them hangs the banner with its fine old portrait of Santa Clara and a new border carefully and colorfully stitched on, announcing the year. The woman is pleading with the priest to have the mass, that they meant no harm. Below them crowds are gathering.

"What's the problem?"

"The priest won't give the mass."

"But why?" I ask again.

"Like every year, they took the old banner and sewed on a new border. That woman is the best seamstress here. But he's crazy. He's mad because they didn't consult him about the border."

"There must be more to it than that."

"No, he says he must be consulted, so he will not give the mass."

When the woman finally gives up and leaves, the Padre continues to stand alone, his arms crossed, defiantly facing the growing crowd. The narrow street between them could now be a canyon. And all this over the stitching of a banner. I feel a sudden sympathy for him, having been in fruitless discussions like this as a teacher. He's got to pull back, regroup before it's too late, I'm thinking. So naively, perhaps stupidly, believing that my age and foreignness might help, I approach him and speak to him with respect, in a lowered voice so no one else can hear.

"Señor, perdóname, pero estas haciendo un gran hueco," I say. "You're digging a big hole." He flashes large dark eyes and turning his back on me, speaks in a loud, booming voice, more to the crowd than to me.

"Cállate, no eres de aquí. Shut up, you're not from here."

Quite right, I'm thinking, but unfortunately, neither are you. I hardly wished to be an instigator, but my friends are much more offended than I am. And now, at midnight, a man rushes from the crowd and in front of the Padre, grabs the cords and raises the banner of Santa Clara to the top of the pole in triumph. The crowd swarms across the street, cheering the act and yelling against the priest. For a moment he holds his ground, arms still crossed, eyes still flashing, but then suddenly he retreats into his rectory, slamming the great door behind him. From there he can make his way into the church, and from inside, he slams those doors shut as well, as if to say, this is my church, not yours.

The next day, the villagers call a meeting to start proceedings with church authorities to have the priest replaced.


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