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A president participating in an indigenous ritual on his inauguration day is an uncommon thing to see. A president performing a ritual dedicated to Mother Earth, asking for permission for a project, is not a familiar scene either. The current Mexican presidential term, however, started with these unconventional activities. The first one was touching, and the second confusing.
A few things were unprecedented when Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office on December 1st, 2018. He opened Los Pinos to the public after being the presidential residence for 84 years. He arrived at the Congress in a Volkswagen Jetta. And after addressing legislators and dignitaries, he went to the Zocalo, Mexico City’s main square, to address the people.
160,000 people gathered in Zocalo, where representatives of dozens of Mexico’s indigenous groups performed a cleansing ritual for President López Obrador and presented to him, as a symbol of approval, the Bastón de mando, a cedar wooden staff that represents power, leadership, respect, and commitment.
Before President Lopez Obrador’s speech and a series of concerts, a priestess cleansed him with copal and herbs, while she invoked the heart of each element, the grandparents, the ancestors, the guardians of the land, the forces of all peoples, the force of the universe, and the Virgin of Guadalupe.
A priest performed a ceremony called Xochitlalli, a pre-Hispanic ancestral ritual which means “the setting of flowers,” where he called on the old grandfathers that guard the different courses of the universe. The president and the tens of thousands of attendees followed the priest, turning around toward each cardinal point, raising their right hands and repeating his invocations. While facing east, they greeted the house of light. While facing west, they greeted the house of the warrior women. While facing north, they greeted the house of memory, the place of the ancestors. While facing south, they greeted the house of life, the place of the medicine. Finally, they stood facing the center, where they greeted the earth goddess and the sky goddess.
I am a Pagan, so I call the elements, honor my ancestors, and worship the Goddess in my own practice. But I am not used to seeing all this in a mass event. I was deeply touched by watching the president, indigenous groups, and thousands of other people performing this ritual in the Zócalo.
I did not feel as moved, however, by another ritual that was performed a few weeks later. Instead I felt befuddled. 15 days later after the inauguration, the president and a few state governors gathered at Palenque, Chiapas, with representatives of the indigenous people of the state. There they performed a ritual to ask permission to Mother Earth for the construction of the Mayan Train, offering her food, liquor, and flowers.
The Mayan Train is one of President López Obrador’s biggest projects, which is expected to be finished in four years and to promote tourism and economic development by connecting the states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo via a route that stretches 947 miles.
Over a hundred organizations and experts have expressed their concerns about the environmental impact this project could have. The route involves eight protected natural areas and could affect the endemic flora and fauna. Although the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) has confirmed they will have a Manifestación de Impacto Ambiental (environmental impact study), the study will not be ready until after the executive project is done, which is expected to be late this year; right now, they do not know for certain the environmental impact it could have.
The ritual confused me because when I ask for something like permission, I expect a reply. Asking for permission is part of my spiritual practice, just the same as, for example, expressing gratitude or honoring the divine. I ask permission from animals before touching them. I ask permission from people before interacting with their energy fields. I ask permission from plants before cutting them. I ask permission from the spirits and guardians of a place before entering it.
It is easy to explain how I get a reply from animals; it usually is by watching their body language. It is easier to explain how I get a reply from people; they say yes or no. It is harder to explain how I get a reply from plants or spirits, but somehow the reply is received; I feel a yes or a no answer, which can be a sensation in my body or a change in the area around me. Other people may hear this response – sometimes they may see images representing the answer.
I wonder how Mother Earth would give her reply to the president’s request for the Mayan Train. Maybe the people that performed the ritual felt the answer. Maybe Mother Earth has already replied and we did not notice. Some people have joked that the recent activity of the Popocatépetl volcano is a clear “no.” In this case, I do not think the reply is what matters. The original request from the ritual is.
I would have performed a ritual to honor Mother Earth and expressed my gratitude instead of asking for permission. I would have conducted the necessary studies in order to determine what intentions to set on the ritual.
If a friend of mine were sick, what should I do first: take my friend to the doctor, or perform a healing ritual? I would take my friend to the doctor first, and after the diagnosis and prescription of medical treatment, I would perform the ritual, because now I would know what to focus on.
Personally, I like the idea of the government performing rituals with indigenous people and taking into consideration Mother Earth. I see this as a way of recovering something that we once knew or did. For a long time, She was not even mentioned or acknowledged. A ritual dedicated to Mother Earth, however, should not be more important than a thorough evaluation of a project that could affect Her. Spirituality and science can complement each other. They should not go against each other, and one should not replace the other. A better way of honoring Mother Earth that I can think of is by listening to what she already has to say by consulting the experts that study the environment and know how to interpret her voice.