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Cultural Memory

Cultural Memory
Resistance, Faith, and Identity

An interdisciplinary examination of four cases of cultural memory rooted in religion, and how those memories empowered their respective cultures.

January 2007
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
172 pages | 6 x 9 | 7 b&w illus., 1 figure, 8 tables |

The common "blood" of a people—that imperceptible flow that binds neighbor to neighbor and generation to generation—derives much of its strength from cultural memory. Cultural memories are those transformative historical experiences that define a culture, even as time passes and it adapts to new influences. For oppressed peoples, cultural memory engenders the spirit of resistance; not surprisingly, some of its most powerful incarnations are rooted in religion. In this interdisciplinary examination, Jeanette Rodriguez and Ted Fortier explore how four such forms of cultural memory have preserved the spirit of a particular people.

Cultural Memory is not a comparative work, but it is a multicultural one, with four distinct case studies: the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the devotion it inspires among Mexican Americans; the role of secrecy and ceremony among the Yaqui Indians of Arizona; the evolving narrative of Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador as transmitted through the church of the poor and the martyrs; and the syncretism of Catholic Tzeltal Mayans of Chiapas, Mexico. In each case, the authors' religious credentials eased the resistance encountered by social scientists and other researchers. The result is a landmark work in cultural studies, a conversation between a liberation theologian and a cultural anthropologist on the religious nature of cultural memory and the power it brings to those who wield it.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. The Concept of Cultural Memory
  • 2. The Power of Image
  • 3. The Power of Secrecy and Ceremony
  • 4. The Power of Narrative
  • 5. The Power of Syncretism/Inculturation
  • 6. Final Thoughts
  • Appendix 1. Summary of Post-independence Political Movements in Mexico
  • Appendix 2. Short Summary of International Events and Their Impact on Indigenous Political Movements
  • Appendix 3. The San Andrés Accords, or the Law on Indian Rights and Culture, 1996
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Autobiographical Statements
  • Index

Jeanette Rodriguez is Professor and Chair of Theology and Religious Studies at Seattle University.

Ted Fortier is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Seattle University.


The single most important adaptation for the survival of the human species is culture. As we will develop in this book, discrete human cultures have survived a plethora of threats to their existence through their ability to interpret, adapt to, and resist hegemonic cultures that are more "powerful." The very key to a species' survival is its ability to adapt to rapidly changing conditions. The human species has survived, in a number of unique configurations, because of the elasticity of culture, which enables groups to access stored wisdom and ways of coping with diverse patterns of existence. The mystery and the very core of this dynamism of culture rest in memory.

Memory is the capacity to remember, to create and re-create our past. "Cultural memory" is a concept introduced to the archaeological disciplines by Jan Assmann, who defines it as the "outer dimension of human memory," embracing two different concepts: "memory culture" (Erinnerungskultur) and "reference to the past" (Vergangenheitsbezug). Memory culture is the process by which a society ensures cultural continuity by preserving, with the help of cultural mnemonics, its collective knowledge from one generation to the next, rendering it possible for later generations to reconstruct their cultural identity. When we speak about cultural memory, we are including in this definition two distinct characteristics: (1) the survival of a historically, politically, and socially marginalized group of people, and (2) the role of spirituality as a form of resistance.

The definition of culture flows from an understanding that people develop unique sets of categories, including languages, political organizations, and rituals and ceremonies. Historically marginalized groups have additional categories that reveal the cultural forces that have resisted annihilation from dominant groups by accessing forms of spiritual resistance. These are the issues of people who have historically had to fight for their community and maintain a social construct to exist in the world. For Mexican Americans, the Yaqui, the poor, and the Tzeltal, life is a struggle to find a place—that is, establish their presence in the world today and make known their rights not only to survive but to flourish apart from the dominant cultures—in a globalized world that has marginalized them.

Where do marginalized, threatened cultural groups go to find such a place? And by "place" we mean community, landscape, and spirituality, that is, an identity that comes from caring for others and being cared for by a respectful community; from an attachment to land and all of its processes; and, finally, from the awe and wonder of a communal sense of creative knowing. We contend that their struggle to find such an identity is rooted in religious ideology. Religious ideology manifests a spirituality grounded in experience and is endemic to the continuum of self-preservation and reproduction of human beings. This is why we have focused this study on four discrete manners in which four different cultures illustrate how religious ideology constructs pathways for resistance, infusing ideological faith with the implements for producing ethnic identities. These four manifestations are the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the secret rituals among the Yaqui Indians, the narrative in the evolving memory of martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, and the syncretism among the Tzeltal Indians of Chiapas, Mexico. It is our argument that by examining the emotion-laden schemas of religious faith, we can begin to understand the powerful elements of memories that resist assimilation in the world today.

Anthropologists have found that among the earliest Homo sapiens sapiens of over 50,000 years ago, or even with the extinct Homo sapiens neanderthalensis of over 100,000 years ago, one of the common elements present in their cultural record is sensitivity for religious experience. Religious experience is defined as a belief in a power or a world that lies beyond ordinary human experience. Archaeological evidence shows that these early cultures were conscious of the fact that the world they perceived was not the only reality. They were aware that there is a power, or a being, that exists beyond the physical world that can be known through ordinary experience. This is most easily seen in the presence of grave goods, burial orientation, cave art, the use of figurines, and so on. These symbolic elements, which indicate a reverence for life, sensitivity to another realm of existence, and awe for the human connection to the creative forces of the universe, are the very subjects that give rise to our question, What is the difference between ordinary experience and religious experience?

The above observation regarding the archaeological evidence concerning death and burial practices provides a window into the continuum of meaning in an ordinary life. All human beings die, and death is simply an ordinary experience of existence. What brings the level of ordinary into religious phenomenology, however, is the meaning ascribed to ordinary events. Humans are symbol-bearing, symbol-creating beings that need to provide meaning to virtually every aspect of existence. The evolutionary role of emotion seems to be an important element here. In other words, how do we attach emotion-laden schemas to those life events that continue to bring meaning and remembrance throughout not only our existence, but the existence of those who will follow us? This process of connecting emotion to life events is most evident in ritual activity that is filled with symbolic composition and continually repeated.

Thus, at the site of an ancient burial, we find that elements of a man's, a woman's, or a child's connection to life are placed with them: food, tools, pets, or other items. The body is often oriented on an east-west axis, symbolic of the rising and setting of the sun, the voyage of life and death, and renewal. Burial in the earth, a practice in many ancient cultures, is most often associated with the concept of seeds that die, only to be renewed in the next season. Also associated with these burials is the use of red ochre, which is a symbol of blood and through it, life.

Therefore, the ordinary—the death of an organism—becomes a symbol of the worldview of a particular people. The meaning of one individual's existence is symbolically interpreted as valuable and meaningful for the whole group. What remains are things that cannot be answered by ordinary experience. For example, what happens to the vitality of a human when life ceases? Looking at nature, one can observe the cycles of life, the manner in which a plant brings forth new life each year, only to wither and die at some point. It is the human ability to translate that ordinary experience into a sense of awe, wonder, and respect that gives dynamism to a group of human beings and leads to cultural configurations of meaning that are passed from generation to generation.

One of the functions of religion is to answer essential questions as to how the world came about and how humans are related to it. It seeks to explain our earth-centeredness. Why this? Why that? Religion is an attempt to filter meaning into the most difficult questions. As we seek to give meaning to everything we do, religion validates our existence. It deposits forces into the universe that sustain moral order; this in turn sustains the social order of a people. Religion validates our existence by connecting us with ancestors, with spirits, with a god or gods. Religion mediates the dynamic of being here in the moment while also being part of an ongoing continuum. It firmly reinforces our human ability to ascribe meaning to all experience, such as death, illness, famine, birth, or suffering. Religion heightens our communal experience of life. It brings us together in a community that reinforces the events in our lives. Religious experience interprets the way a community defines the world, and it does so in such a way that establishes its primary values, affects, behaviors, and choices.

The reproduction of cultural survival is, then, both a biological and an ideological construction. Research in collective memory and historical identity recognizes that critical to the retaining of one's cultural identity, and assuming survival, are language, religious practices, and the maintenance of the principles regarding everyday life.

"Sangre llama a sangre" (blood calls to blood) is an expression or metaphor that alludes to blood as the carrier of one's life, which is in turn connected to others. It is the life force that allows one to access the affective, intuitive bond of community that surges up without any rigid or rational trappings. It has its own truth, and this truth is "grasped" and needs no affirmation or validation from outside itself. This truth is expressed in narrative, ritual drama, and ceremonies.

In this book, cultural memory, or blood calling out to blood, and evoking recognition of truth are explored as constitutive elements of memory. We will identify and explain these elements in four distinct cultural groups in the Americas. Within these groups, four different aspects of cultural memory will be examined: image, secrecy, narrative, and synchronicity. Each of these is intended to be seen as an example of one aspect of memory—a memory that (1) liberates from oppression, (2) provides a medium for transmission of that memory; (3) informs the emotions of generations; and (4) unites a people through time for a common cause.

We intend to explore this phenomenon by isolating and analyzing the content, transmission, and sources of empowerment, including how such memories are passed on from generation to generation. The four aspects of cultural memory will be explained through the following: the Mexican American community and their devotion to the image of Guadalupe, the Yaqui and the role of secrecy and ceremony in maintaining their cultural identity, the evolving cultural memory of Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador as it is transmitted through the church of the poor and the martyrs, and the synchronism of Catholic Tzeltal Maya in the state of Chiapas, Mexico.

What is the source of a memory powerful enough to carry a people even through attempted genocide? Remembering has been a key to survival for Jews, whose identity has long been bound up with oppression and resistance. The key memory for the Jewish community is told in the story of Exodus, which has been the guiding myth for Jewish identity. Elie Wiesel once said that the reflective Christian knows that it was not the Jewish people that died in Auschwitz, but Christianity. The Jewish theological question after Auschwitz was not only "Where was God?" but also "Where was humanity?" The Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz echoes this when he speaks of memoria passionis as the only "universal category of humanity open to us . . . I am not thinking of a memory that only serves to affirm us or to secure our identities—rather the opposite: it calls into question our tightly sealed up identities. It is a 'dangerous' memory . . . it is a remembrance that does not use suffering to make us aggressive, but reflects on others who suffer." The failure of humanity, specifically Christian humanity, is not only transmitted through shared memory, but is a symbol of all that threatens Jewish existence.

Our Lady of Guadalupe as a cultural memory is undoubtedly the most significant spiritual and cultural symbol for Mexican Americans. An earlier study by Jeanette Rodríguez demonstrated how the memory of Guadalupe is carried in the culture of a people, both consciously and unconsciously, until it gradually becomes embedded in their values. For Mexican Americans, Our Lady of Guadalupe represents an affirmation of their worth and a positive valuation of their own culture and tradition, thus becoming an empowering symbol that asserts their communal sense as a people.

Juan Alvarez, a colleague and Nahuatl scholar, says that we Mexican Americans do not think or reflect on the meaning of Our Lady of Guadalupe, in much the same way that we do not think of the blood that runs through our veins. We simply know it is there. Yet, one day, as we experience debilitating crisis, something extraordinary called "thinking" happens, or, in some cases, it may not happen at all. Enrique Dussel once said:

Those who attempt to think about the where and how of their being without starting from a crisis point will not be able to think. Many perhaps have lived their whole lives without any crisis. Yet crisis is a sine qua non for thinking, and the more radical and abysmal the crisis, the greater the possibility for real thought. Crisis comes from the Greek verb krinein, meaning to "to judge," but with the added note of distancing oneself.


The Yaqui represent a culture that has endured five hundred years of conquest, enslavement, and religious and civil persecution, yet continues to be resilient despite those forces that have destroyed so many other indigenous cultures. The Yaqui are bound together through a number of secret societies and rituals that have adapted to but not been subverted by modern culture or Jesuit missionary efforts. The Yaqui provide insight into the mechanisms that allow cultural adaptation to occur while maintaining group identity through strict adherence to family and kin-based ritual obligations. The Yaqui culture is characterized by a pervasive spirituality that appears to be based on what we are terming cultural memory.

The memory surrounding murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of El Salvador, is still emerging. Although the memory of Romero is grounded in the geopolitical arena and the secular world of the wars of resistance in Central America, one cannot think of Romero without thinking about faith and the Roman Catholic tradition in particular. Increasingly, the memory of Romero elicits thoughts and feelings about resistance and other priests, sisters, and laypeople who were murdered for accompanying the oppressed people. More specifically, the narrative of Romero resurrects the memory of the church of the poor and the martyrs. The Catholic Tzeltal Maya are a significant example of the way contemporary synchronicity is worked out.

These four specific cases have been selected because each presents a significant research agenda in its own right, and each permits research on a unique practice of cultural memory within a highly distinctive geographical, political, or religious group. Our intent is not to undertake a definitive comparative analysis, but rather to explore the ways in which these practices sustain collective beliefs, maintain cultural distinctiveness, and stimulate dignity and defiance in the face of injustice.

Research tools utilized in this project include historical study, participant observation, and structured and unstructured interviews. Our aim in this project is to combine the ethnographic field skills of Fortier, a cultural anthropologist, with the analytical and hermeneutical skills of Rodríguez, a liberation theologian. Thus, this book is both a cultural artifact, depicting real people's lived experiences of faith and identity, and an exegesis of that cultural text, as it were, in that we actively interpret the realms that we have delineated for this foray into cultural memory. For us, as we explain in the following chapters, the crucial elements of reflexive ethnography, historical contextualization, and theological advocacy provide a nexus for the telling of four inspiring stories of survival, resistance, and active negotiation in order to maintain a unique niche in the globalized world today.