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Latin America Team Dispatch


From East, From West, From North, But What's Above?

No matter where you travel in the world, there are some things you're always going to find. People everywhere have traditional stories they tell and songs they sing. They have games they play as kids and adults. They have their traditional foods and clothes. AND, they have their religious beliefs that help to explain why we are here and how we should live.

A Catholic Church on the Caribbean Coast
caption
As we travel through Latin America there is one religion that quite obviously stands out as the most adopted - Catholicism. In even the most remote village, you can generally find a Catholic Church, offering shelter from the world, and a place to think and pray. Not that it has always been this way, and not that everyone thinks this is good.

So let's go back in time for a moment - 50,000 years ago to be precise. How far back is that? Well, repeat this phrase about 350 times: "My grandparents' of my grandparents' of..." and you'll be about there! (It should only take you about half an hour!) That was about when the first humans (Homo sapiens - Cro-Magnon) lived on this planet. They first lived in Africa but they were pretty adaptive and moved wherever they could find food and shelter. Still, it wasn't until about 25,000 years ago that the first of them crossed over into the Americas. You only have to say "My grandparents of my grandparents of..." about 175 times to go back that far! (Those first arrivals crossed on what used to be an ice bridge between Asia and North America, where Alaska is today!)

Click image for larger view
The first humans lived in Africa. The first humans in the Americas came from Asia,
crossing an ice bridge into what is today Alaska. Spaniards forced people in Latin America to accept
Catholicism. Recently, several religions from the United States have been spreading rapdily towards the south.
It is not exactly easy to figure out what kind of religious beliefs these people may have had. But it is easy to imagine that they must have asked themselves the same questions we all wonder about sometimes: Is there a God (or Gods)? Is there some kind of life after death? Why are we here?

We do know that for the people who settled throughout what we call Latin America today, almost everything had a spiritual dimension - plants, animals, the sun, the hills, everything. They told stories that go back many, many, years ago that explain how people were created by different gods - each different group of people told the stories a little differently.

When the Spaniards came to the Americas, they had little or no respect for these religions - or for the people themselves - and they systematically did what they could to kill out the religions (and, very often, the people as well). Depending on how you look at it, they were pretty successful. In some Latin American countries, almost 100% of the people claim to be Catholic. However, it is very interesting to see the many ways that the natives simply changed some of the names and figures they worshipped to fit what the Catholic leaders wanted, but without giving up their own traditions. The black Christ that Shawn writes about today is one example, as is the Virgin of Guadalupe who Monica wrote about during the Mexico Trek ( "Come See the Miracle! Our Lady of Guadalupe").

Today you often find a blend of Catholic and native religious practices. You also find more and more religions spreading from the United States. Religions such as the Church of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons), Jehovah's Witnesses, and Evangelicals are spreading fast. In many cases they provide much needed economic support, and structure for living in communities where Catholicism has for whatever reason lost its influence. This can be very helpful for people feeling lost or going through troubled times. However, this sometimes leaves the impression that some of these newer churches are using their economic power to spread south from the United States.

No matter what your opinion is of these newer religions, they are certainly spreading fast, even though the Catholic Church is still by far the most powerful here. We can't help but wonder if the first people to come this way so many years ago had as much trouble getting through the Darien Gap as we've had. We can't help but be a little jealous of how quickly ideas and beliefs can be shared across this divide, riding on radio and TV waves, and through electronic impulses on the internet.

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