Avatar Review

Issue 18

Prose » Robert Joe Stout »


A Phallic Disease

         Asked about the deterioration of communal life in Mexico, Citlali Morales makes the sign of the cross.
         “The Church, you mean?”
         She shakes her head. A large woman by southern Mexico standards, full-figured with wide prominent features and eyes that seem to say I know more than I’ll reveal, Citlali repeats the gesture. It—the deterioration—could be phallic, she suggests, momentarily picaresque.
         The Church, the Holy Roman Catholic Church, is vertical; the indigena life in Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas, Puebla was horizontal—everything shared, including government. The vertical (phallic) Church had a tlatoani, a supreme leader who couldn’t be questioned—discipline from top to bottom. The communal life of the Zapotecos, Mixtecos, Nahuas, the other native peoples, was horizontal: decisions were made by assembly participation. Not that the decisions always were good, just as Church decisions were not always detrimental, but that’s where you have the cross—the conflict, she insists: the vertical piercing the horizontal.
         “A form of rape?”
         Of power, she counters. In this case the vertical was stronger. It wasn’t always. Over the centuries the communal peoples successfully resisted many intruders, including pre-Aztec invaders from the north. The Aztecs also had a vertical system of governing. They couldn’t conquer those of the south and moved on to the Valley of Mexico. Their clash with the Spaniards was like two stags fighting for dominance of the herd.
         “And the herd?”
         Was able to resist for a long time but the system eroded. Or was co-opted. The second pillar of communal life was tequio—shared work. Not like communism, each family had its own possessions, farming areas, animals, there were communal lands—unowned but shared, the forests for example. Every family, or head of family, contributed to group projects: constructing rainwater reservoirs, building fences, roads, granaries—unpaid work for the good of the community. At the end of harvest those who profited shared with those who didn’t. Again, not like communism, they kept much for themselves but they gave a part back. Not like the Church—or the government—who took and built cathedrals, palaces, monuments and gave nothing back.
         It became too much for some. The Spanish conquerors, the Church, spread a disease. A phallic disease, an infection brought about by the vertical, the piercing of the horizontal. Instead of guelaguetza—sharing—those who caught the disease kept for themselves. Kept for themselves and wanted more, wanted more and took from the less fortunate. Enfeebled the communal life.
         “And now?”
         She shrugs but there’s a bit of playfulness in her smile. The horizontal, the communal life, feminine, is the earth that produces all living things, she says. One can destroy what it produces but it goes on producing. The upright can fertilize but it’s power is temporary. The Mayas, the Toltecs left dead monuments—statues, cities—as did the Romans, the builders of the pyramids in Egypt. All those vertical things became dead symbols of a forgotten past. The earth covered them over.
         “And these vertical things so important now?”
         She frames it as a question but it doesn’t seem like a question as she winks mischievously and lightly taps my groin.
         “The vertical withers, no longer potent, and the horizontal creates anew.”