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Day 17 – Reflections on Mexico’s 2012 Season

We had both short-term and long-term goals at the start of this Sacred Canopy season with Contando Historias (see Day 1).  What follows is a brief reflection on where we now stand in relation to those anticipated outcomes:

1. Our short-term goal was to stage a performing arts presentation with 30 kids from the Cuchilla del Tesoro neighbourhood telling the creation story from Genesis 1-4 using musical and cultural art forms from Chiapas (or, when necessary, generic Mexican motifs).  This goal was met with success that surprised even us.  As described throughout the blog we had in excess of 30 kids who worked hard on rehearsals and art projects for the 5 days of the program and then delivered solid public performances on Saturday and Sunday.  The Mexican elements that we worked with – costuming, storyline, art, music, and even the ancient practise of inscribing epic stories on stelae – was met by the congregation with enthusiasm and wonder.   We leave this season feeling confirmed that our work of telling biblical narrative through the unique lens of Mexican cultural traditions has  strong potential to make a meaningful contribution to how the local church in Mexico views its artistic and cultural uniqueness within the context of the global community.

A manatee, sea mammal unique to the Chiapan waters, decorated for creation on Day 6 in a traditional Mexican folkloric style.

2.  The first of our long-term goals was to nurture a stronger, local leadership base for the story guild community, Contando Historias, in Cuchilla del Tesoro.   There is no question that our strongest local leaders are Reuben and Eva, the lead pastoral couple from the congregation themselves.  They not only jumped into the primary roles as lead narrators but went over and above even our own expectations in their work promoting the prediction throughout the neighbourhood and in the work they put into designing the indigenous costumes for their parts.   They get the vision of Sacred Canopy storytelling.  The biggest challenge with them  is that they are so busy at so many levels in their community that it hardly seems sustainable for them to give primary leadership to Contando Historia as well.  There were half a dozen younger leaders (post-secondary) who have now been a part of both Mexican seasons and who put in long hours of work on behalf of the storytelling.  None of these emerges as an obvious primary leader but over time we may continue to develop and discern this important layer of Contando Historia’s future.

Two young adult leaders who have now been a part of both Mexican seasons.

3.  The third goal, also long-term for this season, was to “get a feel for” the Catholic community vis-a-vie the “evangelical Christian” community in Cuchilla and to begin to consider possibilities for a joint Catholic/Protestant storytelling in the future.   In general, our sense was that it is premature to move down this path.  The relationship between the two communities still seems fragile given the stand-off two years ago (see Blog 5).  A reconciling agenda would need to be the church’s initiative, not ours.    That being said, we did have some meaningful opportunities to engage one of the local Catholic parishes as we attended the very relational morning prayers (lauds) with a group of about a dozen devout women.  My hope is that we could continue to develop these type of grassroots pockets of interpersonal relationships as a means for establishing points of connection in future seasons.

It is also worth mentioning that our audience for the public presentations was a Catholic/Protestant mix and that the enthusiastic responses to the Sacred Canopy style of storytelling came from both communities (see Blog 15).  The collective sense of goodness seemed affirmation enough that we are travelling down an important road.  At the same time, as this season draws to a close, we recognize that the direction this road will take has yet to be fully defined.

Thank you to all of you who were part of this season and who a us through thought from afar or through rigorous hands-on in Cuchilla.  Until next season,  adios (“with God”).

Celebrating after the final performance with tacos and corn from the local market.

Day 16 – Expect the Unexpected

Today was to be the masterful finale of our double-billed weekend performances.  After the way everything came together so beautifully for us at yesterday’s presentation we awoke full of enthusiasm and gratitude for the opportunity to present our long-in-the-making Regresando al Inicio one last time.  You’d think that we would have learned by now that the public arena is not necessarily a predictable arena and that no presentation can be taken for granted, no final performance assumed already “in the bag”.

When we got to the ball court to reset the stage we were curious to observe a huge crowd gathered at the court.  Though we’d have liked to think all these people were there to see Regreando we knew that was impossible given the early hour.  To our growing dismay we soon learned that there was pre-scheduled kick-boxing tournament in the ring on the same court where our production was to be staged.  Kick-boxing has unprecedented popular appeal in Mexico and as the confusion increased so did the crowd and their amplified music (mostly crowd-pleasing pop-rock to against which each matches take place).

They weren’t about to cancel their event.  Nor were we.  Pastor Reuben did what he could to resolve the stand-off but to no avail.  Their crowd had turned out, as had ours, and neither were to be put off. There was no option but to proceed as best we could.   We went ahead with our anticipated group photo and a final encouragement and prayer with the kids.

The storytellers of Contando Historias, 2012.

Kids are great.  They carried on as though oblivious to the commotion and noise around them.  For my part, all I could hear from back stage where I was managing set changes and special effects were the deafening roars (of approval or disappointment), the music, the horns, the crowd-energy from the kick-boxing tournament beside us.  Despite the fact that we had invested in wireless microphones and had a good set or speakers our performance was, quite simply,  swamped by the energy and noise of  our neighbours!

Members of our audience afterward assured us that they were able to hear most of the lines and that the beauty of the presentation had not been lost to them.  All the same, it was a disorienting way to end the week.  We are grateful that we had yesterday with its clarity of goodness and artistry.  We trust God’s hand at work in what transpired today and applaud our courageous, good-natured 2012 Contando Historia storytellers.  Stayed tuned for a final blog in the next day or two offering reflections and learning for Sacred Canopy from the last two weeks.

Hugo, who played the part of God!

Me with David and Angeles, our young Adam and Eve.

Eva and Reuben, our pastors and lead storytellers.

David, Karen, and Eric from our 2010 season as our 2012 masterful Mayan scribes.

Day 15 – The Performance!

It would not be an over statement to call this day “amazing”.  Any of you who have worked on story guild performances will know what I mean by the miracle of it all coming together on the day of the presentation despite what by all appearances seemed like mild-to-total chaos only the day before.  This day, here in Cuchilla del Tesoro, that same miracle happened for us yet again!  Kids who seemed to not be paying attention during rehearsals knew right where to go in the moment and lead actors who seemed intimidated and unsure only yesterday rose masterfully to the occasion.  (This is not to say there were not a few significant glitches – mostly in the set logistic department – but rather that those were minimized by the energy and beauty of the whole coming together.)

Our narrator, Eve, as an older woman. Reflecting back on the creation story while grinding corn for tortillas.

Young Adam and Eve weeping over the death of Abel at the hand of his brother.

Appearance of “el sol y la luna” on the fourth day of creation.










But the greatest miracle of all, the aspect of today’s performance that leaves my spirit resounding with gratitude, is the joy and enthusiasm with which our Mexican audience received our Mexican “interpretation” of Adam and Eve.  One of our host families, an elderly Catholic man, wept through the last scene as our Mexican panorama of creation came to life, layer by layer, on the stage.  Another elderly couple from the evangelical Jerusalem church said that in all their years in Mexico (i.e. their whole lives), in all the churches they have been in, they have “never seen anything like this”.

The full tableau of creation, Mexican style!

Our audience was relatively full, comprised primarily (or so we assessed) of family, church folk, and friends, though as the performance went along there was an ever-growing circle of curious on-lookers.  Their applause through out the final scene felt genuine and spontaneous.  We were all surprised and somewhat elated.

Anticipating a fuller crowd tomorrow and a more rehearsed cast, we left most of our unlikely-to-be-stolen set (mostly painted  props) on the stage while we went a few streets down the main street to our sound engineer’s home for lunch.   As we feasted on plates of enchiladas piled high a massive afternoon storm deluged the city for a solid 1/2 hour (typical weather behaviour for this time of year).  We were oblivious to the fact that the tin roof over our props back at the ball court was more porous than we knew.  Upon our return to touch up a few details we were shocked to discover that all our props were rain-soaked and in danger of  untimely disintegration….

Rain drenched props hung out to dry.

Assessing the damage.










We are trusting the tropical sun to do its magic by tomorrow at 11:00 when our second, and we (optimistically) trust, best-yet presentation will launch. Stay tuned.

Day 13 – Stage on a Ball Court

Today was our full dress rehearsal before tomorrow’s first public performance.  The challenge facing us right off the top was that we didn’t have use of the van that we have become dependent on for transporting props.  In an effort to reduce vehicular traffic and pollution in a very crowded city the municipality has imposed driving restrictions (rigourously monitored and heavily fined) where every vehicle in the city has one day each week on which it cannot run.  (Needless-to-say wealthier families get around the law by owning two cars, which some argue only exacerbates the problem that the law is trying to solve).   Numerous runs in BC taxis (motorcycle rickshaws) got all our gear to the ball court in time for us to prepare for the onslaught of 30 kids and a full day dress rehearsal.   The truck with our stage arrived as we were organizing ourselves and was set in place in little more than 20 minutes.  The setting seems perfect for our purposes.

Our ceiba tree, the main feature of our set, arriving on site by BC taxi.

Stage set up in the ball court.

The kids were dropped off by parents or grandparents by 9:30 and our rehearsals were underway.  Six scenes in six hours……with refreshing breaks of sliced mango and When the kids weren’t rehearsing they were working on the endless run of art projects that will make up our final scene.  We have painted all the elements of creation (celestial bodies, fish, birds, animals etc.) in a Mexican folkloric style.  The final effect, when all the parts of creation are on stage together tomorrow, should be muy bonita!

Participant cutting out one of six stars.

Tomorrow is the first of our two big public performances.  Like all of our story guild full dress rehearsals, the one today has left us exhausted and wondering if there is any way that it can all come together tomorrow.   There are whole parts of the final scene that have gone unrehearsed, though we hope to squeeze in a quick practise in the morning before the 11:00 showtime.

Day 12 – Documenting Story the Mayan Way

The grotto (prayer chapel) in the middle of the ball court!

Today was our first day to take our rehearsals outside to the ball court, about 13 blocks down the street from the church where we have been rehearsing up until this point.  Between the child’s playground/outdoor exercise gym at the far end of the court, a grotto to the Virgen of Guadalupe half way down the court (such GROTTOS are everywhere in Mexico), and a boxing ring right next to our designated stage area, it wasn’t always easy to keep our kids attention focused on the task at hand.    We also had to adjust to the roar of planes overhead and keep wondering how that will affect the performance.

Another one of the indigenous components that we are working into this presentation is that of the ancient Mayan use of stelae to tell their religious/epic stories.  We are adapting that storytelling technique, as it were,  across time and cultures to tell the story of Adam and Eve.  Between each scene three scribes come forward and place and enact hammering out the story of that particular scene on a piece of “rock”.  The stele have been an intriguing project to research and fun to work with one of the young men from the church on designing and painting these “faux” stelae onto pieces of rather flimsy cardboard.  I have learned how to count to 9 in ancient Mayan (a rather mystical experience) and we are including the number of each scene on the top of each stelae.

The stelae for Scene 4 (see Mayan number system at top) leaned against the wall of the ball court.

Our three “Mayan scribes” recording the story of biblical creation.

Day 11 – Two Brothers and Young Love

Part of telling the biblical creation and fall story from the perspective of a Mexican audience was a decision not to downplay the part about Cain murdering his brother, Abel, and being banished but rather to begin with that part of the story.  Adriana felt that part of the story was an important place to begin in the Mexican context because it speaks to the harsh reality of sons missing from the home – either due to the migration north (often illegally) into the United States and or to death or exile due to violence or exploitation.  Our story names that harsh reality right off the top and touches on the grief of the parents (Adam and Eve) left behind.

Today we pushed through with more scene work.  One of the more beautiful moments is a dance performed by our young Adam and Eve actors.  In true story guild fashion we have Eve unravelling from a long white cloth out of Adam’s side at her creation.  The two then turn and face each other, slowly walk towards each other with the awe of “the other”, then after some mirroring gestures of play, they waltz together around the stage, transfixed on each other (yes, its true, ALL Mexicans can dance, even David and Angeles, mere adolescents themselves!).    Their earnestness and nervousness fits the moment of creation perfectly.

David and Angeles in Contando Historia’s “Creation of Eve”.

Day 10 – Transporting Props

There are a number of predictable challenges that are a prerequisite part of any Sacred Canopy production.  Our biggest logistical challenge is inevitably that of transporting oversized props and sets around the neighbourhood to our rehearsal site.   Two years ago it was walking the Ark of the Covenant down the main street of Cuchilla, and season in Kenya it was hauling large cardboard animals across town in the back of an open-top Land Rover.  This morning it was the drums.  Our music director, Curtis Mathewson, made 13 drums out of large plastic barrels in 2010.  They’ve been in storage until this morning when we piled them out and into a borrowed van for the trip across Texcoco Ave. to the church.  Catherine courageously volunteered to be the driver designate in the crush and flow of Mexico City traffic.

Our intrepid Mexico City driver.

The drums, together with maracas, were the sound effects for the serpent’s approach in Scene 3 today. We have two snakes playing the part of the deceptive serpent to add an element of intrigue and surprise (both snakes look identical and are never seen on the stage at once but appear, as though magically from different places on the stage).

Beware the serpent!

Day 9 – Regresando al Inicio

Some of our “jouvenes” (teenagers).

Regresando el Inuncio is the title of our 2012 Cuchilla story telling.  It means “return to the beginning” and is intended to refer to both the beginning of creation (Genesis 1) and the pre-hispanic cultural moorings of the Mexican people.   The last time we were in Mexico we simply did a transplant (with Mexican adaptations) of the King David storytelling as we had performed it in Vancouver.  This season in Mexico we are working from the ground up meaning that Adriana wrote the script from scratch with her Cuchilla neighbourhood in mind. She wanted the story to be told in a way that, above all else, would bring hope to the audience.   To this end she decided that we should tell the story of biblical creation backwards!   So that rather than begin our the storytelling at the traditional starting point, i.e. with the beauty and fecundity of creation, we end there.  And rather than end with the exile from the Garden and the murder of Abel by Cain, (which would only serve to leave the audience feeling more discouraged than ever), we begin at that point.

Our 2012 Eve.

Today all 32 kids were back and eager to find out what their roles would be.  A third of the girls want to be Eve and have lobbied us on the side.  We have decided on the oldest boy, David (15), and the oldest girl, Angeles (16), to play the lead roles.  Both are tall and dark and embody a spirit of grace and vulnerability which seem fitting of our first parents.  The remaining cast will be variously the snakes (we have two), Cain, Able, God, sheep, a field of corn, the forest, and eventually all the elements of creation.

We had a great day of well-paced rehearsing and prep.  All the kids are with us from 10:00 – 1:00, then after the bulk leave others stay behind for another few hours of prop and set production, costume fittings, or extra rehearsals.  It is fun to have some of the young adults who were with us last season show up after they are done work to help out around the edges or simply to watch and remember.  We call them our King David children.

Day 8 – An Indigenous Adam

Thirty-two children and youth ranging in age from 6 – 16 arrived at 10:00 a.m. this morning to register as participants in our second Mexican season.  We have one week to pull together the six scenes that will comprise our public storytelling on Saturday and Sunday. The first day of rehearsals is always a little chaotic to say the least as we hardly know one kid from another (though about 1/3 had been apart of our previous season) and we sort of blunder our way into the first games and activities.

Adriana took extra care this season to highlight the uniqueness of Sacred Canopy’s approach to storytelling in Mexico using particular art forms and music unique to the Mexican context, and more specifically in this case to the southern most Mexican state of Chiapas.

Part of the raison d’être of Sacred Canopy is learn how to contextualize biblical narrative within the given cultural milieu. In theory this concept is not difficult, and indeed would seem a no-brainer.  In practise, however,  it is revolutionary.  The kids seemed intrigued at the concept of Adam or Eve as an indigenous Mexican. Whether its due to the advent of the internet or the global marketing of American culture, there seems to be a generally accepted culture of  whiteness (white Jesus, white Eve, white Adam etc.)  in many evangelical churches in Mexico.

Adriana is the perfect person to lead this discussion as she herself is an avid lover of her native country Mexico, and longs for the youth of this land to develop a strong sense of its beauty in relation to their Christian faith.

Day 7 – Catholic Mass and Pentecostal Worship

Today we experienced both ends of the spectrum of Christian belief and worship in Mexico .

We began by attending the 8:00 mass at Esparanza Catolico located just around the corner from where we are staying.   Catholicism of course has a long and deeply rooted history in Mexico beginning with the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan in 1519.  Plaster-cast saints adorn the alcoves along the sides of all Catholic churches in Mexico.  These are worn from being endlessly kissed and touched as they receive the daily intercessions of the parishioners.  At the front of the churches there is always a large and graphic 3-dimensional portrayal of the crucified Christ .  And most importantly of all in a Mexican Catholic Church, placed prominently somewhere in the sanctuary there will be a life-sized tapestry or painting or sculpture of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  It is said that after this brown-skinned Mary appearances to an indigenous peasant in 1532, the country turned en masse to embrace the Catholic faith.

After exiting the mass we stopped on the street corner for a deep-fried tamale and chocolate atole! This power pack of calories was just what we needed to pull off  a second round of worship in a language that we hardly comprehend.

In contrast to the solemnity and gilded grandeur of the Catholics, the Jerusalem Pentecostal Church (with whom we are partnering for this project) are content with their unfinished and completely unadorned cement brick rectangle of a sanctuary (see photo is Blog 3).  What resources they have go into key boards, and electrical guitars, and sound systems, and microphones.   Music and prayer and preaching define the spiritual energy of the Pentecostals.   In fact, so loud is the worshipping expression of this congregation that the last time we were in Mexico for a Sacred Canopy project we were not able to access the church as it had been ordered to close indefinitely by the local governing council due to noise disturbance!    The story was that the local Catholic priest was behind pushing for the closure.   It took Pastor Reuben over a year to negotiate reopening the church that we find ourselves in this season.

The relationship between evangelical Protestants (called “Christians” in Mexico) and Catholics has been acrimonious across much of Latin America, Mexico included, since evangelical missionaries first started winning converts from Catholicism in the 20th century.  Many Mexican families, who are normally very tightly knit, experience this relational rift within their own homes as some find a new freedom in faith with the “Christians” and others remain loyal to their Catholic heritage. This is all part of the religious milieu in which our storytelling project will take place over the upcoming week.

With the pastor and family outside the church.