"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Machos, Gringos, And Missionaries–A South American Side Show

The Andersons were Methodist missionaries sent to the Ecuadorian jungle by their local church in Ohio.  There they would minister to the spiritual needs of the Jivaro Indians, an Amazon tribe which had only recently been discovered by the Ecuadorian army and turned over to American missionaries for both a religious and secular education.  Successive governments of Ecuador had shown little or no interest in what they considered supernumerary savages, a cultural blight on the Europeanization of the country.  

The lower Andean Colorado Indians were almost as primitive – totems, red paint, loin clothes, and bows and arrows – but they had at least begun the trek from forest to town, and were now self-sustaining thanks to their entrepreneurial spirit.  Tourists paid good money to see them and to watch their ceremonies.  

The Otavalo Indians were almost European in attitude, dress, and behavior; and were tolerated by the government which saw their progressive integration as positive both for its contribution to the national economy and for its mark of sustainability.  They no longer needed the care, attention, or support of the government.

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The Jivaro were a stone age tribe without the wheel, gunpowder, or modern social organization; who were reported to practice human sacrifice; and who were therefore considered beyond the pale of civilization.  The government quite happily allowed and even encouraged American Christian missionaries to take charge of the Jivaro – to get them off their hands was a more accurate characterization of their indifference – and make of them what they might.  

Fernando Cabeza de Vaca, descendant of 15th century Spanish aristocracy was ironically chosen to be in charge of the government’s ‘civilizing mission’ and to provide oversight of the Americans settling in the Amazon. Since government policy was one of indifference if not impatience with the sanctimonious foreigners who created holy enclaves in the most remote and primitive parts of the Ecuadorian forest, Cabeza de Vaca had little to do and spent most of his time overseeing his own private import-export business.

In any case the Andersons, after months of training in Chillicothe, moved to Ecuador.  Their move was made considerably easier than usual because they could move into the house of the previous missionary who had disappeared and was presumed dead, but by whose hand no one knew.  However, the common wisdom among the American missionary community was that he had been taken by the Jivaro, dismembered, and fed to the piranhas in the Napo. The Andersons were told by church authorities to completely disregard the rumors.  Pastor Klinghoffer had died of natural causes and his body removed for burial in the the family plot in Bolivar. 

The Andersons, devoutly Christian people, easily dismissed the rumors and accepted the church’s explanation without question.  God, in his infinite wisdom, could never permit the demise of such a holy man whose spiritual presence alone would be enough to ward off evil.

The missionary house was a perfect facsimile of a 19th century American farmhouse – white frame, red barn, picket fence, trellis, porch swing, vegetable gardens, and pigs in the granary. Inside the house was decorated simply and without frills or fanfare – hard wooden furniture, large cross, samplers, crocheted rugs, rocking chairs, and four-poster beds.  It was as inviting and homely a farmhouse as any in Chillicothe; and the Andersons felt quite at home.  Moreover they felt that the austerity and simplicity of the house would be an example to the untutored heathen Jivaro.

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The Andersons were happy with their lodging and went to work making the few improvements they felt necessary – a better woodshed, a more ample chicken run, and a repaired roof – but all in all they were able to move in with little difficulty. 

The rumors about the savage death of Pastor Klinghoffer were unfortunately true.  The Jivaro, adherents of an ancient, primitive animist cosmology, and with only a few decades of exposure to white men, were convinced that the missionaries were avatars of their devil – a demonic eviscerating evil which lived everywhere, grew strong on blood and brains, and expanded exponentially with every kill.  Pastor Klinghoffer had indeed been taken off by the Jivaro to God knows what miserable, horrific fate.  The longevity of the Andersons, their very survival, was by no means a sure thing.

Yet they, straight out of Ohio and armed only with their own primitive faith in Jesus Christ and his salvational miracles, were woefully ill-equipped to deal with the Jivaro and were soon, like Pastor Klinghoffer, taken off and presumably dismembered, cooked, and eaten.

‘A mighty fortress is our God’ sang the congregants of the First Methodist Church of Quito in memory of the Andersons who no sooner had they established themselves in their Ohioan jungle farmhouse than the were taken off into the jungle to meet their fate.

Immediately after the disappearance of the Andersons, their farmhouse was ransacked by Amazon pirate mercenaries who plied the Napo River selling arms and ammunition to the leftist guerillas whose encampment was not far from it. Nothing was left except the pigsty, woodpile, and sampler which Mrs. Anderson had embroidered with religious homilies. The governor of Napo Province declared the mission null and void and let the jungle take over.  The Ohio presbytery, discouraged after two savage deaths, declined to send a successor.

None of this was of any interest to Ecuador’s elite, transplanted Spanish grandees whose families had come two centuries ago with the conquistadors.  Fernando Cabeza de Vaca was a direct descendant of a storied, historic family.  He had a hacienda in Tumbaco, the fertile valley below the capital, homes in Miami and Biarritz, and wealth comparable to that of the finest families in Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile. 

His lavish soirees in his colonial mansion in Quito were renowned – smoked salmon from Norway, Irish game hen from Connemara, prime beef from the Argentine pampas, and the best aged single malt whiskies from Islay.  The guests were both landed Ecuadorian gentry, high-level government officials (also with Spanish or European pedigrees), entrepreneurs, financiers, and land developers.  The women were elegant, beautiful, and sophisticated.  Influential Brazilians, Chileans, and Colombians travelled to Quito just to attend one of Cabeza de Vaca’s social events.

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Cabeza de Vaca was not only born of Spanish aristocratic blood, refreshed by that of the adventurous conquistadors, and consolidated by marriage to the most important houses of Europe; but he, after many generations in Latin America had become the epitome of male machismo.  He was virile, confident, dismissive of lesser men and courtly and seductive to women.  He had mistresses in America, France, and in the Europeanized capitals of South America.  He was supremely confident of his sexual allure, his intelligence, his political savvy, and his endless and boundless energy.

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If there ever was a man more dismissive of the Jivaro, their American missionary saviors, or ill-mannered, unsophisticated foreigners of any ilk than Fernando Cabeza de Vaca, he was unknown; and so it was with humorous irony that he accepted the post from the President who, while not quite as dismissive of the jungle as Cabeza de Vaca, was a close second.  The two had their laughs at both missionaries and Indians over drinks at Cabeza de Vaca’s Tumbaco retreat.  

As part of their macho competitiveness and complete disregard for Ecuadorian Indians of any tribe, they both had indigenous lovers.  Cabeza de Vaca kept a beautiful Huarani woman in a Quito penthouse, and the President had cinq-a-sept dalliances with women from the most prominent Indian tribes -  the Tungurahua, the Tugua, the Waranka, the Puruhá, and the Saraguro.  It was a special friendship, and mistresses as well as financial information were liberally shared.

Macho, gringo, and missionary – that particular, peculiar cultural mix in South America, each group largely independent of every other but strangely dependent.  Gringo men want to strut and pose like Fernando Cabeza de Vaca, have his paramours, his money, and his haciendas.  Yet as hard as they try, they come off only as sad misogynist womanizers without class, taste, or promise.  

Machismo is the worst of evils in a feminized America, but done right it has class and staying power.  How sad it is, Cabeza de Vaca and the President said over a glass of Langavulin, that such a sexless old man is President of the United States.

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