With a Guatemala’s history of social and political instability, the place of religion in public life is often fraught with tensions and ambiguities, especially with regard to the nature of morality. These issues tend to crop up when the practices of competing religious institutions exit the relatively circumscribed spaces of churches and enter into erstwhile public spaces. The following examples, drawn from my own fieldwork and that of two other ethnographers of Christianity in Guatemala, illustrate these tensions and suggest that greater attention to the sensory dimensions of public religiosity can shed light on the varying ways that religious actors imagine and engage with public spaces.

Processions and Passions

Semana Santa (Holy Week) is without a doubt the most elaborate and dramatic public display of Catholic faith in Guatemala. During that week, Catholics perform a cycle of procession in which santos —wooden or plaster images depicting the story of the Passion— wend their way through the streets of every city and town. For the occasion, streets along procession routes are closed to traffic so that they can be carpeted with dyed sawdust and flower petals carefully arranged into elaborate patterns. Men dressed in purple or white robes and head cloths, mimicking an imagined version of first-century Levantine clothing, bear the weight of the massive andas (biers) on which the santos stand, while others dressed as Roman legionnaires escort them. Funeral dirges set the lumbering pace of the procession—low brass instruments play minor-key melodies with sweeping movements while trumpets and clarinets crescendo above them before the whole piece comes precipitously crashing down in a clatter of drums and cymbals. As with many rituals in Guatemala, fireworks accompany the procession, announcing its movements with percussive blasts that leave small clouds of grey-black smoke high in the sky. The unmistakable scent of burnt gunpowder mingles with the equally distinct scent of incense. Participants alternate between carrying the santos and following the procession throughout the day, while spectators crowd the sidewalks to watch its movement. For all intents and purposes large portions of every city and town are immobilized that week. These events are spectacular.

Once, while watching a procession amble to a stop at a business owned by a prominent family in Cobán, Alta Verapaz, a group of five or six children crowded by me on the sidewalk. Drawn by the crowd and the sounds that drifted down the street, they jockeyed to get a better look at the spectacle. The bier featured an image of Jesus shouldering the cross on his way to the crucifixion. As the procession drew nearer, the details became clearer: the texture of the faux-wood cross, the sheen of Jesus’s satin robe, the crown of thorns holding down a wig of chestnut hair that blew in the breeze, the painted blood trickling down his brow, the flowers at his feet, the gold and green signs with Biblical verses propped on each side of the mahogany bier, the silver censer swung by a man at the lead trailing wisps of rich smelling smoke, the music getting louder. The experience was enrapturing. And then suddenly a man in a crisp white dress shirt and black slacks ran out of the building behind us, scolding the kids and ushering them inside. “¡Métanse pa’ dentro. ¡Apúrense! ¡Eso no es para ustedes!” (“Get inside! Hurry up! That isn’t for you!”) The building behind us was a Pentecostal church, and as the man shut its door behind him, it became clear that he had been worried about the effect of the Catholic idolatry on the children.

Though these public displays of Catholicism prompt some people to retreat into relatively more private spaces, from the Catholic perspective there is no question about the legitimacy of their own use of public spaces. Indeed the spatial arrangement of Latin American cities founded under colonial rule maximizes Catholicism’s place as a central public institution. At the traditional heart of the city is an open plaza surrounded by buildings housing secular and religious authorities, including city hall, the palace of arms, the courthouse, and the Catholic Church. Easter processions are oriented towards the church on the central plaza, by starting or ending, or both, there. The fact that seats of sacred and secular authority share the plaza means that the latter are often co-opted in the performance of Catholic rituals; for example, the honor of first carrying the santos as they exit the church is borne by a number of city officials, judges, and others who work for the state.

By dramatizing the Passion in public spaces the processions link Guatemala’s Catholics to Christianity’s sacred history. Cobán’s streets stand in for the road to Calvary, as participants ritually enact Jesus’s suffering by carrying the santos. The ritual is meant to have a moral effect on participants, too. Carrying a santo is understood as an embodied technique for reflecting on the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice, and of realizing, in both senses of the word, its importance in one’s own spiritual life. As several Catholic scholars have suggested, it is through these embodied performances, in their full spatial, kinesthetic, and sensory dimensions, that believers come to apprehend and experience something of their religion’s mysteries—a point which I take to be absolutely crucial for understanding the meaning of this particular ritual.

The performance of the Semana Santa processions and the demands they place on the city’s population (e.g. closing streets, suspending regular commerce, marshaling resources for the event, etc.) are a way for the Catholic Church as an institutional body to establish its ascendancy over public space. It is clear, however, that the Church’s authority in Latin America has never been absolute. The way that indigenous religious practices were incorporated into the feasts in the Church’s liturgical calendar in the colonial era speaks to this fact. More recently, new patterns of urban growth have displaced the symbolic importance of the town square, and with it that of the Catholic Church. Although Catholicism has retained a privileged position in public life, it is by no means hegemonic, since Guatemala has one of the highest percentages of evangélicos (a category which includes members of mainline Protestant Christian denominations as well as those of non-Catholic Pentecostal/Charismatic churches) in Latin America. Evangélicos’ practice of founding churches in repurposed storefronts, warehouses, and residences has effectively meant that competing religious centers have been set up in both central and peripheral urban areas in Guatemala. Additionally, a new kind of structure—the megachurch—has more directly challenged the distinctive place of Catholic churches in the religious geography of urban spaces.

The Stone Campaign

A very different kind of ritual than the Semana Santa processions, with a very different set of spatial and aesthetic relations, is described by Kevin O’Neill in his work with the Neo-Pentecostal megachurch El Shaddai in Guatemala City. In the winter of 2006, El Shaddai’s congregation was engaged in a “covert spiritual warfare campaign,” which sought to “take back the streets from crime, drugs and corruption [and was] intended to prepare the ground for [its head pastor’s] political campaign [for the Guatemalan presidency].” The campaign involved a peculiar plan to have congregants place seventy-two spiritually charged objects around the city. Over the course of three weeks for seven hours a day, shifts of eight people prayed in tongues, channeling the power of God with one hand outstretched towards the sky and the other over a basket full of smooth black rocks. Once fully charged through the power of prayer, the stones were to be taken to strategic points around the city including the airport, zoo, the Supreme Court building, the national palace, Catholic churches, the headquarters of the tax agency, the national defense and polices offices, and the four cardinal points of the city. On New Year’s Day the stones would be “detonated” like holy improvised explosive devices. In the words of one congregant, they would be “exploding the demonic strongholds that governed the city” and thus do away with “corruption. . .violence, muggings, [and] bad ideas.” In short, they would transform the moral character of the city in one fell swoop.

In some regards one would be hard pressed to find a better example of a religious institution’s engagement with the public sphere. The ritual sought to intervene in the socio-political climate of a dense urban area with a population of about 2.4 million people. It drew its authority to do so from an ideology that framed social problems including crime, poverty, and an ineffective governmental infrastructure in terms of moral purity and corruption; and sought to carry out its project using methods and techniques that were decidedly spiritual in nature. Yet, what I find most striking about the campaign is that even though its effects were meant to be concrete and publicly significant, the means through which they would be achieved were silent and invisible. Everyone involved in the campaign was an insider, and care was taken to keep the ritual objects out of sight of non-believers lest they try to sabotage the plan. One congregant, for example, describes how he “quietly tuck[ed] the stone in [a] potted plant near the front of the building… an inconspicuous enough place not to be touched or moved until it was time to detonate it.” The transformative shockwaves unleashed from the stones, it would seem, were to be as invisible and silent as their deployment, and their effects would only be known by the decline of immoral behavior in the city.

In contrast to the Catholic processions, which are intended to be seen, heard, smelled, and felt by as many people as possible (even if some them would prefer not to), El Shaddai’s ritual was hidden from all but those performing it. The general public would never witness its performance; they would only come to see its effects after the fact. Indeed, it is tempting to say that El Shaddai’s congregants feel authorized to engage in “spiritual warfare” of this kind precisely because of their status as an invisible but righteous minority that is privy to divine power not available to the corrupt majority among whom they live. The critical problem for them, in fact, might be how to address a public that is imagined as resistant to receiving the divinely inspired, morally edifying message offered. Catholics performing Semana Santa processions do not entertain such concerns about inhabiting public spaces or addressing the city’s inhabitants. Indeed, those who wish to resist the Catholic spectacle must effectively remove themselves to private interior spaces, and even then sounds may render the walls of those spaces permeable.

Sakapultek Radios

A third and final example highlights the problematics of public religiosity and private space. In the Western highlands of Guatemala, Sakapultek-Maya evangélicos practice a form of proselytizing that involves tuning their home radios to a religious station, turning the volume up, and facing the speaker away from the interior of the house in the hopes that the radio preacher’s speech will reach un-saved ears (I thank Robin Shoaps for sharing the details of this case with me). Thus mass mediated speech is imagined as the catalyst for the salvation of religious “others” who, though theoretically unspecified, are in all likelihood one’s Catholic neighbors. This proselytization strategy is advantageous because it avoids posing a direct challenge to another person’s moral standings. Evangélicos can count on sound to leak across physical and social boundaries, but simultaneously claim that they are listening to the radio for their own benefit, and thus mitigate social tensions that would arise if they directly proselytized to their neighbors.

There are several interesting points of comparison to note here. As with El Shaddai’s campaign, the moral authority upon which the Sakapultek-Maya evangélicos act seems to be based on their status as a pious, invisible, but in this case audible, minority that desires to transform the public around them. Because of their social position they have had to find a means for doing so that dissimulate their purpose—the stone becomes just another bit of debris on a city street, the sounds of the radio can be explained away as being meant for one’s own consumption. As with the evangélico in Cobán worrying about the effects the Catholic processions on his congregation’s children, the Sakapultek case indicates the belief that certain kinds of sensory stimuli can effectively transform a person’s moral character, even if he or she comes into contact with them accidentally or involuntarily. This is evident in the Catholic processions, too, in so far as they are built around the proliferation of spectacular sensory symbolism including the sights of the santos, the weight felt by those carrying them, the sounds of dirges and fireworks, and the smells of flowers, incense, and gunpowder. I think that we might also interpret the deliberate channeling of divine power into a more restricted set of sensory stimuli as being meaningful for the other congregations. The practices of materializing divine power through glossolalic prayer into smooth black stones, and of amplifying radio preaching in the hopes that it will be (over-)heard across physical and metaphysical distances, hinge on an ideology that privileges the relationship between the oral/aural and the spiritual.

My aim here has been to show that attention to sensory techniques and their attendant discourses can help us understand how religions interface with the public sphere, both individually and in relation to each other. There is a consequential relationship between the aesthetic choices that these religious groups make and the ways that they conceive of the spaces they inhabit, the kinds of subjects that they seek to produce, and the publics they engage. As Steven Feld has noted, “as places make sense, senses make place”, which is to say that there is a constitutive and constituting relationship between sensory experience and the social construction of space. In creating spaces for themselves in Guatemala, evangélicos and Catholics build sensoriums that orient their adherents’ actions qua religious subjects. In a context in which tensions exist among multiple religious institutions vying to regulate the public sphere’s moral tone, conflicts arise not just around, but precisely because of their differing aesthetic sensibilities and the sensory experiences of belonging these entail.