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Ring them bells

Stan Gotlieb

Part of the Dominican church and convent under restoration in Yanhuitlan, about a half hour drive from Oaxaca. Photography by Diana Ricci

There are about 75 churches in Oaxaca, a city of about 100,000 residences. There is virtually nowhere that you can walk and not be within sight of a dome or a tower. The vast majority of them are Catholic, and old. A few are Protestant, and less old. There are others, ranging from Adventist to Bahai. There are no synagogues or mosques.

The Catholics, in addition to ordinary churches, have a Cathedral and a Basilica. Each and every one of them has at least one bell, which they use to summon the faithful. Sometimes, in one of my more curmudgeonly moods, I am convinced that the pealing of the early morning corresponds to nothing more than the misplaced enthusiasm of someone who has had a little too much alcohol and does not own a watch.

When I first came to Oaxaca, I lived in a working class colonia (neighborhood) with a very active church. Being a BLOCKQUOTE away, I couldn't help but notice when the bell rang at 3:00 a.m. When I asked, in Spanish (even worse than that which I presently slaughter), why this was, I got answers ranging from a shrug (who knows?) to the unlikely (maybe the wind) to the incomprehensible. After a while, I stopped hearing the bell, although the firecrackers (but that's another Letter)...

Nowadays, I hardly ever even hear the bells, whether asleep or awake. They blend in to the general background noise of diesel buses, triangles being struck by peddlers, steam whistles from the roaming hotdog vendors, the nose flutes of the itinerant knife sharpeners, and the ting-a-ling, bicycle bell sound announcing the arrival of the garbage truck. Nonetheless, I have retained my curiosity about those 3 a.m. clang-sessions.

I was recently informed that there actually are services performed at 4:00 (thus the bell is rung at 3:00 to give folks notice). According to my source, the church calendar is so crowded with masses and other prescheduled activities that special events such as birthdays, weddings, christenings, etc. must either be done during working hours or in the middle of the night. Poor people, who must work, are left with the 3:00 wakeup call.

This would explain why the church of Santo Domingo, a "rich" church near my current dwelling, does not ring its bell in the wee hours. It gives me hope that the house to which we plan to move in December, being located between three major churches, but in the downtown area, will remain peaceful.

(Unfortunately, this theory is flawed, according to a Catholic priest I know. He said that services are never held before six a.m. Why, then, do they ring those bells so early? Quien sabe (who knows)? he shrugs.)

Modern technology has added a new feature to the audial glut: the loudspeaker. Virtually all church pulpits are wired for sound, and some congregations are so proud of their pastor's homilies that they want to share them with the whole neighborhood. I have now had the (unsolicited) opportunity to hear such sermons emanating from four different edifices, and here is an amazing fact: they all sound alike! Not only are they fuzzy, tinny and hard to follow, but the VOICES all sound the same: baritone, orotund, nasal, self-assured.

Oaxaca is, by U.S. standards, a noisy place. The churches are by no means the largest contributor to the din, but they certainly play a role. Some gringos find the audio stimulation to be bothersome, but I do not. I find a vitality and extroverted sense of fun. Now if only I could get my neighbor to play her cumbia and salsa music at a slightly diminished volume...

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Published or Updated on: September 1, 2000 by Stan Gotlieb © 2008
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