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Silver, Sword and Stone: The story of Latin America in three extraordinary lives, by Maria Arana

06 March 2020

Catherine Pepinster on the task of epitomising Latin American society

ONE of the most dramatic moments of the recent Synod on the Amazon, called by Pope Francis in Rome recently, was the theft of a statue of Pachamama, a Latin American Mother Earth figure, from a church by traditionalists, who then dumped it in the river Tiber.

Outraged militant conservatives saw the reverence for the naked, pregnant Pachamama in deep contemplation as like idolatry, especially as many considered her akin to the Virgin Mary. The Latin American Pope Francis, who knows something of the way in which the cultures of the continent have often blended with Christianity to shape a particular form of religious faith, apologised for the mistreatment of the statue.

Those on both sides of that dispute in Rome would do well to read Silver, Sword and Stone — in which Pachamama features — to grasp the complexities of Latin American history and the way in which the encounter between the New World and the traditions of the West has forged the present.

Marie Arana has set herself an immense task in trying to explain this hemisphere and its people, and she attempts to do it by focusing on the money made from — and the poverty caused by — precious metals (silver), the terrible violence of native cultures and the colonialists (sword), and religion (stone) that had developed owing to Latin America’s history, but is now only loosely Catholic orthodoxy.

Then there is a particular individual whose story is told to highlight each theme: the miner Leonor Gonzales; the criminal Carlos Buegos; and the Jesuit priest Xavier Albo — the people who epitomise the exploitation, violence, and faith of Latin America.

Silver, Sword and Stone is a hybrid, combining history with journalism and political commentary. It is beautifully written, passionate, and full of verve. It can also be overwhelming in its detail. Arana alleges that greed, violence, and religion have uniquely shaped Spanish America, but they have affected much of the world subjected to the imperialist adventures of the West.

What is confirmed by Arana, though, is that Christianity is an immensely adaptable religion. It is not European; rather, it is an inculturated global faith, as the people who brought statues of Pachamama to Rome reminded us.

Catherine Pepinster is a former editor of The Tablet and the author of The Keys and The Kingdom: Britain and the papacy from John Paul to Francis (T & T Clark, 2017).


Silver, Sword and Stone: The story of Latin America in three extraordinary lives
Maria Arana
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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