tlf news

Vol. xxiv #4

December, 2003

José Trinidad Reyes
(Honduras, 1797-1855)

This is what'll be the result:
I'll end up without any sheep.
They always dump the heaviest load
Of the taxes on the poorest.

--La Pastorela de Elisa

In January of 1835, the bowels of the earth emitted a fierce roar which shook everything. Suddenly a rain of ash began to fall without pity on Tegucigalpa, the sun disappeared and darkness covered the city. "It's the end of the world! It's the day of the Last Judgement!" the people screamed, running panic-stricken to the confessionals in the churches, bearing pine torches to keep from being trampled in the stampede. The priests didn't know what to do in the face of that torrent of sins seeking absolution. But in the midst of the bedlam and the beating of breasts, one priest in a black cassock, a mestizo of medium stature with pious but mocking lips, raised the energetic voice of reason, restored calm and said to the crowd: "Cool it, folks, and stop this uproar; it's not Judgement Day. Some nearby volcano has erupted; the danger has already passed and the ashes will stop falling in a short time." This was José Trinidad Reyes, the Honduran priest who combined his job in the pulpit with the arts, the cultivation and teaching of the sciences, and a political militancy for the most liberal ideas of his time, for which he was persecuted and even jailed on at least one occasion. That civilizing instinct of Padre Reyes gave Honduras its first university (today the National University, of which Trinidad Reyes was the first rector in 1847), and an important theatrical tradition which is still present among us.

But the life and the contribution of Trinidad Reyes are little known to current generations. His portrait and his name appear on the collages which schoolchildren construct every year when the 15th of September, the date of Central American independence, comes around. Surrounded by blue and white ribbons, Padre Reyes appears together with the other important figures of Independence. (It is a curious fact that today's heroes were yesterday's villains and subversives; some of them, like Francisco Morazán -- and Socrates -- even assassinated for offending morality and corrupting the people with their ideas). But in the midst of the noise of drums and trumpets parading to celebrate so-called Independence, there are few teachers who take the time to explain the real significance that the lives of those personalities of the murals have for our present reality. And that phenomenon is especially true in the case of José Trinidad Reyes.

Octavio Paz points out that for the majority of monks and nuns of the colony, the cloister was a career, a profession. In the case of Padre Reyes, he sought and found in the cloister the recognition and the opportunities for education which his status as a mestizo denied him, at a time when education was the exclusive right of the Spanish and Creole nobility. He was born in Tegucigapla in 1797; his father, a music teacher, taught him the basics of the trade, sufficient for him to earn the post of assistant to the kappelmeister in the cathedral of León in Nicaragua, where he perfected his musical skills and at the same time studied in the university. There he entered the Order of the Recoletos and there he was ordained in 1822. But in 1824, in the tumult of the Central American revolutions, the Recoletos were expelled from Nicaragua and emigrated to the order's monastery in Guatemala. Guatemala was one of the most important cultural centers of the colony, and there Reyes was able to complete his humanistic and religious training and break free of the restraints his plebeian origins imposed on him.

He returned to Honduras in 1828, with permission from his superiors to have a time to attend to his family. But the next year witnessed the liberal revolution of 1829, which suppressed all religious orders in Central America. Reyes remained as a secular priest; under the circumstances, a return to Guatemala was impossible, so he took up residence in Tegucigalpa, which until his death in 1855 would be the stage for his abundant religious, cultural and artistic activities. Ramón Rosa, a Bohemian intellectual later in the century, comments that what was a disaster for the religious orders was a stroke of great fortune for Honduras.

In the Honduran Caribbean, the months prior to Christmas, are the months of the rainy season: usually a pleasant rain that renders the climate, which most of the year is scalding hot, temperate and agreeable. And in those months people in the city and in the countryside, including the most remote villages, have the custom of presenting pastorelas and posadas, a theatrical tradition of Medieval Europe which by way of colonial México spread through all of Central America. Among his other accomplishments, Padre Reyes was the person who brought that ancient tradition to Honduras, thus laying the groundwork for the development of a Honduran theatre. The pastorelas for which he wrote both text and music are his most representative and best know work. Their originality lies in his having adapted the traditional form to the cultural reality of the Honduran city and countryside, and in using that structure to comment artistically on the social and political situations of his time. Reyes staged these pastorelas in the churches of Tegucigalpa. teatro la fragua has adapted some of the pastoral dialogues of Padre Reyes in its work Navidad Nuestra, which is also staged in the churches of Honduras and which with time has become a classic of contemporary Honduran theatre, notable for its harmoniously eclectic mix of different strands of traditions placed in the context of a Honduran Christmas.

The pastorela that stands out among these bears the name Olimpia. The name is probably inspired by the French feminist Olympia de Gouges, assassinated for her fight for equality among men and women in the French Revolution. Trinidad Reyes was very influenced by the French avant-garde, and in this area he was scandalously ahead of his time: he was a strong advocate of women's rights (the female characters in his pastorelas are very outspoken women). A key text in the history of the fight for women's rights in Latin America is one which he published under the pseudonym of Sofía Seyers: it is a feminist manifesto, in which Reyes strongly advocates the most elemental right of women to an education. Many of the concepts Reyes expresses in that article are clearly inspired by the French socialists, who were themselves the continuation of the legacy of the whole movement of the French Enlightenment.

Thoroughly versed in the Enlightenment and in the best of humanism and religious art, Padre Reyes was convinced of the importance of the arts (especially theatre) for the civilization and progress of nations. His life in Tegucigalpa was a continuous fight against the excesses of fanaticism and superstition, both political and religious. He gave Tegucigalpa its first piano, its first printing-press, its first library; he was a mainstay in finding relief and consolation for the victims of an epidemic of Asian cholera; he was an indefatigable foe of poverty and its causes, insisting on the right to education of the poor not only in matters of the faith, but in the more worldly aspects of culture and science. A liberal priest who saw no contradiction between playing cards or billiards and preaching about the virtues to which every human being should aspire.

Reyes did not have the stature of a Sor Juana Inés de La Cruz or a Rubén Darío (against whom he is unjustly measured at times), in terms of the influence that the life and work of Sor Juana and Darío have had not only for México or Nicaragua, but for world culture in general. Trinidad Reyes was a man of modest talents and the influence of his work has not reached farther afield than the domestic Honduran space. But in the simplicity and modesty of his talents, he represented a great light of art, science and culture for the Honduras of his era. An era not so different from our own in its sorrows, disillusionments and hopes; an era like ours desperately in need of creativity and new ideas. To the intellectuals he bequeathed a university and to Honduran artists a clear vision of the arts as a Mount Tabor where human beings transform themselves and their world.

--Carlos M. Castro

From all of us at teatro la fragua:

May your Christmas be filled with peace and joy;
and may you help bring that peace
to this world of darkness in the new year.

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