Know your oppression

NOV maps fiestaMaps for a Fiesta: A Latino Perspective on Knowledge and the Global Crisis
Otto Maduro
2014, Fordham University Press
181 pages, paperback


IT IS HARD to characterise Maps for a Fiesta – which, above all, brings together reflections about problems of knowledge and its relationship with power, but in the form of an epistolary lecture. This makes it valuable to draw attention to the motivations of the book’s writer.

For as Otto Maduro is at pains to point out throughout the work, what we understand to be knowledge is always contextual and determined by our experience: the author’s own experience, therefore, is important if we are to understand what he was attempting to do.

The career of Maduro – a writer, activist and in his later years a globally recognized scholar of religion and Latino theologian – began in his native Venezuela and developed in tandem with the intellectual development of liberation theology.

When he died in May 2013 he was professor of world Christianity and Latin American Christianity at Drew University’s Theological School, but this is the first English translation of this title – originally published in 1992, the year in which he joined the Drew faculty, as Mapas Para La Fiesta. Other work Maduro published, many reflecting an underlying interest in how religion relates to the liberation of oppressed groups, include the influential Religión y conflicto social (Religion and Social Conflict, 1982) and numerous articles.

Born in Venezuela in 1945, Maduro studied philopshy and sociology, eventually undertaking postgraduate studies at the (Jesuit) Catholic university in Louvain, Belgium, before becoming a prominent voice in Latin American debates on the sociology of religion. He was first invited to the the United States to teach in the early 1980s where he encouraged the study and practice of liberation theology, but returned to Latin America periodically, teaching and working in Venezuela, Brazil, and Central America.

In a lengthy published conversation in 1983 with José Casanova, one of the world’s most influential scholars in the sociology of religion, Maduro described his understanding of and relationship with Marxism.

Maduro stated: “Although this may sound dissonant to many Marxist ears, when I say that I am a Marxist Christian, I mean ‘Christian’ to be the noun and ‘Marxist’ to be the adjective. For me, Christianity has a more profound thrust than Marxism. I see Marxism mainly as an instrument for an understanding of capitalist society and for its radical transformation … Marxism for me is the main, though not the only, instrument to understand the concrete conditions within which humakind is living today under capitalism. Christianity gives me the ground and the impulse to give myself to the cause of justice, whereas Marxism is the concrete historical tool which helps to understand and to overcome the concrete historical forms of injustice in present society.”

Maps for a Fiesta builds a reasonably straightforward argument about the relationship between knowledge and power in language that is aimed at the victims of injustice. Its aim, if somewhat concealed, is presumably to equip the oppressed with an important lay tool of epistemology in their battle against injustice.

One edge on that tool is for them to understand that the “truth” that they are in possession of is no less important than that of the educated and intellectual classes that contribute incessantly to their exlusion from the good life. In Latin America, and in matters of justice, there is no monopoly on truth.

Maduro writes: “Difficulties arise from the tendency of the nonelites to give the ‘experts’ total control over information and the communication, creation, and transformation of knowledge. And there’s always the possibility that experts and intellectuals will use the power handed over to them against the interests of those struggling to overcome opression. For these and many other reasons, the oppressed have to place the success of their own liberating efforts as an important criteria in order to discern what should be provisionally accepted as knowledge and what, on the contrary, should be called into question.” [p. 83]

There is no doubt that there is a role for epistemology in the battle against injustice, although this is hard to discern in and of itself and more likely to be found in the form of the daily statement of opposition to the propaganda and norms that are generated by the state and its institutional allies. As a reader, I would have been more comfortable learning about how Maduro’s ideas – which are profound and eloquently expressed – can provide an instrument of struggle for the poor in praxis. How many of his constituents, for example, will have read this book: very few, I venture (reluctantly) to suggest, while in no way implying that this fact diminishes it.

At the same time, this unusual text offers a great insight into the mind of a great writer, reflecting the thinking of a mature, compassionate and kindly man who has the interests of other people at heart. Like many of his contemproraries, and regardless of the Marxist tools that his convictions offered, Maduro fought injustice with the peaceful weapons of persuasion and brotherly love.

If that ambition may ultimately always be open to question amid the harsh political realities of Latin American life, it nonetheless reflects a democratic and humanist reflex that must play an equal role to more radical options within the progressive left.