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What is Pachamama?

Peruvian Dominican theologian Sister Mila Diaz Solano provides a bridge for understanding

Sister Mila Diaz

I was born Catholic, my parents are Catholic, my grandparents, and great-grant parents were Catholics as well. I grew up in very Christian, committed family and before I joined my Dominican sisters, I was an active parishioner in my hometown city, La Oroya, Peru. I have in my veins indigenous blood from the Andean indigenous nation of the Tarumas, and I also have Spanish blood. I am a “mestiza” (a mix of Spanish and indigenous blood). My family speaks Spanish, but my grandparents speak Quechua—one of the approximately 47 languages spoken in my country.[1]

My three brothers and I were born and grew up in a city. Nevertheless, the 80% of my extended family (aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.) are farmers. Even though I lived in a city, from my childhood I appreciated the work of farmers who provided us with agricultural products. Moreover, I was taught to be grateful with and for the earth because the life of many in my family depended on the harvest. My family taught me the right of the land to rest after some years of farming. Otherwise, the products would not have the same nutritious quality. Furthermore, all creation deserves to rest, as we humans do.

Pachamama is not a goddess, it is not an idol, it expresses a relationship. Pachamama, outside of any indigenous religion, is a Quechua expression rooted in two words pacha, which means earth and mama=mother.

My first mission as a Dominican Sister was in a rural area where the majority spoke Quechua. I was responsible, together with four other sisters, for the administration of a parish that included 29 small villages. There was no priest in the whole area. We Dominican Sisters, were, and still are, “the Church” presence in these villages since the year 2000. The Dominican Sisters, were entrusted by the dioceses to baptize, celebrate the Liturgy of the Word with Communion, conduct funerals, accompany the sick, and form lay leaders to strengthen the faith of all Catholics in the area and to evangelize. During my three years there, the bishop visited two or three small villages once a year. Also, we had a priest every other month. That means most of the villages had Eucharist and Reconciliation once every year. We, Dominicans prepared the youth of many villages for confirmation every two years.

The people in these small villages hold a deep connection with the land. As in the case of my extended family, their livelihood, the means for their children’s education and medical treatments, and the existence of livestock depend on the products of the earth. Rain is sometimes a blessing and at other times a cause of dreadful landslides. I witnessed the faith of the people who prayed for God’s providential care every morning.

Why are all these details important? Because being in contact with the people in rural areas, whose life depends on nature, I learned about Pachamama.

What is Pachamama for me and for Catholics in the Andes and in the Amazon?

Pachamama is not a goddess, it is not an idol, it expresses a relationship. Pachamama, outside of any indigenous religion, is a Quechua expression rooted in two words pacha which means earth and mama=mother. If you ask a shaman (who is a religious leader from an indigenous religion in the Amazon), or a member of an ancestral religion–non-Christian—the answer you will receive is different than mine. Among indigenous and non-Catholic peoples, Pachamama is their goddess (i.e. the land itself), what we can call “mother nature,” as well as is the water, and other elements of creation. Pachamama has no representation, but many pictures represent the relationship between the people and the land.

In the Bible, an agricultural-centered community prefigured in the accounts of Genesis, expresses a similar relationship as the people in the Andes. In Gen 2:7 and in 3:19 we read that Israelites understood that God created Adam from the Adamah. The Hebrew noun Adam, which denotes “human being” – comes from the red color of the land in those areas (Edom=red). This word Adam appears in a word play with the noun Adamah “ground, earth.” Both come from the same root. Thus, a deep connection between humankind and earth is implied in these passages of Genesis. This is the sense that Pachamama has for Catholics.

What was the significance of “the Pachamama” in the Synod of the Amazon?

The process of preparation for the synodal meeting in Rome, started at least two years ago in Peru. People of different religions and cultures were invited to participate. The Pan-Amazonian region includes vast territories of Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, the Guyana and French Guiana, Surinam, Brazil, and Bolivia. 60% of the territory in Peru is part of the Amazonian region. In this vast territory we have 43 languages and 51 indigenous nations. From these nations, at least 15 are not in contact with the rest of civilization. [2] Catholics and non-Catholics from the Amazonian region were invited into the conversations in preparation for the synod because they share the same territory and because the life of all of them is in danger. That is a concern for the Catholic Church in those regions, and hopefully, now a concern for all the world.

Multinational enterprises are extracting the resources in the Amazon. They are polluting the rivers, air, and land. These companies are bringing people from other areas (mostly men) to live in camps and be cheap-laborers. There are new diseases, deforestation, human trafficking. The people are experiencing a socio-environmental crisis, migration, and displacement of indigenous nations.[3] The lifestyle of indigenous nations has been damaged. Most of them not only depended on farming but on the natural fruits, on the products of the rivers, on animals and vegetation. Before these multinational companies arrived indigenous nations—Catholics and non-Catholics—had a lifestyle that preserved creation.

Cultures and Catholicism

Indigenous Catholics and non-Catholics know better than missionaries how to live in the middle of that environment. Missionaries arrive in the remote areas every other month. Nevertheless, it was the initiative of missionaries (bishops, clergy, and religious congregations) in the Pan-Amazonian region that gave rise to the synod. There are martyrs among missionaries, among lay leaders of the indigenous nations and social leaders of non-Catholic indigenous nations. They were killed by assassins hired by these multinational companies or by human traffickers because they defended the rights of indigenous nations and of ecosystems.

The conversations in Rome were the last step of the synod. It included people from different religions and different cultures of the Pan-Amazonian region as auditors.[4] Representatives of the indigenous nations brought some symbols from their culture. Among them, the statues that you have seen in the news of a woman with a baby in her womb, a canoe, and fishing nets. The symbols reminded them of their people and of the vulnerable situation in the Amazon. The statue of a woman with indigenous features, with the baby in her womb is how they represented the fertility of the Amazon and the vulnerability of all the Amazonian nations. This statue is not an idol, it does not exist in the Amazon as a goddess. It was a representation, a symbol, made specially for this synod.

Catholics coming from the Amazon did not, and do not, worship them. In the results of the synod you will not find anything that refers to a worship of what was called “idols.” But because Catholics share the land and are evangelizing these areas, the synod is calling to the Church there for an integral conversion: A pastoral, cultural, ecological, and synodal conversion.[5]

Evangelization, from the beginning of the history of the Church, implied respect for the cultures involved and an inculturation of the gospel. The four gospels are a clear evidence of that. They were born amid different communities and cultures. That is what it means to be Catholic or a universal Church.

I want to end my intervention quoting the Pontifical Biblical Commission that speaks of the Inculturation of the Word of God: Every authentic culture is, in fact, in its own way the bearer of universal values established by God.”[6] The indigenous people of the Amazon bear the value of a deep relationship and care for creation that many urbanized, industrial and technological nations have lost. Multinational companies from urbanized, industrial, and technological nations are devastating the Amazon. We, as a Church living in that region, have a sense of urgency for collaborating with indigenous nations to uplift human dignity and better life conditions (AG 12). We are called to protect life in all its expressions as we continue our evangelization there. And we must do with a deep respect for cultures and non-Christians (AG 16). Thank you.


[1] Ministerio de Educación del Perú, www.minedu.gob.pe/campanias/lenguas-originarias-del-peru.php

[2] General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops , www.sinodoamazonico.va/content/sinodoamazonico/en/the-panamazonian-region.html

[3] Ibid., www.sinodoamazonico.va/content/sinodoamazonico/es/documentos/documento-final-de-la-asamblea-especial-del-sinodo-de-los-obispo.html, Art. 10-14.

[4] Ibid., www.sinodoamazonico.va/content/sinodoamazonico/it/documenti/elenco-dei-partecipanti-del-sinodo-per-l-amazonia.html

[5] Ibid., www.sinodoamazonico.va/content/sinodoamazonico/es/documentos/documento-final-de-la-asamblea-especial-del-sinodo-de-los-obispo.html, Art. 17-19.

[6] Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, April 23, 1993.

2 thoughts on “What is Pachamama?”

  1. Thanks so much for a wonderful explanation of ‘Pachamama’, calling me to respect the earth and other cultures even more.

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