Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, March 13, 2005
by Susan Ives
The calendar for March sounds like a comedy routine. The International Women’s Day march was on March 5. We will march on March 19th to mark the start of the war in Iraq. The Cesar Chavez march is March 26th. All this marching in March!
Yet there is nothing funny about women’s struggle for equality, about waging war in foreign lands, about the fight for dignity for migrant workers. Nothing funny at all.
It’s not accident that we march in March. The confusing convergence is explained by the very meaning of the words.
March – the walking march — is derived from the Middle English marchen, literally “to mark out”: to walk steadily and rhythmically forward in step with others. The same etymology also denotes a boundary. It can mean a frontier, a border or a disputed territory. We see it in the word demarcation, in the noble title marquis and in the English Marches, the borderland between England and Wales.
The month of March, Martius to the Romans, refers to Mars, the god of war. It heralded the beginning of spring and hence the start of the military campaigning season, which lasted through October.
Mars embarked on his battles with his sister Eris (strife) and two of his children, Phobos and Deimos (panic and rout.) His traditional color is red – Mars is the red planet, of course – a reference to spilled blood.
In the Roman tradition, weapons, horses and war-trumpets were purified from March 19, the Quinquatrus, through March 23, the Tubilustrium. These festivals also honored the goddess Minerva, who ruled over war and wisdom.
Mars got his start as the god of agriculture but as Rome evolved from an agrarian society to an empire he abandoned the plow and took up the sword.
The twists and turns of this linguistic labyrinth eventually lead us to a common center.
Marching is the heartbeat of peace and justice, its rhythmic, steady cadence. Marching demands that we be in step with one another, not only in step with our feet, but also with our hearts and minds.
It is the embodiment of unity, the incarnation of solidarity. Marching is harmony made flesh. E pluribus unum, our Roman friends would have said. Out of many, one.
Henry David Thoreau understood this intuitively when he wrote in Walden, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
When we march together we hear the same beat, we march to the same drummer. It’s good to be reminded that we’re not a solo riff.
The boundary meaning of the word is enlightening. We marchers are border people who tread on disputed territory. The borders are not necessarily geographical ones; more often, they are edgy ideas, frontiers of thought and action.
Those in power do not march. Instead, they parade: a display of might, power and triumph.
It’s significant that the god of war went to battle with strife, panic and rout, for these are the handmaidens of oppression. They cannot hear the beat of peace and justice.
It is also telling that Minerva, Mars’ female counterpart who combined war and wisdom, has no month named after her, no planet. We have honored Mars’ trumpet call of war and forgotten Minerva’s wisdom.
And think, for a moment, of the evolution of Mars. Minerva, the forgotten women, as we forget women today. Mars discarded role as the protector of farm workers, as we fail to protect farm workers here and now.
And, finally, the triumph of Mars, the god of war. Not much has changed between the Pax Romana and the Pax Americana. There is still no peace and still no justice. We still worship war.
But still we march in March.