Mesoamerican Religions: Colonial Cultures

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The colonial period in Mesoamerica began with the founding of Spanish colonies in the 1520s to the 1540s and ended with the emergence of independent states during the 1820s. The Spanish Conquest and the imposition of colonial rule was often violent, disruptive, and accompanied by epidemic disease. In the long run, however, most Mesoamerican communities enjoyed local self-rule and flourished under the relative stability of the pax colonial. The native subjects of what the colonists called New Spain were exploited economically, but many aspects of native culture persisted under Spanish rule, influenced only gradually by contact with non-Mesoamerican cultures. However, the one dimension of Mesoamerican culture that Spaniards were implacably dedicated to destroying was its religion.

Arguably, therefore, the colonial institution that most profoundly affected indigenous life in Mesoamerica was the Catholic Church. Its impact was initiated by the earliest arrival of Spaniards in Mesoamerica; by the time Hernando Cortés and his men arrived in Tenochtitlan on November 8, 1519, for example, they had destroyed native temples, erected wooden crosses, and criticized indigenous religious practices, often against the advice of the Spanish priests in their company. Cortés's efforts were allegedly showcased during one of his first conversations with Moctezuma, the Mexica (or Aztec) emperor. According to Bernal Díaz, a Spaniard who accompanied Cortés, the Spanish conquistador sought out Moctezuma in his palace. There he promoted the worship of Christ, grieved about the Mexica worship of devils, and begged Moctezuma and his party to become Christian. Moctezuma's often-quoted reply was:

I understand what you have said to my ambassadors about the three gods and the cross, and what you preached in the various towns through which you passed. We have given you no answer, since we have worshipped our own gods here from the beginning and know them to be good. No doubt yours are good also, but do not trouble to tell us any more about them at present. (Díaz, 1963, pp. 222223)

Moctezuma's response speaks to the Mesoamerican tendency to incorporate new religions into their own belief system rather than replace them. This incident foreshadowed indigenous responses to subsequent, more systematic evangelization efforts in Mesoamerica. As influential as the church remained throughout the colonial period, indigenous individuals and communities played an equally significant role in the development of Mesoamerican Catholicism.

The Spiritual Conquest

Coming in the wake of (or preceding) military invasions, campaigns of evangelization have often been viewed as manifestations of the Conquest. The best-known example of such a view is Robert Ricard's use of a term coined by colonial-era Franciscans, "spiritual conquest," in his seminal work on Christian evangelization efforts in Mexico, La conquête spirituelle du Mexique (1933). Since then, spiritual conquest has come to denote the methodical proselytization of indigenous Mesoamericans led by the mendicant ordersprimarily the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians, but also the secular clergy and later the Jesuits. Although Ricard argues for the success of Christianization efforts in Mexico, scholars have challenged traditional assumptions about the evangelization of Mesoamericans, specifically the notion that native peoples were "spiritually conquered," since the 1970s. This work began with the study of the Nahuas of central Mexico. In 1974, for example, Miguel León-Portilla published the first study examining Nahua reactions to evangelization. Building upon this research, in 1982 J. Jorge Klor de Alva outlined a typology of diverse and complex Nahua responses to Christianity, and in The Slippery Earth: Nahua-Christian Moral Dialogue in Sixteenth-Century Mexico (1989), the anthropologist Louise Burkhart analyzed native-language catechetical texts, arguing for a reciprocal model of evangelization, essentially a Nahuatilization of Christianity (see also Dibble, 1974). Other scholars, working with texts in Spanish and Nahuatl, have reinterpreted indigenous responses to Christianity through the lens of resistance, subversion, and dissent, particularly in examining sacramental confession (e.g., Gruzinski, 1989; Klor de Alva, 1999). Not surprisingly, the development and treatment of native agency during the "spiritual conquest" parallels the progress of scholarship regarding native agency in other areas of the Conquest and colonialism.

Although priests accompanied the conquistadors in their earliest expeditions to the mainland (most significantly the Mercedarian Fray Bartolomé de Olmedo in Cortés's party), the effective Christianization of Mesoamerica did not begin until the arrival of the Franciscans in Mexico City, which rose on the ruins of Tenochtitlan as the capital of the viceroyalty of New Spain. In 1523, Fray Pedro de Gante (Peter of Ghent), a Flemish lay Franciscan, and his two priest companions were the first to arrive in New Spain. It was the 1524 appearance of twelve Franciscans in Mexico City, however, that initiated the systematic evangelization of Mesoamerica. Led by Fray Martín de Valencia, "The Twelve" landed at Veracruz and walked the entire distance to Mexico City. One of them, Fray Toribio de Benavente, changed his surname to Motolinía when he noticed natives pointing to his tattered garments and realized it was their word for "poor person." Motolinía's response exemplifies the Franciscan preoccupation with native language and culture that characterized Franciscan activity in the early colonial period and continued to some extent to its end. For their part, the Nahuas of Tenochtitlan were impressed by the reverence with which Cortés and the other conquistadors received these men.

Mesoamericans witnessed the appearance of numerous mendicants in the early post-Conquest period. Another religious order, the Dominicans, sent a group of twelve friars to New Spain in 1526, led by Fray Tomás Ortiz. Because the Franciscans had already begun extensive evangelizing in the central plateau, the Dominican presence was confined to the valley of Mexico and the Zapotec and Mixtec lands, obliging them to base their evangelization efforts in Oaxaca. By the time a group of seven Augustinians, the third major mendicant order, reached New Spain in 1532, they found themselves relegated to the lands unoccupied by the other two orders. In these early years, the religious were among the only Spaniards living in the Mesoamerican countryside. When Spaniards eventually founded a permanent colony in Yucatan in the 1540s, it was likewise the Franciscans who led evangelization efforts and claimed the most lucrative parishes.

Iberian Christianity

Understanding the Castilian Catholicism that the Spanish conquistadors and mendicants brought with them to Mesoamerica is essential to understanding the progression of the "spiritual conquest." This form of Roman Catholicism developed in the Iberian Peninsula in part due to the Reconquista, the eight-century-long struggle to expel the Moors, who had invaded the Visigoth kingdom in Iberia as new converts to Islam in 711. In 1492 the last Moors were driven from Granada, their remaining Iberian kingdom. Led by the expansionist central kingdom of Castile, the Reconquista represented a reinterpretation of the Iberian past and the promotion of the present as a Christian crusade, one that aggressively persecuted Jews and Muslims. Fresh from the unifying experience of fighting for Christian restoration in their homeland, sixteenth-century conquistadors and mendicants simply transferred their exclusionary mentality from Islamic ritual to Mesoamerican religious practices. Oftentimes they also possessed a militaristic approach to evangelization that was not adverse to the use of force for religious purposes. This attitude was reinforced by the doctrine that salvation resided in the Catholic Church alone as the true church founded by Christ. Not yet affected by the religious upheaval resulting from the secession of Martin Luther (in 1517), sixteenth-century Iberians nevertheless struggled with the presence of crypto-Jews who publicly professed Catholicism yet privately participated in Jewish rituals. It was from this crusading atmosphere that the conquistadors and mendicants arrived in Mesoamerica, intent on the complete conversion of the peoples they encountered.

Within the Franciscan order during the colonial period another form of spiritual urgency existed. Certain members of the order, often called Spiritual Franciscans (as opposed to Conventional Franciscans), embraced millenarianism, the belief in the imminent second coming of Christ, which they saw as dependant upon mass conversion of the newly discovered peoples in Mesoamerica. As John Leddy Phelan explains in The Millennial Kingdom of the Franciscans in the New World (1956), Fray Gerónimo de Mendieta was the most notable colonial Franciscan advocate of this mystical interpretation of the Conquest. He based his ideology on the parable of the banquet in Luke 14:1624. In addition to the host (whom Mendieta identified as Christ), the parable names three groups of people: the guests initially invited to the banquet who refuse to come; those from the streets who are invited in their stead; and those compelled to attend to fill the hall. According to Mendieta, these groups represented the Jews, the Christians, and the Gentiles in Mesoamerica respectively, with the understanding that once the last group had entered the hall (i.e., become Christian), God's plan for the world would be fulfilled and it would come to an end. The influence of this belief among the Franciscans persisted until late in the colonial period, evidenced by Fray Junipero Serra's founding of his California missions in the northern frontier of New Spain in the eighteenth century. Not all Franciscans advocated millenarianism, but for those who did, evangelizing the natives in Mesoamerica was seen as an extraordinary opportunity to become active participants in the unfolding of God's eternal plan.

Establishing Churches in Mesoamerica

Rather than implement a completely new system of church buildings and dioceses in Mesoamerica, the friars turned existing native communities into parishes and deliberately constructed churches upon the ruins of Nahua, Mixtec, and Maya temples. Mexico City's cathedral, for example, was erected adjacent to the foundation of Tenochtitlan's central temple. In many instances, the temple's ruins provided the construction materials as well as the site for the new Christian church. In important native towns such as Cholula (central Mexico) and Izamal (Yucatan), churches were built on top of the preserved pyramidal platforms of former temples using the same stones. Not only did the mendicants raze Mesoamerican temples and rebuild Christian churches, but they also destroyed images associated with native religious practice and dismantled the native priesthoodinadvertently driving its remnants underground. Afraid of what might be contained in "pagan" religious documents, the friars confiscated and burned numerous native codices. This method ensured a rapid transition to Christianityat least outwardlythat allowed the more pressing matter of evangelization to begin; its unintentional side effect was to stimulate complex and largely clandestine native attempts to reconcile aspects of the new religion to old beliefs and practices. These efforts were viewed as heretically recidivist by the Spanish priests who discovered them; they also believed that hieroglyphic and painted books aided such spiritual resistance.

The friars' motivation for establishing churches in this manner was both pragmatic and symbolic; they desired to extirpate any native attachment to paganism and idolatry (which were more or less the same in Mesoamerica, due to the devil's influence, according to the Jesuit Fray José de Acosta), and to eliminate any reverence for previous Mesoamerican holy sites. On a spiritual and psychological level the friars hoped to channel Mesoamerican religious loyalty towards Christianity and its manifestation by erecting new structures on traditionally sacred land. For the mendicants then, new church buildings served as powerful symbols of the spiritual superiority of Christianity and the permanence of its establishment. Not surprisingly, Mesoamericans often used their own religious language to identify these new structures; the Nahuas referred to the church as teocalli (sacred house) and the Mayas used the word kuna (god-house). They also imbued new churches with local cultural and political meaning, painting and decorating them elaborately (in Mexico) or adding impressive towers (in Yucatan and in the Mixteca) with an enthusiasm that friars interpreted as spiritual zeal, rather than as a continuation of the competitive community pride that had given rise to pyramids and other monumental pre-Conquest structures.

During the colonial period, native parishes were called doctrinas (doctrines) rather than parroquias (parishes) to emphasize indigenous status as neophytes engaged in the process of conversion. This also differentiated native religious communities from local Spanish churches. Because of the limited numbers of Spanish clergy in Mesoamerica, only the larger urban native communities had resident priests; smaller towns would receive only occasional visits from a priest living nearby, at which time he would celebrate Mass, baptize those born since his last visit, hear confessions, and preside at weddings. Certain Mesoamerican communities criticized negligent or incompetent clergy whose visits were infrequent or whose lackadaisical attitude resulted in mediocre spiritual attention. Accusations of physical abuse or sexual molestation by priests, as well as complaints that clergy charged exorbitant fees to administer the sacraments, surfaced with some regularity. Those priests who were dedicated, particularly if they were fluent in the native languages of these communities, remained in high demand throughout the colonial period. In 1567, for example, Maya parishioners petitioned the king to send them Franciscans who "speak well to us, truly and clearly preaching to us, [and] wish to learn our language here," but not secular clergy, who spoke no Maya and "really ask and ask for a great deal of money" (quoted in Restall, 1998, pp. 160165). Native community cabildos (town councils) made skillful and often successful use of their access to the colonial legal system to petition for the removal of abusive, negligent, or unpopular priests.

Native Languages and Christianity

From its earliest interactions with native Mesoamericans, the church evangelized them in their own languages, a policy that was formally accepted at the First Mexican Provincial Council in 1555. Members of the religious orders developed extensive linguistic and cultural training programs both in the New World and in Spain. Beyond the immediate goals of communicating with the natives under their care, preaching to them in the open patios of their churches, and hearing their confessions, the friars ultimately sought to understand native culture and religious practice in order to identify and eradicate it. Knowledge of local custom and language also enabled them to compose new sacred texts such as catechisms and instruction manuals for confessors that replaced the burned native codices. The mendicants developed native-language dictionaries and grammars by establishing schools where they trained male nobles and their sons to write their languages in the Roman alphabet. In the sixteenth century alone, numerous native-language dictionaries, confession manuals, grammars, catechisms, and dramas were published.

The Franciscans dominated linguistic and ethnohistorical studies in the colonial period (native complaints that priests did not speak the local language tended to be leveled against secular clergy). Some of the most important native-language work was done by the Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún, who arrived in Mexico in 1529 and remained until his death in 1590. Sahagún devoted his life to a methodical study of native history, customs, and language, using a cadre of native assistants to produce a monumental, twelve-volume work, the Historia universal de las cosas de Nueva España. Usually referred to as the Florentine Codex, these volumes remain an invaluable resource for numerous aspects of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Nahua (especially Mexica) culture and history; their study has become a veritable subfield of scholarship, complete with a debate on whether Sahagún's project was essentially medieval (e.g., Browne, 2000) or modern (e.g., Klor de Alva et al., 1988).

The challenge of indigenous language acquisition remained more complex than simply translating Spanish texts into native languages. The translation of Christian doctrine and such concepts as the Trinity and the Eucharist required careful attention to the nuances of individual native languages. Spanish clergy often resorted to incorporating words such as Dios (God), Espiritu Santo (Holy Spirit) or obispo (bishop) into their sermons or sacred texts, hopingoften in vainthat by introducing a foreign word the concept would remain purely Christian. When the friars did use native words, however, the result was often ambiguous. For example, the Nahuatl word that was used to convey the Christian idea of "sin," tlahtlacolli, meant "destruction, error, or crime," while the word used for "devil," tlacatecolotl, meant "owl-person," a Mesoamerican malevolent night creature who could make people sick, sometimes fatally. Similarly, the terms Dominican friars used to convey Christian concepts in Ñudzahui, the Mixtec language, illustrate the linguistic and conceptual difficulties that priests experienced in replacing pre-Conquest religious ideas with Christian ones: "idolater" was tay yoquidzahuico, "person who makes feasts"; and "the devil" was tiñomi ñaha, "owl-person," or ñuhu cuina, "deity who robs or tricks." Understandably, Mixtecs accused of sins or crimes in the sixteenth century sometimes claimed that "the devils deceived me" (quoted by Terraciano, 2001, p. 304).

The Native Clergy Debate

In the early post-Conquest years, from about 1521 to 1542, the majority of churchmen, both religious and secular, looked favorably upon the prospect of ordaining native clergy. Spanish priests and lay brothers generally considered natives capable of Christianization and education, as well as full cultural Hispanization. In particular, the Franciscans believed that "Indians" were raw material waiting to be formed in the Christian faith, and that God had given the Franciscan Order a unique opportunity to bring souls to Christ to counterbalance the numbers who were leaving the church to follow Luther. Given this attitude, it is not surprising that the 1532 Junta Apostólica, a quasi-official gathering of clergy who met to draw up guidelines for New Spain's young church, made a statement in favor of the native capacity to accept Christianity. More importantly, this Junta took the preliminary steps toward approving natives for priestly ordination by declaring that educated natives and mestizos could be admitted into the minor orders, a preparatory step toward the priesthood. Despite these favorable beginnings, the Junta Apostólica of 1544 declared that native peoples could never be fully civilized and Christianized. Furthermore, the First Mexican Provincial Council of 1555 not only forbade the ordination of natives to the sacramental priesthood, but also prohibited them from touching the sacred vessels. The official church position regarding native clergy in New Spain reflected the attitudes present throughout Mesoamerica, so that with very few exceptionsin some Jesuit missions or frontier regionsnative men were not allowed to become priests (see Poole, 1989).

Among the secondary schools founded in Mesoamerica, the Franciscan College of Santiago Tlatelolco played the most significant role in the native clergy debate. Established in a Mexico City neighborhood in January 1536, the school trained the sons of Nahua nobles in reading, writing, music, Latin, rhetoric, logic, philosophy, and indigenous medicine. Given the Franciscan position in the debate, the student body, the daily educational structure, and the subjects offered, this school appears to have been intended as a seminary. Although its numbers grew in the first year, by the 1570s the project was abandoned; not one of its students received holy orders. The persistent opposition of the Dominicans, the secular clergy, and the general Spanish population to the college's goals may have contributed to its demise. Within its brief existence, however, the Franciscans' most beloved student was a Nahua named Antonio Valeriano, a brilliant Latinist who became one of Sahagún's collaborators. In sharp contrast to Valeriano was a former Tlatelolco student named don Carlos of Texcoco, a native leader accused of heresy and executed in 1539 by Fray Juan de Zumárraga, an inquisitor and the first bishop of Mexico City.

The Role of the Inquisition in Maintaining Christianity in Mesoamerica

From the 1530s to the 1560s, Inquisition-like proceedings, usually led by Spanish bishops, often resulted in the torture and execution of Mesoamericans accused of heresy or idolatry. One of the most extensiveand, eventually, infamousof these proceedings was the campaign to extirpate idolatry in Yucatan led by the Franciscan Fray Diego de Landa in 1562, during which some four thousand Mayas were interrogated under torture (hundreds died). The much-publicized execution of don Carlos, of which most crown and church officials disapproved, instigated a debate that was settled in the wake of Landa's auto-da-fé; Spanish policy finally recognized the inappropriateness of subjecting a people in the process of learning Christianity to inquisitorial persecution as heretics. Importantly, the church defined a heretic as a baptized person who obstinately denied some aspect of Catholic doctrine, a condition that did not apply to most indigenous neophytes. Removing natives from persecution also reflected a common paternalistic attitude towards Mesoamericans that persisted among clergy throughout the colonial period. Nevertheless, in remote regions native priests continued to practice traditional rituals quite openly, although many were prosecuted. For example, a Mixtec priest named Caxaa, arrested in 1544, testified that he and two colleagues had continued to perform rites such as human sacrifice since before the Conquest.

Consequently, when the Holy Office of the Inquisition was formally established in Mexico City in 1571 to uncover and penalize crimes against Catholicism, native people were exempt from prosecution. Although Mesoamericans did not fall under Holy Office jurisdiction, the bishop-controlled Provisorato de Indios (also known as the ordinario ) monitored religious adherence in native communities. The church's policy toward indigenous Christians remained in effect until the Inquisition was dissolved in the nineteenth century.

Official Indigenous Participation in Colonial Church Life

Although native men could not enter the priesthood, and the early decades of evangelization were often accompanied by violent campaigns of extirpation, Mesoamericans exercised considerable control over their religious lives during the colonial period. Not only were churches built on pre-Conquest holy sites, but friars preserved aspects of Mesoamerican religious social and political structure. Again, this decision was motivated by practical concerns, since there were so few priests available to administer to the thousands of native parishes scattered throughout Mesoamerica.

Within each parish the mendicants appointed a hierarchy of native officials to hold positions of importance. This hierarchy was usually drawn from the community's male elite; both before and after the Conquest, elite men represented local noble families, enjoyed privileged access to political office, and were responsible for organizing activities around the temple and palace complex (pre-Conquest) or parish church (post-Conquest). They became lay catechists who were trained by the friars in the basic tenets of Christianity, instructed in the Spanish language, and expected to assist in the recitation of the daily office. When Spanish priests were not present these native officials handled most of the day-to-day affairs in their church, organized the community religious festivals, and otherwise supervised matters of faith in the parishes. With this system the mendicants found yet another method of easing the transition between Mesoamerican religious ritual and the introduction of Christianity. By reinforcing the pre-Conquest Mesoamerican inter-association of religious and political offices, friars also reinforced the status of local elite families at a time when socioeconomic differences among natives were lessened by colonial exploitation.

Each parish hierarchy consisted of several specialized positions. The fiscal was the most important religious official; he acted as the priest's assistant or deputy. His duties included overseeing local matters such as teaching catechism to the parish children, monitoring the village Mass attendance, and updating the parish birth, marriage, and death records. The parish records that have survived are now some of the most valuable sources of information for historians studying family structures, naming patterns, and demography. Other religious officials included the sacristanes (sacristans), who supervised the upkeep of the church buildings and who, with the maestros de capilla (chapel choirmasters), translated prayers and hymns into native languages for use during Mass.

Music was an integral part of daily church life, particularly during Mass and other services, so that the native position of maestro de capilla, or alternately the maestro de coro (choirmaster), brought considerable status. For his services the choirmaster occasionally enjoyed such privileges as tribute exemption and might receive a small salary. Often, the other native members of the parish choir (i.e., the singers and musicians) shared these benefits. Despite this honor, native salaries did not compare to the wages received by choir members in the Spanish parishes. In addition to these important religious officials, several minor religious positions existed that often varied by parish. In Nahua (and even in some non-Nahua) parishes, the Nahuatl term teopan tlaca (church people) labeled those responsible for such tasks as preparing bodies for burial, digging graves, cleaning the church, and decorating the altar with fresh flowers and other seasonal adornments.

Over time, the elite members of these religious hierarchiesas native representatives of the churchbecame a link between the local communities and the regional Spanish representatives of the church. They also interacted on the community's behalf with crown representatives of the Inquisition and Provisorato responsible for monitoring the purity of the faith. Influential in their communities and benefiting from their position as representatives of the crown, native elites became instrumental in shaping church doctrine and developing devotional practices according to local custom.


Because parish hierarchy was limited to the native male nobility, the most important institution in native religious life was the cofradía (confraternity, religious brotherhood, or sodality). Everyone was welcome to participate in cofradías, including women and children. Importantly for women, they could assume informal leadership roles in a manner unavailable to them within the parish hierarchical structure, thereby gaining community status while actively participating in local religious life. Already widespread in Europe, the cofradía gained popularity rapidly in Mesoamerica, even as it adapted to local custom. These voluntary organizations of local residents devoted themselves to some aspect of Catholic belief, devotion, or to a particular saint. A cofradía dedicated to the Virgin Mary, for example, could focus on the assumption, the rosary, the immaculate conception, or any of her numerous forms. If a cofradía chose Christ as its patron, it might be devoted to the child Jesus, the passion of Christ, or the Eucharist. Small villages usually had only one or two confraternities; larger towns could support a dozen confraternities; and cities might have several confraternities associated with each local church.

Since each confraternity was responsible for sponsoring a public religious celebration associated with its devotion, the name of the confraternity became important in dictating the schedule of community festivals. If a cofradía was dedicated to the assumption of the Virgin Mary, for instance, the Virgin's image would be carried in an elaborate procession through the streets on August 15. The members of the cofradía might even sponsor and reenact the event by configuring a platform with pulleys to raise an actress posing as the Virgin heavenward while onlookers sang a Marian hymn. The souls in purgatory, another popular devotion among confraternities, would celebrate its feast day on November 2, All Souls' Day. In addition to the standard procession, this celebration might include a visit to the local cemetery with offerings of food and flowers or a donation to the priest to offer Masses for the souls of departed relations.

These elaborate religious celebrations were financed by the confraternity's treasury, to which each member contributed yearly dues. These funds were often invested in cofradía properties or other enterprises, such as cattle ranches. The treasury was also used to cover the cost of members' funerals, to sponsor Masses for the souls of the dead, and to purchase flowers, candles, costumes, and other accessories necessary for religious celebrations. Additional duties included caring for images in local churches and manufacturing priestly vestments and processional platforms to be used when religious images were carried outside the church. Along with their spiritual duties, members attended to the physical needs of other members, particularly orphans and widows. Cofradías were by no means exclusively native organizations, however, since each group was formally instituted and overseen by the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, at a local level they allowed communities to unite and organize their own religious festivals, and they offered a counterbalance to the spiritual leadership of the local foreign priest. As economic and political organizations, as well as social and religious ones, Mes-oamerican cofradías were connected to all aspects of native life.

The Question of Native Conversion

The existence and popularity of cofradías implied a homogeneity within native communities that did not always exist. Although most natives were baptized within decades of Spanish rule, throughout the colonial period priests complained that Mesoamericans resorted to their prior beliefs even after appearing to accept Christianity. In 1588, for example, a Jesuit criticized his native parishioners for worshiping Christ only at the urgings of priests or judges; he disapproved of their apparently superficial veneration and doubted they believed the faith wholeheartedly. Clerical responses to the problem of native conversion ranged from a paternalistic pardoning of their actions as childlike confusion and innocent misunderstanding to fiery allegations of inherent indigenous laziness, incompetence, malicious intent, or even possession by the devil. The aspirations of the mendicants who arrived in the sixteenth century intending to convert Mesoamericans within a generation or two were never realized. In fact, localized versions of Christianity influenced by native practices continue to evolve in Mexico and Guatemala today.

The numerous similarities and possibilities for identification between native religions and Christianity complicated attempts to determine the sincerity of native conversion. For example, in addition to the successful introduction of the cofradía, the Christian cult of saints gained popularity throughout Mesoamerica. The patron saint of the local church became the symbolic head of the community, replacing or even merging with the area's pre-Conquest deity. Mesoamericans at times organized religious feasts for these saints, who were listed on the new Catholic calendar, on days devoted to deities in their own religious calendars. Similarly, during the colonial period the identity of Christ was often associated with one of the manifestations of the ancient sun god. Despite the outward appearance of Christianity and the efforts of the Spanish priests, pre-Conquest beliefs remained in wide circulation.

Even if Mesoamericans wanted to accept the Christian belief system, misunderstanding or reinterpreting Catholic concepts in terms of their own cultural and ideological principles was inevitable. Significantly, many fundamental Christian principles had no Mesoamerican equivalentconcepts such as heaven, hell, and the devil. With respect to the latter, for example, Fernando Cervantes has shown that the pre-Conquest Mesoamerican belief that notions of the demonic and the divine were "inextricably intertwined" contributed to early colonial diabolism (Cervantes, 1994, p. 40). When priests confronted Mesoamericans caught in apparent anti-Christian activities, the native defense was often to claim deception by the devil; in the 1530s, for example, Andrés Mixcoatl made such a claim when arrested for casting spells and claiming to be a god, as did Tacaetl for making rain sacrifices to the devil, and Culoa Tlaspicue, who claimed to be a prophet responsible for "the care of the devils" (Cervantes, 1994, p. 46). These men were not simply resisting Christianity, but attempting to reconcile the new religion with old practices and beliefsto preserve sacrifice, which was so important to Mesoamerican religions but which the friars insisted was the work of the devil.

Thus the cultural divide that existed between Spanish priests and their native parishioners prevented either side from engaging in dialogue on an equal plane. For the priests, conversion was an act of exclusionism, but for Mesoamericans, accepting Christianity did not signify a rejection of prior beliefs, since incorporating the gods of their conquerors into their own systems of belief was an orthodox religious practice. For this reason, even as Catholicism outwardly replaced indigenous religion, ancient practices often combined with Christian forms to develop into highly individualized local traditions. The paucity of priests in Mesoamerica throughout the colonial period contributed to the inconsistent native response to Christianity, so that the Christianization process in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was often a confused and reactive one; natives in rural communities responded in unorthodox ways to inadequately explained and alien concepts, then absentee priests responded in turn when these unorthodoxies created local tensions.

The religious syncretism that often emerged from native responses to evangelization had larger cultural implications. Priests sought to regulate not just belief and ritual, but also family life, gender relations, and sexual identity; in these areas too, native ideas and practices persisted while being gradually influenced and altered by Catholic culture. Scholars examining native conversion continue to uncover indications of personal decisions and forms of devotion by colonial Mesoamericans. These are illustrated by the explanation made to the Dominican fray Diego Durán by an "idolatrous" Nahua that natives were "still nepantla which means, to be in the middle" (quoted in Burkhart, 1989, p. 188; Cervantes, 1994, p. 57). Scholars have interpreted nepantlism variously as a form of syncretism, as representing a middle ground between faiths, as reflecting the lack of a middle ground between mutually exclusive alternatives, or as a panacea for myriad personal accommodations. Personal responses are also revealed in baptism patterns (which cannot solely be explained by priestly activity, since natives often requested the sacrament for religious, social, or political reasons), in the religious formulas that open the testaments dictated and recorded in Mesoamerican languages (formulas based on Spanish models but exhibiting local and even individual variations that hint at personal piety), and in the keeping and bequeathing of saint images.

Indeed, the prevalence of personal syncretic devotions remains most evident within the private rather than the public sphere. At the household level, a family altar became the center of religious devotions. Called santocalli (saint's house) in Nahuatl, Christian images such as saints, rosaries, and crucifixes were displayed alongside figurines associated with indigenous deities without concern for religious inconsistency. Families gathered before these altars to recite Christian prayers in their native languages, to make offerings of flowers or food, and to clean and sweep around it. These altars even became the focus of native wills that specified the types of offerings and reverence the inheritor was to perform.

The Persistence of Folk Religious Cultures

Mesoamerican altars were only one aspect of native folk religion that developed in the colonial period and that continues to this day. Indigenous curers, midwives, and conjurers maintained their practices after the introduction of Christianity, often with the inclusion of Catholic prayers, rituals, or objects. Kevin Terraciano's observation that "conventional European distinctions between priests and sorcerers, religion and magic, did not apply in the Mixteca" was true to some extent throughout Mesoamerica (Terraciano, 2001, p. 271). The confusion created by Christianization further blurred the line between native medicinal practices and the persistence of Mesoamerican religion at the folk levelas well as that between medicinal practitioners or healers and the underground post-Conquest native priesthood. The abovementioned Andrés Mixcoatl, for example, confessed to the Inquisition that he had preached that "the [Franciscan] brothers' sermons were good for nothing, that I was a god, that the Indians should sacrifice to me." (quoted in Gruzinski, 1989, p. 36), but he also behaved much like the shamans who could be found in many regions of Mesoamerica throughout the colonial period and beyondpracticing divination with grains of corn (a Maya h-men might have used cacao beans), healing the sick, and using hallucinogens such as mushrooms.

Mixcoatl was but one of hundreds of non-Spaniards investigated by Inquisition or Provisorato priests for crossing over, in speech and deed, the religious lines drawn by the church in New Spain in its Sisyphean efforts to forge Catholic orthodoxy. The patterns contained in these cases are still being studied by scholars, but the following simplification may be made: in the sixteenth century, Spanish priests were more likely to associate native shamanism with idolatry; in the seventeenth century they were more likely to condemn shamanism as witchcraft or as superstition. This gradual shift reflected the ongoing syncretism of Mesoamerican religion and Christianity with unorthodox native practices less readily identified by Spaniards as idolatrous; it also reflected the impact of African folk religious and healing practices as the quarter of a million black slaves imported into New Spain before 1650 and their Afro-Mexican descendents began to mix culturally and biologically with Mesoamericans.

The Tzeltal Revolt

Although most Mesoamericans accepted Christianity at least outwardly, the colonial period witnessed numerous resistance movements among native peoples. Many forms of dissent remained personal, such as refusal to accept baptism, persistence in polygamous relationships even after promising Spanish clergy to become monogamous, or refusal to attend religious services. Yet even when resistance became communal, Mesoamericans usually sought to form their own Christian cults that incorporated native beliefs rather than completely reject Catholicism. Localized native resistance may be read as an assertion of the right to govern local religious development rather than rely on a foreign (i.e., nonlocal) clergy. Rebellions typically began as a reaction against negligent or abusive priests, and generally centered on an individual who appropriated the identity of the Virgin Mary, Christ, or another saint.

One of the most well-known religious rebellions took place in Chiapas in 1712 among the Tzeltal Maya. Often called the Tzeltal Revolt, this event remains unusual, for although small local riots and revolts were commonplace, large regional revolts such as this, amounting to a localized revolution in ideological terms, were not. The revolt began when the Virgin Mary appeared to a thirteen-year-old Tzeltal Maya girl named María López (later known as María de la Candelaría) as she walked along the outskirts of Cancuc. María's father, Augustín López, a sacristan in his community's parish, was instrumental in advertising the miracle and gaining local support to build a small chapel on the site at the Virgin's request. Fray Simón de Lara, the Dominican priest assigned to Cancuc, investigated the event, denounced it as instigated by the devil, and flogged María and Augustín. He did, however, allow the chapel to remain.

Events escalated quickly; later that month several citizens from Cancuc were imprisoned after they traveled to Chiapas to ask the bishop's permission to maintain the chapel. Religious authorities also imprisoned Cancuc's civic leaders, but their prompt escape only served to strengthen the cult. Its members removed the Christian images from their local church, placed them in their own chapel, and proceeded to participate in a ceremony imitating Mass during which native priests were ceremoniously ordained. A letter signed by "the Most Holy Virgin Mary of the Cross" circulated among the townspeople encouraging them to revolt against Spanish rule since there was neither God nor king.

The people of Cancuc were joined in the Tzeltal Revolt by twenty neighboring native villages. These rebels not only raided Spanish towns, killing clergy and militiamen and forcing women to marry Maya men, but they also attacked indigenous towns that remained loyal to the colonial regime. Their movement was eventually repressed by a Spanish and native army and its leaders flogged or executed; Cancuc was razed and its residents forcibly resettled. By February 1713, nine months after the apparition outside Cancuc, the last of the rebel leaders abandoned the cause, and the Spaniards initiated strict laws regarding apparition stories or claims of miraculous occurrences.

The Virgin of Guadalupe

Significantly, the two most successful religious devotions to emerge from the colonial period in Mesoamerica, the cults of the Virgin of Remedies (La Virgen de los Remedios) and the Virgin of Guadalupe, were not born in revolt. Both have been, at various times, highly controversial, but nonviolent debate seems to have encouraged rather than diminished the popularity of, and a widespread devotion to, these Virginsespecially Guadalupethat has persisted to this day.

The Virgin of Remedies has enjoyed several phases of devotion in central Mexico. She first appeared during the Conquest, allegedly assisting the Spaniards against the Mexica during the war of 1519 to 1521. Twenty years later she appeared to a Nahua nobleman, Juan de Tovar, who maintained a shrine to her, at first in his home but later among the ruins of a pre-Conquest temple on Tetoltepec hill. Then, in the 1570s, the Mexico City council appropriated this cult, founded a new church and cofradía for her, and made her the patron saint of the city. Over the following half-century, despite competing stories relating to the appearance of the Virgin and numerous lawsuits over the shrine, the image of a benevolent Mary associated with local Nahua followers gradually replaced the earlier Conquest-related Virgin of Remedies. In other words, "the symbolism of Remedies was altered to correspond to changing colonial reality" (Curcio-Nagy, 1996, p. 374). By 1700, the statue of the Virgin had been carried into Mexico City nineteen times; she made the journey another thirty-two times between then and 1810, while a second image of her, known as the Peregrina, made regular visits to native communities in and around Mexico City, many of which also claimed her as their patroness. The Virgin of Remedies was eventually replaced, at both an official and popular level, by Guadalupe, but her festivalfeaturing native dance performancesstill takes place on top of Tetoltepec hill.

From its earliest days in the sixteenth century, when a small shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe was dedicated at Tepeyacac hill outside Mexico City, the devotion to Guadalupe divided the Spanish clergy, disrupted communities who embraced it, became the topic of passionate sermons and polemical colonial writings, as well as the subject of hundreds of colonial paintings. The reason for the Guadalupe debate was and continues to be the lack of contemporary historical evidence to support the tradition's origins. In fact, the first extant source that references the Guadalupe story is Imagen de la Virgen Maria, Madre de Dios de Guadalupe (Image of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God of Guadalupe), a Spanish account written in 1648 by a Spanish Mexican priest named Miguel Sánchez. The following year, a priest named Luis Laso de la Vega published a similar account in Nahuatl, known as Huei tlamahuiçoltica (and whose full title translates as "By a great miracle the heavenly queen, Saint Mary, our precious mother of Guadalupe, appeared here near the great Altepetl of Mexico in a place called Tepeyacac"), which was destined to replace Sánchez's version as the standard apparition account.

According to Catholic tradition, popular Mexican belief, and these accounts, the Virgin Mary appeared to a widowed 57-year-old Nahua peasant and recent convert named Juan Diego as he walked to Tlatelolco for Saturday morning Mass. After departing from his village of Cuauhtitlan on December 9, 1531, Juan Diego suddenly heard the singing of many birds as he passed Tepeyacac hill near Mexico City. The singing ceased as suddenly as it began, replaced by a vision of a beautiful brown-skinned lady standing amidst the rocks and shrubs. Summoning him tenderly, she identified herself as the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and requested that he approach the bishop so that he might build a chapel at that site to signify her love for Mexico's indigenous people. After several meetings with Fray Juan de Zumárraga, the first bishop of Mexico City, and subsequent meetings with the Virgin, to whom Juan Diego reported his failure, the bishop asked him for a sign from the lady to prove that she was indeed the Mother of God.

On December 12 the Virgin asked Juan Diego to walk to the top of Tepeyacac hill and gather the roses he would find growing there, which she arranged in his cloak (tilmatli, now known as tilma ) with her own hands. When Juan Diego unfolded his tilma before the bishop, the roses fell to the ground to reveal a miraculous imprint of the Virgin. Fray Zumárraga fell to his knees, realized his error in not believing the humble Nahua, and took the image to his private chapel until construction of the Virgin's chapel was completed on December 26, 1531.

The story of Guadalupe remains one of the most treasured accounts in Mexican popular culture from the colonial period, inspiring writers over the centuries to debate the case for it as truth or legend. Stafford Poole's Our Lady of Guadalupe: The Origins and Sources of a Mexican National Symbol, 15311797 (1995) points out several internal inconsistencies within the Nahuatl document in de la Vega's Huei tlamahuiçoltica. For example, he notes that although the text refers to the Franciscan presence in Tlatelolco, sources indicate that these friars had not yet established missions there by 1531, but had, in fact, resided in Juan Diego's hometown of Cuauhtitlan as early as 1525. In addition, native commoners in 1531 did not usually take double Christian names. Most important is the name of the devotion itself, taken from the Spanish Virgin of Extremadura, but whose pronunciation would have been difficult for Nahuatl speakers, since there is no d or g in their language. Poole also challenges scholarship that accepts Tepeyacac hill as the site of pre-Conquest Nahua worship of the mother goddess, Tonantzin, pointing out that native sources never mention this. He notes that Fray Bernardino de Sahagún first made this identification and remains the principal source of this error perpetuated by subsequent chroniclers. All of these complications lead Poole to conclude that the chapel at Tepeyacac hill dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe predated the apparition account. Many historians agree with this conclusion, including Nahuatl scholars Lisa Sousa and James Lockhart, who together with Poole published a new English translation and transcription of the Huei tlamahuiçoltica in 1998. Nevertheless, considerable scholarship exists to support the historicity of Juan Diego and his sixteenth-century vision, especially in Mexico, beginning with priest and professor Luis Becerra Tanco's two books of 1666 and 1675 in defense of the tradition, and the polymath Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora's devotion to Guadalupe later that century. By the late nineteenth century, when Joaquín García Icazbalceta concluded that the tradition was not historically credible, he was "savagely attacked" by a large body of apparitionists (Brading, 2001, p. 10). The Jesuit church historian Mariano Cuevas also defended the cult in the 1920s, as did priest and honorary basilica canon Lauro López Beltrán, with great passion, from the 1940s to 1980s. The position adopted by the influential Angel María Garibay (a Nahuatl scholar and basilica canon) in the 1950s was ambiguously neutral on the issue of historicity, prompting criticism from Edmundo O'Gorman, who argued in the 1980s that Antonio Valeriano was the original author of the Nahuatl account (the official position today of the Mexican Catholic Church). Even so, O'Gorman did not believe that this supported the historicity of the apparition story. Since Poole published his 1995 book, there has been no shortage of Mexican scholars, José Luis Guerrero prominent among them, to respond to him and his colleagues.

Despite the persistent controversy over the historicity of the apparition, the Catholic Church approved the Guadalupe tradition in official declarations beginning in the eighteenth century. In 1723, Our Lady of Guadalupe was proclaimed the "Patroness of Mexico City" and in 1737 she was named the "Patroness of New Spain" from California to El Salvador. Pope Benedict XIV approved these declarations for universal devotion by proclaiming Guadalupe the "Patroness of Mexico" in 1754. Official recognition gained further momentum in the late twentieth century. Pope John Paul II beatified Juan Diego on May 6, 1990, at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, declaring December 9 as his feast day. On July 31, 2002, he canonized Juan Diego before a crowd of millions at the Basilica, making him the first indigenous American saint of the Catholic Church.

Because the worlds of academic discourse and personal faith do not often intersect, the debate over Guadalupe will remain controversial both within its colonial context and in its modern form. Considered alternately as being of indigenous origin, an invention of the sixteenth-century Spanish clergy to argue for their successful evangelization efforts, a seventeenth-century development to promote unity among clergy born in the New World, or as an authentic apparition story, the Virgin of Guadalupe has become the national symbol of Mexico and an important aspect of Latin American life today. Despite the roles of the colonial Spanish clergy and of modern Mexican politics in the development and perpetuation of the Guadalupe cult, the Virgin also represents the importance of the native influence on the evolution of Mesoamerican Catholicism. Christianity was not just imposed on Mesoamerica; it was in numerous ways appropriated by indigenous peoples and made Mesoamericanthat is, made meaningful in local, native terms.

See Also

Afterlife, article on Mesoamerican Concepts; Colonialism and Postcolonialism; Temple, article on Mesoamerican Temples.


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Veronica GutiÉrrez (2005)

Matthew Restall (2005)

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Mesoamerican Religions: Colonial Cultures

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