Encomienda-Doctrina System in Spanish America

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This system was based on the cooperation of the encomendero and of the doctrinero. The encomendero, usually a conquistador or his descendant, was to supervise the integration of his native wards into the social and economic life of Europe and help the doctrinero (teacher) establish the cultural and religious patterns of Christianity. This cooperative system, as far as we know today, first appeared in Mexico in the 1520s and was based on the often tragic experience of Spain in the three preceding decades in the Antilles. Quite possibly, it was the result solely of this common experience and can not be credited to any individual. However, its prompt establishment in Mexico owes much to the foresight and compassion of Cortés and to the cooperation of Mexico's first priests, the Franciscans.

The Doctrinero. In 16th-century Spanish America the doctrinero was almost always an Augustinian, Dominican, Franciscan, or Mercedarian friar. Royal policy did not favor granting this work to the diocesan clergy. The Jesuits, founded only after the initial conversion of the Americas was well under way, did not share notably in this work. The friar was selected by his provincial, who had to clarify that the individual was adequately trained in theology and in the respective native language. The actual appointment was made by the viceroy or his equivalent in the name of the king. Quite often, the doctrinero was not appointed to a specific doctrina but to a central convent situated near his charges. It was the duty of the superior of this convent to supervise the work of the friars under his care, to appoint each to a definite doctrina, and to visit the doctrinas at least three times each year. He reported to the provincial, who, in turn, had to visit the doctrinas once every three years. The doctrinero had to return to this central convent each Friday for a short theological discussion and for recreation, a humane provision.

The Doctrina. A typical doctrina contained a church, priest's residence, school, hospital, cemetery, and often an obraje. No non-native, and this included even the parents of the doctrinero, could remain longer than three days in the doctrina. The cost of the plant was defrayed one-third by the crown, one-third by the encomendero, and one-third by the native tribes. In the hospital the sick were cared for and travelers were given lodging. The quality of the hospitals varied greatly some were merely miserable huts, while others were richly endowed and staffed with trained surgeons and numerous slaves. Hospital care was free because each native taxpayer gave one tomin a year as part of his head tax. The school was intended to train the sons of the caciques and other prominent families in Christian doctrine, reading and writing Spanish, a little arithmetic, and instrumental and vocal music. The students with their teachers formed the parish choir. The teachers assisted the doctrinero and in his absence even conducted church services, such as funerals, simple Baptisms, and processions. At first, the friars were the teachers. Within a few years, the task was entrusted mostly to trained natives, who were rewarded with the title of Don, exempted from personal services and numerous taxes, and paid in food and clothing. The obraje was the village workshop where the natives wove cloth, worked leather or metal, or made pots for sale to pay for a new church or to pay those taxes which were demanded in money so the head of the family would not be forced to labor outside the doctrina to acquire the needed sum. Later these frequently became sweatshops and were often manned by prison labor.

Methods. There was a wide variation in the details of the methods whereby the doctrinero cared for the spiritual instruction and needs of his people. However, on the broad outline there was general agreement. Essentially this agreement was forced by the circumstance that the Indians numbered many millions, the doctrineros, hundreds. To aggravate the problem, the native tribes were scattered over a vast and often inhospitable territory. It was obviously impossible even to think of individual instruction. Group indoctrination was the only feasible solution if the task was to be accomplished with reasonable speed and thoroughness. Even this presented a problem. If each group had to be completely instructed in the faith before Baptism, many decades would certainly pass before the work could be completed and numerous natives would die without the Sacrament. The solution was found in the protracted catechumen ate. This system demanded that the native be reduced to living in a town under the control of the encomendero and doctrinero. Then the native could be baptized after instruction in the doctrines which theologians considered essential for salvation, on the supposition that this rudimentary instruction would be perfected in the course of years by enforced attendance at doctrinal classes held at regular intervals, once a week in some places and twice a week in others, and conducted by the doctrinero or his substitute. Therefore, the native was reduced to pueblo life and each pueblo was divided into districts with a native fiscal, or alguazil, in charge. On the days when the people of the district were to appear for instruction, the fiscal would knock on their doors to remind them and would then go to the church plaza to check their presence against the official roll. Repeated absences without excuse were punished. No native was forced to be baptized (although at times impatient or stupid doctrineros did use force), but once baptized, he had no choice about attending the classes in doctrine.

In class, great stress was laid on learning by heart a formulary of the main truths that the Spaniards called the doctrina cristiana. It consisted of the sign of the cross, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Apostles' Creed, the Hail Holy Queen, the 14 articles of faith, the commandments of God, the commandments of the Church, the Sacraments, the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, the theological virtues, the cardinal virtues, the seven capital sins, the enemies of the soul, and the four last things. As an aid to understanding, the doctrinero used charts, pictures, tableaux, mystery plays, reenactments of portions of the Bible, processions, and especially music. Many parts of the formulary as well as translations of some of the hymns of the ancient Church such as the Athanasian Creed were set to song. The people were encouraged to sing them at home and at work. Many hymns were used for their social dances, a custom in keeping with their pagan rites where the dance was an integral part of their religion. At the same time, the liturgy was conducted with great solemnity. For this purpose, the teachers of the local school were taught to play the part of the canons in the cathedrals and to come to church in the mornings and afternoons. In the morning they chanted a short morning prayer and then a hymn that described some part of the life of Christ. Each day had a different hymn. In the afternoon, they chanted a sort of evensong made up of a few short psalms, an act of contrition, and a petition that God bless them and their village for the night. It was a sort of monastic ritual shared by the people of the whole town.

The doctrinero was supposed to check the knowledge of each native individual at the time of the Easter confession. If it was not satisfactory, the individual could not receive this Sacrament or Communion and ordinarily would be remanded to a special class for intensive instruction. Usually extra priests were sent to help the doctrinero during the Lenten season.

By 1574, the encomienda-doctrina system was found in approximately 9,000 pueblos in Spanish America with about six million inhabitants, according to Juan López de Velasco. These figures are especially valuable because in 1573 the crown forbade the extension of the encomienda beyond the territory in which it was then established. This decree marked the end of the encomienda-doctrina system as a frontier institution. In time, the doctrina was to become simply a parish entrusted to the care of the diocesan clergy under the supervision of the bishop. A new institution would be developed to care for the pagan natives beyond the frontier of Spanish America. It would be called the mission (see missions in colonial america).

[a. s. tibesar]