A key element of the Jesuit mission program on the frontiers of Spanish America was to recast the social structure, religion and world view, and work habits of the different native groups congregated on the missions. The goal was to create stable politically autonomous sedentary native communities on the model of the pueblos de indios in central México and the Andean Highlands. The Jesuits and the members of other orders (primarily Franciscans) drew upon the experiences of the first missionaries, the Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians who evangelized the large native populations of the advanced native societies the Spanish subjugated in the Andean region and central México in the sixteenth century. The missionary program in Spanish America was part of a larger international impulse during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Africa, the Americas, and Asia. At the same time the missionaries on the frontiers experienced unique challenges dictated by such factors as climate, the levels of social and political organization of the different native groups, and conflict with hostile natives and rival colonial powers.
Spanish American missions have received more attention from scholars in recent years, and the new Latin American mission history has stressed the agency of natives in constructing their own history, and how native peoples defined their interactions with missionaries and in numerous ways limited the the types of social, cultural, and religious change the missionaries attempted to impose. In a recent study Eleanor Wake described how Franciscans stationed at Calimaya (Estado de Mexico, Mexico) discovered a group of natives making ritual sacrifices on Easter Sunday in 1610 related to Tlaloc and the water-earth-fertility religion central to the beliefs of an farmers dependent on rain. The natives had also erected a cross to which they made sacrifices. While ostensibly Christians, the natives at Calimaya and many other communities in central Mexico practiced the new faith alongside the told. Similarly, Erick Langer documented the ways in which the Chiiriguano chief Mandeponay and his son defined the terms of their relationship with Franciscan missionaries on the eastern frontier of Bolivia in the early twentieth century.
This essay examines the similar process of social and cultural change and religious conversion on the Jesuit missions of Paraguay and the Chiquitos frontier of what today is eastern Bolivia, in the Province of Paraguay. It also considers the limitations to the missionary programs on the frontier. One of the most difficult tasks in assessing social and cultural change is identifying the level of religious conversion, of the persistence of traditional religious beliefs, or the parallel process of religious syncretism or the blending of old and new religious beliefs. However, there are tantalizing clues in the documentation, and the reported behavior of the natives themselves. This essay also considers shifts in material culture, the transformation of the native clan structure in the missions, and the political organization of the mission communities. The discussion of this final issue takes into consideration the political/military organization of the Paraguay missions that evolved on a contested colonial frontier in the Rio de la Plata region. The organization and mobilization of the mission militia from the Paraguay missions contributed to the evolution of a hybrid political system on the missions, and to the growth of a collective identity among the Guarani mission residents similar to that of Chiriguano residents on the Franciscan missions that Langer documents. The first topic is religious conversion.
Jesuit missionaries routinely prepared reports to their superiors on the temporal and spiritual development of the mission communities under their charge. Evaluating the extent of religious conversion is the most difficult question when analyzing social and cultural change on the frontier missions. There were obstacles to conversion, such as language. The Jesuits and missionaries from other orders translated different texts used for religious instruction into native languages, but could not translate key concepts such as God or the resurrection. These were culturally embedded concepts that Europeans clearly understood after centuries of indoctrination, but that had no equivalent meanings in native language and cosmology. Instructional texts generally contained these concepts in Spanish, and it was up to the missionaries to teach the natives their meaning as best they could.
One factor that perhaps limited the approach the missionaries took to religious conversion was their own attitude towards and regarding the natives living on the missions. The Jesuits viewed the natives as having limited intellectual ability, and used visual images to convey the basic elements of doctrine, a strategy first developed in the early sixteenth-century missions in central Mexico and Peru. One Chiquitos missionary explained this approach in the following terms:
Because of their disorderly and barbarous way of living and their savage condition that we have described, these people are not capable of understanding reasoning, at least at the beginning of their religious education. We should therefore find some other means of implanting in them the knowledge, the adoration, and the fear of God, that is, we have to make use of external things that catch the eye, please the ear, and that can be touched with hands, until their mind develops in that direction.
The Jesuits also employed different types of visual aids in religious instruction, such as paintings mounted on frames. None survive from the Paraguay or Chiquitos missions, but images from other locations provide indications of their content. The final judgment and the perils of an eternity of torment and suffering in hell were important themes missionaries taught native peoples beginning in the sixteenth century. Missionaries believed that traditional religious practices were inspired by Satan and his demonic minions, and employed graphic images of hell to persuade natives to abandon their old religion. An eighteenth century painting of hell with punishments for different sins from the church at San Antonio Abad Caquiaviri is an example of the types of images that most likely were used in the Paraguay and Chiquitos missions.
How did natives who viewed these images respond to them? Graphic images of hell apparently did influence natives living on the Jesuit missions. Natives placed a great deal of importance on dreams as manifestations of their spirituality. One Jesuit missionary in the Chiquitos missions described the dream of a native named Lucas Xarupá, who described his descent to hell and his ascent to heaven.
(Xarupá saw) a corps of very ugly demons with terrible appearance and grotesque movements of body; some had a head of a tiger, other of a dragon and crocodile, still others had appearances of such monstrous and terrible forms that anyone would be discouraged from looking at them. All were emitting terrifying black flames from their mouths and from other parts of their bodies. They were yelling and moving around from one side to the other, imitating the dances of the Indians until they laid hands on the poor new Christian who was trembling believing that the festival was for him, and made a big fuss, yelling: ‘It’s him, him, Xarupá, our friend, who used to be our devotee and used the malicious witchcraft we had taught his grandparents.
The dream description filtered through the lens of the Jesuit missionary demonstrates a consistent conceptualization by the missionaries of pre-Hispanic religion as having been inspired by Satan. The account has demons in hell greeting the native as a former adherent to the old beliefs that the demons had taught the natives. Moreover, the demons mimicked the dances that were important elements in native spirituality and religious practices prior to the arrival of the missionaries. Xarupá had either fully embraced the Jesuit belief linking the old religion to Satan, or what was more likely is that the missionary used the dream description to emphasize a point in an account written for European audiences. However, what is also clear is that Xarupá had seen or had been taught a vision of hell populated by demons waiting to torment sinners.
Illus. 1: Mural depicting hell and the punishments for different sins dated to 1739 from the church at San Antonio Abad Caquiaviri, Alto Peru. From Akira Saito’s, “Art and Christian Conversion in Jesuit Missions on the Spanish South American Frontier,” in Yoshiro Sugimoto, ed., Anthropological Studies of Christianity and Civilization. Osaka: National Museum of Anthropology, 2006, 171-201. Photograph courtesy Akira Saito.
Processions also formed a very important part of the visual representation and manifestation of the new faith as practiced in the Paraguay and Chiquitos missions. From the very beginning of the missionary program the Jesuits stationed on the Paraguay missions received instructions to incorporate chapels dedicated to Our Lady of Loreto in the urban plans for the mission complexes, and chapels, such as those at Loreto and Santa Rosa missions, played a central role in processions similar to the capillas de posa in sixteenth-century central Mexican convents. Reports from the Paraguay missions noted the organization of penitential processions during Holy Week that included self-flagellation. Jesuits in both the Paraguay and Chiquitos missions also ordered penitential processions during epidemic outbreaks. Murals from the Franciscan convents San Martín de Tours Huaquechula and San Miguel Arcángel Huejotzingo and the Dominican convent at San Juan Bautista Teitipac depict participants in penitential or santo entierro processions wearing black and white robes, and in some cases using scourges for self-flagellation. Processions in the Paraguay and Chiquitos missions may have been similar.
In the Paraguay and Chiquitos missions the Jesuits targeted the clan chiefs (caciques) for early conversion, employing a strategy used by Christian missionaries for centuries. Conversion of political leaders facilitated the evangelization of their subjects, and in some cases resulted in mass baptisms following the cacique’s adoption of the new faith. Moreover, the Jesuits used the caciques to counter the influence of shaman. In other instances the missionaries themselves directly challenged shaman. At the same time some clan chiefs resisted conversion, and the forced life-style changes the missionaries demanded. The Jesuits expected the clan chiefs to give-up all but one of their wives. Polygamy marked the higher status of the clan chiefs, and adherence to the new social rules the Jesuits imposed undermined their traditional status. Following initial resistance, however, most clan chiefs converted and settled on the missions.
There is little evidence regarding how natives incorporated the new religion into their world view. The Jesuits marked progress in religious conversion as compliance with certain sacraments and obligatory acts. Confession and communion were important steps the missionaries reported, as was confirmation. The Jesuits reported on participation in religious precessions and feast days, and also measured progress through rote memorization of prayers. As long as natives progressed in these areas, the missionaries reported satisfactory results and the triumph of the new faith, but without really being able to measure the true extent of religious conversion. At the same time the missionaries and other church officials did not place sufficient faith in the conversion of the native groups living on the missions to propose the creation of native clergy. Natives were to be followers in a faith presided over by non-native religious specialists, and the Jesuits aggressively challenged the authority and influence of traditional native religious leaders.
One additional clue to the extent of or limitations to religious conversion is the failure to create a native clergy. Church officials throughout the colonial period generally rejected the idea of creating a native clergy, and the missionaries stationed on the frontier missions in Paraguay and the Chiquitos region. While some missionaries stressed the spiritual progress of the natives under their jurisdiction, and level of conversion was never to the point of supporting the creation of a native clergy. In this regards the natives living on the missions never became full members of the Christian community.
Measuring Conversion in the Paraguay and Chiquitos Missions
In 1718, Pedro Fajardo, Bishop of Buenos Aires, toured the Paraguay missions, and confirmed a total of 73,657 Guaraní in the new faith. His tour coincided with the outbreak of a smallpox epidemic that killed thousands of Guaraní. The bishop confirmed a large percentage of the residents of most although not all of the missions. It was 4,460 at San Lorenzo, which reported a population of 3,783 in 1714 and 4,697 in 1720; 3,095 at San Ignacio Guazú, the first mission, which counted 5,330 Guaraní in 1714 and 2,738 six years later in 1720; and 490 at Jesús de Tavarangue, which had a population of 1,420 in 1714 and 1,790 in 1720.
High ranking officials visited the Paraguay missions only sporadically. Nevertheless, the Jesuits needed to measure the level of progress in the religious conversion of the Guaraní. This they accomplished by quantifying the sacrament of communion, that followed confession. The Jesuit superior of the Paraguay missions was responsible for preparing annual summary censuses of the population and vital rates of the individual Paraguay missions. They also reported in the censuses the number of communions recorded at each of the missions. In most years the number of communions exceeded the populations of the missions (see Table 1 and Figure 1). Measurement of compliance with certain sacraments constituted the primary means the Jesuits used as the benchmark for conversion on their missions throughout Spanish America.
The Jesuits also emphasized compliance with certain sacraments as the measure of religious conversion on the Chiquitos missions. In a series of annual reports, the Jesuits assigned to the Chiquitos missions reported apparent progress in the conversion of the different native groups congregated on the missions. At the same time there is tantalizing evidence of the persistence of native practices, including funerary practices. Early reports noted that the natives already confessed and received communion during lent and on certain feast days. At the same time the Jesuits continued to congregate non-Christians, and the mission populations counted neophytes with differing levels of indoctrination. Later reports claimed further progress in conversion, as more natives confessed, received communion, and were confirmed by a bishop, in this case the bishop of Santa Cruz de la Sierra who visited the Chiquitos missions in 1734. These were the steps that the Jesuits deemed necessary for the neophytes to be incorporated into the Christian community.
The reports prepared by the Jesuit missionaries provide no clues as to the ways that the natives themselves perceived, processed, and incorporated the new religion into their world view, and the relationship between the new faith and their traditional beliefs. In reporting conversion statistics and compliance with sacraments, the missionaries appear to have believed that the natives fully embraced the new faith. As noted above, the Jesuits also reported the organization of processions, and of congregaciones similar to confraternities, although they did not provide many details of the activities of the congregaciones other than to note the religious fervor of the enrolled congregants, their attendance at mass, and the recitation of the rosary. One exception was a 1734 report on San José that described a funeral procession for a congregant and noted that other congregants and the leaders of the congregación attended the dying and prepared the passage to the afterlife. This description, in turn, suggests that the natives incorporated traditional burial practices, and particularly the involvement of other community (clan members?) in the burial through the congregación. The natives only minimally involved the Jesuit missionary in the public phase of the burial. The mission residents readily incorporated the congregaciones into their practice of Catholicism, and may have used the congregaciones to provide cover for the preservation of some traditional religious-social practices, including the role of clan chiefs in public rituals such as the burial described in the 1734 report.
The Jesuits preserved and re-enforced the traditional social and political clan structure in the missions, including the authority of the clan chiefs. The description of funerary practices at San José suggests that the clan chiefs had reciprocal obligations to clan members that included attending the dead in the passage to the afterlife, and used the congregaciones to continue exercising this role cloaked in a recently introduced Catholic institution. This covert role may, in turn, explain the enthusiasm the Jesuits reported of the residents of the Chiquitos missions who wanted to join the congregaciones. As anthropologist Akira Saito noted, native peoples in the South American lowlands inclined to unmediated (without images or statues) contact with spiritual forces. The congregaciones most likely provided natives an autonomous area in which to develop their spirituality on their own terms.
Material Culture Retention and Change
Cultural retention and change and ethnic identity can also be measured in the analysis of material culture. Data collected from archaeological excavations at several Jesuit mission sites in Brazil provide tantalizing clues to the process of cultural retention, change, and adaptation. During the early phase of congregation and community formation the Guaraní brought to live on the missions retained their traditional material culture and life ways, including the use of stone tools, the form and production technology of ceramics, and dietary habits. Excavations of the early site of San Ignacio Mini in Guairá (Paraná, Brazil), founded in 1610 and abandoned in the mid 1630s following bandeirante raids, produced evidence of a high level of material cultural retention, but also the introduction of European cultural elements that began to modify Guaraní life ways. Excavations of two mission sites in Tape (Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil) that date to the 1630s, San Joaquín and Jesús María, also produced evidence of Guaraní use of traditional ceramics, but also of European and Christian influences.
Excavations of eighteenth century mission sites in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, at San Miguel, San Juan Bautista, San Nicolás, and San Lorenzo Mártir, provided evidence of retention of material culture, but also significant changes in Guaraní life ways and the blending of traditional Guaraní and European material culture. Artifacts from the Guaraní residence area at San Lorenzo Mártir documented life way changes such as the consumption of beef, but also continuity as seen in the use of stone tools and of traditional ceramic types. The Jesuits established San Lorenzo Mártir in 1691 with Guaraní converts from Santa María la Mayor mission, located near the west bank of the Uruguay River. This Guaraní population had lived in Santa María mission for some 60 years when the Jesuits transferred more than 3,000 people to establish the new mission. Ceramics are a significant ethnic identifier, and the analysis of ceramics from San Lorenzo Mártir demonstrated the persistence of very strong ethnic identity as documented in the use of traditional ceramic designs that predated Spanish colonization. At the same time the Guaraní made use of European ceramic production technology in the mission. Artifact assemblages from the Guaraní residence area excavated also suggested that the natives predominately used their traditional ceramic designs produced with European technology, and made less use of new colonial ceramics that incorporated European designs.
Artifact assemblages from the missions also provide evidence of the adaptation of new technology, such as the use of metal implements and weapons. Although Guaraní populations were in contact with Andean peoples that used metal, they still relied on stone implements. The analysis of metal artifacts from four mission sites in Rio Grande do Sul showed the use of metal implements for activities such as hunting, fishing, and war found in structures used primarily by the Guaraní, such as the cabildo. At the same time, as already noted, the Guaraní continued to use stone tools.
The archaeological record also suggested social stability in the missions, and closed communities following the early stage of community formation. In other words, the Jesuits did not congregate natives from other ethnic groups, groups that had distinct ethnic identifiers that could be detected in the record of material culture. The process of cultural change in the Paraguay missions as measured in material culture was different from missions on other frontiers that were demographically unstable, and where the missionaries continued to congregate non-Christians. Nuestra Señora de la Soledad mission in California, established in 1791, provides an example of shifts in material culture related to demographic instability, changes in colonial policy, and the congregation of non-Christians from outside of the mission community. Archaeological excavations at Soledad mission showed a higher retention of traditional native culture as the role of the missions changed. Contrary to the accepted model of cultural change that holds that traditional culture declined the longer natives lived under colonial rule, retention of material culture increased following an initial emphasis on cultural assimilation.
After about 1810, the role of the California missions changed as a consequence of the outbreak of the independence movement in central México that left the military and civil administration without reliable funding. The Franciscans placed greater emphasis on economic production that relied on the exploitation of native labor, and less stress on cultural change.
As long as the Indians carried out Christian religious activities and the tasks assigned to them, the missionaries did not enforce other aspects of Spanish culture as rigorously as before [1790s]. The result was
increased continuity of traditional native activities
The shift in emphasis from acculturation to economic production in support of the colonial regime altered the course of assimilation, and the surviving native population retained more traditional culture also reintroduced by recently congregated groups, and acquired “only a thin veneer of Spanish culture.”
The foregoing directly contradicts the usual model of Indian cultural change in the missions, which assumes that the longer the Indians were in the missions, the more acculturated they became, which was almost certainly the case for each individual Indian. With the constant influx of un-Christianized Indians throughout the mission period, however, this steady increase in the level of European culture was not the pattern for the mission population as a whole. Furthermore, the amount of Spanish culture acquired by individuals diminished after the 1800-1810 change in emphasis of the missions to economic production.
Following the closure of the missions the native populations continued to decline demographically, and the few survivors merged with other ethnic groups and no longer existed as distinct populations. The Guaraní, on the other hand, survived the missions as distinct and culturally autonomous populations.
Social Structure on the Missions
Some early missionaries in the sixteenth century envisioned the New World as a tabula rasa (blank slate) upon which to erect a utopian society reminiscent of the primitive Christian communities in the Mediterranean Basin in the first centuries following the crucifixion of Jesus, and during the periods of persecution at the hands of the Romans. However, the realities of the new colonial social, political, and particularly economic order did not leave room for such a social experiment. Missions on the frontiers did not develop in vacuums, and there was a constant tension between the goals of the missionaries and the demands of settlers and royal officials.
Native vassals of the Crown were obligated to pay tributo, and in some instances provide labor services. The Guaraní living on the Paraguay missions and the different native groups living on the Chiquitos missions paid tribute. Guaraní living close to the Spanish settlement at Asunción paid tribute and provided labor services to Spanish settlers through encomienda grants. Although the Guaraní residents of San Ignacio Guazú, the first mission the Jesuits administered, were held in an encomienda grant, the Black Robes consciously established new missions among Guaraní not held in encomienda. Moreover, the Jesuits established missions in areas as far from Spanish settlements as possible, as was also the case in the Chiquitos missions. Finally, in order to prevent the residents of the missions from having to leave to earn money, the Jesuits used communal resources to pay the tribute of the mission residents.
Clan Structure on the Paraguay and Chiquitos Missions
Prior to the Spanish conquest the Guaraní lived in clan-based villages subject to the authority of clan chiefs known as tuvichá. The Spanish referred to the clan chiefs as caciques, and a modified form of the clan structure persisted in the missions. Moreover, the clan chiefs shared power in the mission communities with the Jesuits through a cabildo (town council) on the model of the pueblos de indios. A 1657 tribute census listed 561 caciques in 19 missions, and later censuses enumerated equally larger numbers of clan chiefs (see Table 2). The Jesuits assigned each cacique a block of housing within the mission complex for the families subject to the authority of the cacique and recorded and the population in the missions as subjects of the cacicazgos (jurisdiction of the clan chief). As late as the 1840s, priests stationed on the ex-missions recorded the name of the cacicazgo of the parents of recently born children, and tribute censuses recorded the mission populations by family group and cacicazgo (see Tables 3 and 4). The registration of mission residents as members of a cacicazgo reflected the persistence of the medieval corporate model of social organization that formed the basis for Spanish colonial social theory, but also a recognition of the authority of the caciques and their co-governance along with the Jesuits.
How can we characterize the internal workings of the Guaraní clan system on the Paraguay missions? The tribute censuses provide tantalizing clues. A 1759 census for Corpus Christi is particularly revealing. The Jesuits provided information in the census that enables an analysis of marriage patterns. Men from Corpus Christi mostly married women from the same mission, but from different cacicazgos. Only a handful of men married women from other missions. Corpus Christi was largely a closed community. This pattern of marriage solidified community cohesion and identity, and contributed to a process of ethno genesis among the Guaraní living there that forged a new identity as residents of Corpus Christi.
The same census provides additional insights to the social structure of Corpus Christi mission, and the clan structure. The Jesuits who prepared the census recorded the baptismal date of the Guaraní born at the mission, and the vast majority of the residents of the mission were born there. At the same time there were a small number of natives settled on the mission from outside of the community. They were from a group known as the Guañanas who came from the area between the Paraná and Uruguay Rivers east of the Jesuit missions. The Jesuits periodically resettled small groups of Guañanas on several missions including Corpus Christi. The 1759 census enumerated a total of 112 Guañanas congregated in 1724, 1730, and 1754, and organized into separate cacicazgos. At the same time the Guañanas had begun to integrate into the older Guaraní population of the mission. Guaraní men had begun to marry Guañana women.
The Chiquitos missions, on the other hand, had ethnically diverse populations, and were open communities. The Jesuits periodically congregated or resettled non-Christians, often from considerable distances from the mission communities. At the same time the Chiquitos missions had a social-political structure similar to the Paraguay missions, also based on the model of the politically autonomous pueblos de indios. The one difference was that the Chiquitos missions had multi-ethnic populations that shaped the social-political clan structure introduced into the missions. The Jesuits categorized the ethnically diverse clans by the term parcialidad, and as was the case in the Paraguay missions shared authority with the clan chiefs who headed the parcialidades. The ethnic parcialidades were similar to the Guañana cacicazgos reported at Corpus Christi mission in that ethnically distinct populations entered the missions as separate social-political entities under their own leaders. A detailed 1745 census of the Chiquitos missions recorded the population by parcialidades, and in a number of cases natives recorded as being from the same parcialidad lived at different missions (see Table 5).
The Jesuits recognized their higher social status through symbols of authority and special privileges afforded them. Early Jesuit accounts differ as to the status and authority of the clan chiefs prior to the establishment of the missions. Some accounts noted that the clan chiefs had limited authority restricted to organizing military campaigns, leadership in hunts and fishing expeditions, and in resolving disputes within the community. However, another account described a hierarchical social-political structure among the Manisaca Chiquitos group, and noted that the clan chiefs enjoyed authority similar to that of the Guaraní tuvichá. The clan chief had subordinate political officials called capitanes by the Spanish, and separate religious (hechiceros) and medical practitioners (chup