Sacred Spaces in Colonial Mexico: Legacies, Rivalries, and Adaptations

Conference on Latin American History 20
Friday, January 7, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Great Republic Room (The Westin Copley Place)
Christopher J. Wisniewski, University of California at San Diego
Recasting a Sacred Landscape: Franciscan-Indigenous Refashioning of Cholollan's Holy Legacy, 1529–1640
Veronica A. Gutierrez Sermino, University of California at Los Angeles
The Quick and the Dead: Secularization Debates during the Hapsburg and Bourbon Eras
Christopher J. Wisniewski, University of California at San Diego
Matthew D. O'Hara, University of California, Santa Cruz

Session Abstract

No student of Latin American history is unaware of tremendous influence of the Roman Catholic Church on colonial affairs in the region. Indeed, as some scholars have characterized it, the church acted as the handmaiden of the state and, through the efforts of a state-sponsored church, the greater part of the population in the Americas converted, at least nominally, to Catholicism, which helped to further solidify Spain's political and material aims. Be that as it may, there was never a clear-cut policy on how religious conversion and instruction was to be accomplished, at least not a policy that was greeted with favor by all churchmen in the colony. And even if shared goals could be articulated, many of the tactics were left up to individual groups that operated within the church, in particular the religious orders who, despite their many similarities, went about the business of evangelization in different ways. As time went on, the secular church (bishops and their diocesan priests), which in Mexico at first served only urban Spaniards, soon began to grow large and capable enough to show interest in serving indigenous members of the church, starting with Indian ‘parishes' that were within or very near urban centers and from there to outlying areas. The papers in this panel each speak to different aspects of the church's evangelizing and teaching tasks that were executed by its different ministerial arms (regular and secular), which always had as their focal point a particular space—whether a pueblo through the establishment of a convent or doctrina or parish, or even, as Melvin's paper makes clear, the confessional box itself, which had the capacity to undermine or reinforce certain religious notions depending on which branch of the church was administering the sacrament of Penance in that space. As Gutiérrez's paper explains, contestations over the administration of sacred space were not limited to religious ministers, but to the church itself and the people it served. As in the case of Cholula, the first generations of friars to arrive in Spain's then newly colonized territories had to contend with natives who would not easily give up their ownership in and oversight of sacred space despite the fact that, as agents of the Church, friars claimed the right to administer those spaces. The fight over Catholic sacramental space was not limited to indigenous persons and churchmen, however, as Wisniewski's paper explains. Thanks to the growth of its members, the secular arm of the church eventually demanded the right to take over the administration of most Catholic communities that had been founded by a given religious order, which in his case was also the Franciscans. As much as natives capitalized on Franciscan rhetoric in Cholula in their fight to control to some extent Cholula's sacred space, Franciscans in the Yucatan relied on claims about their Indians charges when trying to win the fight against secular clerics who were trying to take over the administration of Maya doctrinas a century or more later.