Native Perspectives on the Transformation of Missions in Spanish and Portuguese America

AHA Session 119
Conference on Latin American History 32
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Erie Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Amy Turner Bushnell, Brown University and John Carter Brown Library
Cynthia Radding, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Session Abstract

This panel examines mission transformation in both the colonial and national contexts of Spanish and Portuguese America.  The papers offer a comparative perspective on how native groups responded to secularization, a process that encompassed institutional, economic, and sociocultural changes in the missions.  In the eighteenth-century Amazon, missions became towns with Portuguese names and civil administrators.  In the Rio de la Plata, the Spanish Crown expelled the Jesuits and separated the management of temporal and religious affairs in the missions.  In twentieth-century Bolivia, the national government privatized the missions and opened them to settlement by non-Indians.  Secularization profoundly shaped the character of the (former) missions, and its legacies can still be detected in modern-day communities that trace their roots back to the missionary period.

Secularization was not, however, a straightforward, top-down process.  The native inhabitants of the missions directed some of the changes; modified others; and often compelled colonial or national governments to take native priorities and interests into account.  Native Amazonians retained access to communal resources and found ways to collaborate, on their own terms and for their own ends, with state-sponsored projects in the former missions.  Leaders among the Guaraní took on a greater role in managing and overseeing their transformed communities in the Rio de la Plata.  And in Bolivia, the Chiriguanos invoked customary rights to maintain control over a portion of their corporate assets, even as white settlers encroached on the former-mission lands.  Struggles over control of the transformed communities also showed a great deal of variation over time and space in each of these regions, as native residents migrated in and out of the (former) missions, government aims shifted, new settlers moved in, and native and non-native populations became increasingly mixed and interdependent. 

In highlighting the role of native inhabitants in the transformation of missions, this panel challenges the notion that native communities tended to resist all forms of state-led change.  Each of the papers emphasizes the highly contingent and variable processes by which changes came to be implemented in each of these regions and time periods.  Considering moments from the mid-eighteenth century to the mid twentieth century and from both Portuguese and Spanish America, they find significant differences as well as striking similarities in the way native peoples shaped the processes and outcomes of mission secularization.

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