Gender and Mission in Mexico's Sierra Tarahumara

Saturday, January 5, 2019
Stevens C Prefunction (Hilton Chicago)
Julia C O'Hara, Xavier University
This poster displays the gendered dimension of the missionary experience in twentieth-century Mexico. It examines the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Poor, a religious order established in 1886. In 1904, the sisters joined a new Jesuit mission among the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains. The sisters collaborated with the Jesuits to develop a program aimed at transforming the Tarahumaras’ way of life. Together, the missionaries strove not only to introduce the Tarahumara to Catholicism, but also to model Christian norms of gender relations and family life and new ways of addressing the troubled relations between the Tarahumara and their non-indigenous countrymen.

The sisters inserted themselves into two key debates in twentieth-century Mexican public life: the struggle over Catholicism’s role in the political and cultural life of the nation, and the question of how to respond to the perceived problem of “redeeming” the nation’s indigenous people so as to incorporate them into the body politic. My poster demonstrates that the sisters’ missionary experience paints a more complex picture of how religion and race are intertwined in Mexico than has previously been acknowledged. By comparing their unique approach to the “Indian problem” to the approaches taken by the Jesuits, the institutional Catholic church, and the Mexican government, the poster highlights the important role that gender has played in the construction of such seemingly self-evident categories as “race,” “nation,” “religion,” and “mission.”

Fundamental to the missionary enterprise were single-sex boarding schools for Tarahumara children and adolescents. In them, the Jesuits worked almost exclusively with Tarahumara boys, while the sisters taught Tarahumara girls and dedicated themselves to providing domestic labor for the Jesuits and their students. The sisters also joined the Jesuits in encouraging male and female graduates to marry one another and to live in carefully supervised “colonies.” These unique settlements anchored the mission; from them, the missionaries hoped, would emerge genuinely Christian families that would serve to “regenerate” the Tarahumara “race.”

At least four generations came of age in the colonies before the missionaries blended them into the surrounding Tarahumara communities. A lasting impact of these colonies is their role in nurturing the religiosity of Tarahumara women. The first Tarahumara woman became an ordained member of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Poor in 1942. Other indigenous women followed, ultimately becoming a significant percentage of the order’s membership. In contrast, the first Tarahumara Jesuit was not ordained until 1978, and since then only a handful of Tarahumaras have become Jesuits.

The sisters’ success at inviting Tarahumara women into their order greatly shaped their approach to their work as missionaries. This poster uses archival photographs, documents, and maps to illustrate that, in their day-to-day lives within the mission, the sisters shared more with their Tarahumara students than with their Jesuit collaborators. Gender solidarity gradually supplanted differences in race, language, and culture. Their experience provides a fascinating example of how gender can break down the otherwise rigid boundaries that “mission” so often erects.

See more of: Poster Session #1
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