Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, RELIGION ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited. Please see applicable Privacy Policy and Legal Notice (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 15 December 2018

US–Mexico Borderlands and Religion

Summary and Keywords

The border between the United States and Mexico has artificially divided languages, cultures, landscapes, and religions for more than a century and a half. This region is the crossroads not only of Anglo-America and Latin America, but also of multiple empires; the Aztec, Spanish, and US empires each staked a claim on this region, leaving political, economic, cultural, and religious markers on the landscape and its peoples. These imperial bodies brought their preferred religious practices and religiously inspired social, economic, and political cultures, which reshaped populations and landscapes from the 15th century to the present. Religion has been a significant dimension of this region from prior to the arrival of the Spanish through the early 21st century.

Keywords: empire, New Spain, missions, Catholicism, Black Legend, Southwest, border

Indigenous Circulations in the Borderlands

Prior to European settlement, the US–Mexico border region was occupied by indigenous communities and networks, with overlapping cultural and religious traditions from both Mesoamerica and North America. Studies of Casas Grandes, for example, show significant symbolic overlap between Tlaloc, a Mesoamerican deity, and the kachina cult of the present-day US Southwest. Casas Grandes, which was active from the 8th century until the 15th century, located in the international four corners region (New Mexico, Chihuahua, Sonora, and Arizona), is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.1 Archaeologists have determined that this community, also known as Paquimé, participated in a network of cultural, social, and economic borrowing and exchange in the region, including goods from present-day Guatemala to the US Southwest. The cosmology of Paquimé also shows evidence of cultural exchange. “The complex ideology of water containers and sacred landscape symbolism—as well as sacred bundles, masked effigies, and funerary practices that integrate the dead with cosmic forces in order that they will become rainmakers—follows a common thread from central Mexico to the peripheries of corn agriculture in the semiarid regions of the Southwest.”2 These indigenous cosmologies helped shape the regional culture, religion, and economy. The depth of religious intermingling in Paquimé defies our subsequent division of this geography, these peoples, and these studies into two separate subfields and language bases, defined by contemporary political entities.

Divine Missions of Conquest: Imperial Designs on the Borderlands

Scattered Spanish, French, and Russian explorations entered the US–Mexico border region in the 15th and early 16th centuries, but it was not until the Viceroyalty of New Spain was established in 1535 that a colonial power sought permanent control of this region. As the northern edge of the territory of New Spain, the borderlands area faced limited central control. Local bodies, such as presidio commanders and missionaries, defined attempts at imperial control in this territory in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. The presidios were fortified complexes that housed a military unit to protect borders, trade routes, local settlements, and missions, though their precise purpose and structure were determined by local concerns and materials. The presidios were established by the central government of New Spain but largely sustained by local populations, including the missions, requiring the missions to be economically productive in order to justify protection by the presidios.

Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits from Spain established missions throughout the northern frontier of New Spain from the late 17th to the mid-19th century. Their work in the periphery of New Spain spawned regional successes and failures. The friars did leave behind a distinctive and lasting architectural influence, even centuries later.

Pueblo Resistance to Colonization

In the late 16th century, the viceroy of New Spain, Martín Enríquez de Alemanza, sought the elimination of rebellious Indians on the northern frontier. Those on the ground in the region questioned this use of manpower, but increased migration north forced the issue, and by 1540 expeditions were settling in present-day New Mexico. In 1595 Juan de Oñate was appointed governor of New Mexico, making his way north initially to present day El Paso, and in 1598 he arrived in Santa Fe. The Spanish crown wanted a stronger hold of the farthest reaches of the empire, and Oñate ruled the northern frontier of New Spain by force.

Pueblo communities faced dramatic reorganization in terms of social, economic, and religious institutions and traditions. The relocation of small communities into larger, more easily monitored and defended units upset the regional agricultural, foraging, and trading patterns; Pueblo surpluses, intended to cover long winters, droughts, and other crises, were repurposed to feed colonists. The agricultural system, closely tied to religious practices, was disrupted to the point that the health of Puebloan communities suffered.

The mission work and accompanying military force were not uniformly welcomed. Michael Wilcox suggests that historians and archeologists have not given due attention to abandonment as a form of resistance. While we know disease and violence diminished Puebloan and other indigenous populations, scholars have been slow to recognize abandonment as a conscious population shift, based in social, cultural, and religious resistance. Wilcox notes that “the documents consistently support the correlation of social violence and abandonments during the entire colonial period, and the abandonments themselves demonstrate a single but very important element of Puebloan resistance.”3 In Spanish sources, abandonments are often attributed to attacks by Apaches and Navajos, but more recent scholarships suggests that even failed rebellions resulted in abandonment—migration to join Apache and Navajo allies or resettlement in other Pueblos more removed from mission centers, where Spanish control was less effective.

In the early 1670s, severe famine struck the region after a drought. State authorities blamed Pueblo religious leaders; then-Governor Juan Francisco Treviño imprisoned and publicly beat forty-seven Pueblo religious figures, killing four of them. Pueblo warriors resisted and eventually secured the release of the remaining Pueblo leaders. However, Po’Pay, a San Juan Pueblo religious figure, was pursued by colonial authorities, leading to his exile to Taos Pueblo in the far north. Fearing complete annihilation, Po’Pay and religious leaders from other Pueblos began plotting their rebellion, using saint’s day festivities as cover for their planning meetings. With attention to the routines of the Spanish, in August of 1680 when supplies of food and gunpowder were waning, the resisters unleashed coordinated attacks, killing over 400 colonists and more than half of the 40 Franciscan missionaries in the area. The Puebloans destroyed Catholic churches and symbols and restored the kivas that had been central to their kachina rituals.

The Spanish settled temporarily at the El Paso mission to regroup for what turned out to be more than a decade. The Pueblo resistance to the Spanish empire and its imposition of Catholicism was short-lived as the Spanish retook the area again before the end of the century. Mission churches were rebuilt, and the evangelization of the region began anew. Catholicism among American Indian populations is quite varied. An estimated 20 percent of Natives are Catholic, with higher percentages on the Navajo, Paiute, and Hopi reservations in New Mexico, Arizona, and California.4 There are Catholics among Puebloans, but precise percentages are not available.

Franciscan Legacies in California

Junípero Serra (1713–1784), a Franciscan missionary born on Majorca, spent the second half of his life as a missionary in New Spain. In 1767, after a decade in residence in the New World, he was stationed in Baja California. As the Spanish expanded their territory northward, Serra volunteered for service in Alta California. From 1769 until his death in 1784, Serra remained in present-day California and established missions in San Diego, San Carlos Borromeo de Monterey, San Antonio, San Gabriel, San Luis Obispo, San Francisco, San Juan Capistrano, Santa Clara, and San Buenaventura. Serra served both the Franciscan order and the crown; he was know for chastising Spanish soldiers who mistreated the indigenous populations and was able to exert some authority in this isolated region. The Spanish missions in California were very productive, which gave Serra more latitude in his work to both Christianize the Indians and civilize the soldiers. Through the mission system, the Spanish Empire effectively tried to rid indigenous populations of their former religious rituals and practices throughout the colonial era.

The Alamo: Cradle of Texas Liberty

In Texas, Spanish missions were built between 1632 and 1795. In the east, the Franciscans and their accompanying colonists fended off raids not only from local Indians but from French colonists as well. Though the French were also anxious to Christianize the locals, there was little desire for cooperation among colonial competitors.

On the periphery of New Spain, colonial and church authorities exerted limited social control. Lizeth Elizondo shows that communities selectively enforced or rejected state and church expectations. In Coahuila and Texas, “illicit friendships,” “sinful unions,” and other violations of religious and colonial codes were accepted for extended periods of time in many communities. Friends and neighbors made arrangements to help enable sinful liaisons or remained silent when they were questioned about such affairs. Elizondo shows it was not the sin, itself, but rather other disagreements that led to reports of such immoral behavior. Sustaining community relations, court records show, proved more important than obeying the command of God or the viceroy.5 Distance from the central government allowed for loose state and religious regulation of borderlands communities.

Residues of a Spanish Past in the New World?

Longstanding anti-Semitism in Spain reached the Americas through Spanish colonization. In 1492, Jews were expelled from Spain. Jews and Crypto-Jews (those who secretly practicing Judaism) fled to Portugal and the colonies. The Spanish Inquisition sought to root out Jews, leading to more Crypto-Jewish families hiding throughout the Americas. Reportedly, communities settled in the Texas-Nuevo Leon region, where there was far less scrutiny from religious and civil authorities. There is continuing controversy in New Mexico about whether or not there are descendents of these Jewish exiles. Occasional stories in the American press renew interest in this story, but there is no significant research supporting an ongoing presence of Crypto-Jews in the borderlands; part of the difficulty of documenting this history is how secretive the communities had to be in New Spain.

Remapping the Border: Texas Independence and the Mexican-American War

In the early 18th century, migration from the expanding United States into Texas increased. Moses Austin and his son Stephen were among a number of speculators New Spain allowed to acquire land, with the promise of bringing in settlers and making the region profitable. “The families which are to compose this Colony besides being industrious as he offers in his petition must be Cat[ho]lics, and of good morals,” according to the contract issued in 1825, shortly after Mexico gained its independence from Spain.6 Stephen Austin was successful in recruiting settlers into the area—mostly Protestants from the American South—and helping Texas to prosper. Increased migration to the region brought Protestant worshippers, leery of Spanish and Mexican Catholics and Catholicism. By 1830, after rising conflicts between Mexicans and Anglo settlers, the Mexican government tried to stop the influx of Americans; in addition, importing slaves into Texas was no longer legal, elevating tension between newcomers and Mexican and Tejano populations.

Austin sought Mexican statehood for Texas, and when that failed, calls for independence grew louder. The northern frontier’s distance from Mexico City allowed for more flexibility in some respects, but in the 19th century, the central government wanted stronger control. By late 1835, tensions between Anglos and Mexicans in Texas, between the frontier and the central government, as well as ongoing Indian raids, led the Mexican government, under the direction of General Antonio López de Santa Anna, to send Mexican troops to regain control of the northeastern frontier. Santa Anna himself led the troops in an attack on the Alamo Mission, where eventually Texans and Tejanos withstood 12 days of attacks, leaving about 600 Mexican troops and some 200 Texans dead. In the midst of this, the Texas revolutionary government declared its independence, generating an even stronger show of force. The Texian movement failed at the Alamo but subsequently defeated Santa Anna in the Battle of San Jacinto and gained independence from Mexico shortly thereafter. Immediate tensions arose around possible annexation of Texas by the United States. Northern states, which did not want to add another slave state to the Union, opposed this move, as did Mexico, which threatened war should annexation proceed. Nearly a decade passed before annexation succeeded.

Expansionist James K. Polk was elected US president in 1844 and immediately tried to acquire Texas, New Mexico, and California. When his efforts to buy territory from Mexico failed, Polk annexed Texas and placed US troops in the once-disputed region between the Rio Grande River and the Nueces River, with the intention of provoking war with Mexico. Polk made his appeal to Congress to go to war, based on “hostilities by Mexico.”7 Religion tensions rose between the United States and Mexico in the mid-19th century. “Mexicans were as scornful of American Protestantism as Americans were of Mexican Catholicism,” Gene Brack writes. “But American Protestantism nurtured also the ‘work ethic,’ which exaggerated the supercilious attitudes of Americans toward Mexico and her people.”8 Catholics in the United States already faced significant prejudice, and the war with Mexico exacerbated this. Catholics supported and fought in the war in significant numbers, with the encouragement of US Catholic clergy and publications, yet they were still imagined as foreigners in the United States. Their credentials as true Americans were suspect given their presumed loyalty to the potentate on the Tiber before the American president. Such tensions were heightened during wartime.9

Regional conflict within the United States likewise flared: New Englanders were suspicious of a southern conspiracy to extend slavery further west; Southerners and Westerners were wedded to expansion; and popular literature cast Mexican territory as a subject in US empire and nation-building. Despite these tensions, Mexico and its racially inferior stock were hapless and overwhelmed by the far superior United States in all of these versions. The Mexican-American War, and its ultimate victory, fanned the flames of expansionism and sealed the identity of the United States as an imperial power. Walt Whitman famously wrote, “Let the Old World wag on under its cumbrious form and conservatism, we are of a newer and fresher race and land.” Whitman sought to separate “natural” expansion across the continent from colonial or imperial practices of European powers.10 With the added complication of acquiring thousands of non-white landholding peoples—Catholics, at that—the acquisition of half of Mexico’s territory disrupted racial and religious understandings of who and what the United States imagined itself to be. This rupture materialized in a range of ways in the borderlands.

Religion and Resistance in the 19th-Century Southwest

After the Mexican-American War, the region changed rapidly with the influx of immigrants from the east and shifting economic and social relations. Migrants brought their own religious and racial baggage. After settling in the Salt Lake Valley in the 1840s, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), or Mormons, saw the promise of establishing colonies in Mexico by the end of the century. Mormon leader Brigham Young considered colonizing parts of Mexico, but after mission groups returned from exploring the area and proselytizing, concern for Apache raids dampened enthusiasm for this project. By 1882, when Congress passed the Edmunds Act, seeking to eliminate plural marriage in American territories, Mexico became more appealing. In 1885, 400 LDS colonists settled along the Casas Grandes River in northern Mexico, where they ranched and farmed and effectively escaped persecution from Americans. By 1912, Nuevo Casas Grandes had 4,000 LDS members, and the area still reflects its Mormon past. “[S]ome of the houses you see as you come into town are a surprise. They are red brick, in a nineteenth century architectural style seen frequently in rural Utah and several other parts of the western United States… . One block in the other direction is a white building that is unmistakably an LDS chapel.”11 The Colonias on either side of Nuevo Casas Grandes remain largely Mormon and strongly tied to the United States; 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is the son of a Mexican-born Mormon, whose family has straddled the border for more than a century.

Catholics in what is now northern New Mexico and southern Colorado resisted the shifting religious landscape. La Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno (Pious Brotherhood of Our Father Jesus of Nazareth), commonly known as the Hermanos Penitentes or Penitentes, sustained their practices, which include self-flagellation and re-enactments of the crucifixion during Holy Week. Jean-Baptiste Lamy, Archbishop of Santa Fe from 1853 to 1885, issued rules for the Penitentes in the 1850s, allowing their practices to persist as long as they did not create a scandal, did not allow criminal elements to participate, and paid a tax to the church. This effectively drove the Penitentes underground, serving to further mystify their proceedings, especially to Anglo Protestants as they made their way into the region. Alberto Pulido argues that Penitentes were “a threat to the legitimacy and longevity of institutional American Catholicism in the new American Southwest. Therefore, it follows that the hierarchy would do all in its power to strategically silence or redefine any expression to the contrary.”12 The popular practice of embracing Christ’s suffering affirmed Anglo interpretations of New Mexicans as backward, superstitious, and unworthy of citizenship in the American republic.

Willa Cather’s novel Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) drew renewed attention to the Penitentes, portraying them as violent and superstitious, again corroborating reports of Catholic primitiveness in the face of rapid industrialization and growth in the eastern United States. In 1947, the Catholic Church formally recognized the Penitentes and their mission of charity, prayer, and setting a good example for their lay brethren. It is estimated that 1,000 to 1,500 Penitentes currently practice in New Mexico and Colorado.

Catholic Borderlands: The Mexican Revolution and the Cristero Rebellion

The role of the US–Mexico border shifted during the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) and the Cristero Rebellion (1926–1929), when Catholics from the Mexican heartland fled the anticlericalism of various Mexican revolutionary factions. Many Mexicans migrated to the United States just in order to survive, but a significant portion made the trek for religious reasons. The religious hierarchy that had existed for nearly a century in the border region came to the fore as Mexico’s civil war raged; Americans saw their superiority as white, Protestant, republican citizens in contrast to primitive Mexicans chasing out the ghosts of Spanish Catholicism and the Indian past and present. Mexican Catholic migrants faced scrutiny from proselytizers attempting to covert them to Protestant faiths, with practices and rituals imagined to be more modern and rational.

Even Mexican priests and nuns were forced out of Mexico between 1913 and 1917, when anticlericalism raged in much of the country. Exiled priests and nuns submitted affidavits in the United States attesting to mistreatment of themselves, their parishioners, and Catholic Church property.13 American Catholics and the US government pushed for religious liberty in Mexico, with uneven results; case-by-case interventions were largely successful, with broader attempts to protect the Catholic Church met with demonstrations that religious liberty was in fact being promoted. These demonstrations were largely the welcoming of Protestant denominations from the United States. Anticlerical officials sought to prove to American officials they were not opposed to religion, per se, but to the powerful and wealthy Catholic Church and its operatives. In many ways, this era reinforced American dominion over Mexico; US interference in the internal affairs of Mexico for moral reasons affirmed the cultural and racial superiority framework of decades earlier.

During the Cristero Rebellion, US consular reports show that Mexicans crossed the border from Ciudad Juárez to El Paso, Texas, to attend mass. Mexican border officials cautioned believers about spending time with anti-Revolutionary priests in El Paso. The century old demarcations between Catholic Mexico and the Protestant United States were blurred as American Catholics rose in prominence. In 1926, the Archdiocese of Chicago hosted the International Eucharistic Congress in 1926; Chicago’s warm embrace of exiled Mexican clergy in the previous decade prompted the Mexican government to send officials to the congress to monitor the actions and words of Mexican priests on the international Catholic stage.14 There is a certain irony in the Protestant United States protecting Mexican Catholics and Catholicism from the Mexican government.

Among US Catholics, there were multiple narratives framing the situation in Mexico. Among Irish American Catholic clergy and French missionaries in the Southwest, Mexican devotional practices were seen as superstitious and their knowledge of the faith limited. But some Catholic leadership saw an opportunity to enhance the American credentials of urban Catholics in the Northeast and Midwest by promoting Catholic participation in the civilizing mission. American Catholics raised funds to house a Mexican seminary outside of San Antonio, Texas, for instance, to keep training priests for Mexico, even as the government essentially outlawed the faith. This effort pushed back again the “mob rule” of Mexico with the stability a good Christian upbringing could provide for a nation recovering from war. Anne Martínez frames “Catholic borderlands” as areas where the Spanish Catholic past and the US Catholic present came together in uneven and often unpredictable ways to affirm American empire and Catholic civilizing project. In the 1910s and 1920s, US Catholic leadership exploited the Spanish Catholic past in the Southwest to promote a narrative of Catholic belonging.

Border Saints and Sinners: Late 20th-Century Religious Practices in the Borderlands

The Chicano Movement

The Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s marked a resurgence of interest in Aztec culture and religious practices; through dance, storytelling, and ceremonial practices, Chicana/os sought to reconnect with their indigenous roots. This, at times, invented tradition served to mark the pre-American existence of indigenous cultures, while inadvertently embracing another imperial past—that of the Aztecs. The notion of the US Southwest as “occupied America” framed the region as indigenous Mexican territory, remaking the border as an artificial divide.15 Folklorist Américo Paredes coined the term “Greater Mexico” to reflect the broader cultural influence that extended beyond the present political boundary of Mexico. These interventions in American cultural studies remain foundational to subsequent Chicana/o/Latina/o/Latinx studies.

César Chávez, president of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and a practicing Catholic, incorporated Catholic rituals, such as fasting during Lent, into his labor protests. The Virgin of Guadalupe figured prominently in UFW processions as well, offering a Christian face of the movement and challenging other Christians to take a moral stand against the exploitation of farm workers. Robert F. Kennedy joined Chávez in breaking fast in March 1968, when UFW members and Chávez’s own family feared for his health. The Virgin of Guadalupe also appeared in less traditional settings and roles. Chicana artists embraced the strength of this indigenous Mexican image but resisted the gendered strictures placed on Guadalupe as a Marian image.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Patron Saint of the Americas and Mexico, has also served Chicanas/Latinas in the United States as a source of inspiration and empowerment, especially since the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Jeanette Rodriguez documents the ways the Virgin of Guadalupe served as a source of empowerment, as well as faith, for Mexican American women in the late 20th century: “They relate to Our Lady of Guadalupe as a role model to whom they pray, a mother, one who intercedes, heals, affirms, gives them strength, and gives direction for a new world order based on love, compassion, help, and defense.”16 Kristy Nabhan-Warren describes Estela Ruiz’s relationship with the Virgin thusly: she grappled with ethnic in-betweenness and gendered expectations, and that her experiences with the Virgin enabled her to construct gendered, religious and ethnic identities that empowered her within the boundaries of her faith and her family.17 This embrace of Catholicism as a form of resistance to racism and prejudice in the United States challenges the Marxist-influenced foundational scholarship in Chicano/Latino studies.

Sanctuary: Cold War Politics and Migration in the 1980s

Over 500 religious congregations across the United States declared sanctuary in the 1980s, resisting the immigration policies and military interventions of Ronald Reagan’s administration. The administration was reluctant to offer asylum to those fleeing the violence and repression of American-supported governments in Central America; Americans of various faiths provided protection and shelter to those with well-founded fears of persecution should they return to their homes. A network of churches, synagogues, university communities, and progressive cities openly flouted federal policy by housing Central American migrants and helping them find work and other kinds of support to sustain themselves. Despite doctrinal differences among groups, there was a common desire to welcome the stranger. The federal government eventually brought charges against some sanctuary workers, but the movement was successful in housing and supporting a generation of Central Americans in the United States.18

Trends in the 21st Century

Sanctuary Reborn: Undocumented and Unafraid

In the early 21st century, the sanctuary movement took on a different challenge, pushing the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations on immigration reform. Religious organizations, and later cities, states, and universities, adopted sanctuary as a means to protect young immigrants, especially, from deportation. Though Congress was reluctant to pass comprehensive immigration reform, through executive order President Obama provided protections for young people brought to the United States as children. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) helped spur a movement among high school and college students who declared themselves undocumented and unafraid. In the Donald Trump era, fears of deportation have returned, with regular raids in sanctuary cities across the country. Universities have revisited their policies regarding undocumented students, and most have affirmed their support for DACA recipients. The sanctuary concept, with ancient Christian roots, has become a political tool between cities, states, and the federal government in the long-standing debate around immigration reform. Similar movements have taken root in Canada, reflecting the broader global migration and refugee crisis of the early 21st century.

¡Tenemos un Papa!

The elevation of Jorge Mario Bergolio to Pope in 2013 ushered in a resurgence of Catholicism among progressives and Latinos, emboldened by the shifting messages emanating from the Vatican in the era of Pope Francis. In 2016, Pope Francis visited Ciudad Júarez, where he gave an open air mass challenging the anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States and other Global North countries. “We cannot deny the humanitarian crisis which in recent years has meant the migration of thousands of people, whether by train or highway or on foot, crossing hundreds of kilometers through mountains, deserts and inhospitable zones. The human tragedy that is forced migration is a global phenomenon today.”19 Pope Francis has injected a human rights element into Catholic social thought with his focus on forced migration, climate change, and interdenominational alliances.

Step Across This Line: Sovereignty at the Border

A similar sentiment has been expressed by the Tohono O’odham Nation, whose sovereign territory exists on a 62-mile stretch of the US–Mexico border. In the face of the President Trump’s promise to build a border wall, the Tohono O’odham refuse any effort to divide the tribe’s traditional land base: “It would threaten an ancestral connection that has endured even as barriers, gates, cameras and Border Patrol agents have become part of the landscape.”20 Regular religious pilgrimages into Mexico are disrupted by gates that now mark the national border, but the community is committed to resisting a border wall in their territory.

Popular Resistance to Spanish Imperial Narratives

In 2015, Junípero Serra was made a saint by Pope Francis during a visit to Washington, D.C. Pope Francis declared that Serra “was the embodiment of ‘a Church that goes forth,’ a Church which sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God… . Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it. Mistreatment and wrongs which today still trouble us, especially because of the hurt which they cause in the lives of many people.”21 Serra’s canonization was not without controversy. Many indigenous communities in California and across the United States protested the canonization. They resisted the version of Serra as a saintly man who protected the Indians from worse abuses than the ones he himself committed. Though Pope Francis previously apologized on behalf of the Catholic Church for atrocities committed again indigenous peoples, the Church appeared inattentive to native protests of the benign version of Serra’s story. We might say the Roman Catholic empire sought to control this narrative through canonization.

In New Mexico, Pueblo communities resist the memorialization and glorification of Spanish dominance in the region. Homages to Juan de Oñate and the Entrada, the Spanish return to Santa Fe following the Pueblo Rebellion, have been marred by local resistance to this imperial narrative. Oñate, then governor of New Mexico, amputated a foot from more than twenty men captured from Acoma Pueblo in 1599. In 1997, “Friends of Acoma” amputated the foot of a statue of Oñate in Alcalde, New Mexico. “A firestorm ensued, triggering a fierce debate in New Mexico at the time over symbols of the Spanish conquest. The theft of Oñate’s foot resonated with land activists and scholars, and even in the writings of poets like Martín Espada.”22

Protests marked the reenactment of the Entrada in 2016 and 2017. In the context of the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, the mayor of Santa Fe promised to review local monuments and festivals and consider public comments. Local Hispanic and indigenous communities are wrestling with ownership of New Mexico history, with its complicated imperial and racial pasts and present.23

The US–Mexico Border as a Symbol in National and Racial Discourses

The US–Mexico border’s role in the frontier of multiple empires, and in the repeated erasures of indigenous peoples, makes it an important narrative tool. The desire to own and shape the stories of Spanish–Indigenous, Catholic–heathen, Texian–American, Mexican–American, and Catholic–Protestant difference and triumph has produced volumes.

The Spanish Past in Black and White

American historians in the 19th century promoted the Black Legend, which cast the Spanish colonial project as cruel and intolerant. William Hickling Prescott (1796–1859) and other historians of his era, drawing on Bartolomé de las Casas’s Brevísima relación de la deconstrucción de las Indias (1552), juxtaposed Spanish backwardness and American progress. Prescott’s paradigm, as Richard Kagan dubbed it, still shapes American historical perspectives of the Spanish Empire and Spanish history more generally.24 The Spanish were cast as barbaric and in search of the riches of colonial expansion to fund religious wars, whereas British and Dutch colonists who were guided by a moral, religious mission and committed to personal and national productivity. In the American nationalist historiography, Mexico inherited inadequacies and inherently anti-modern ideas from Spain, sealing its fate as inferior to the rational, republican United States. Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Peru, published during the Mexican-American War, affirmed that all of Latin America was inflicted with the damage of the Black Legend. Prescott’s history of Peru was published, Walter Mignolo writes, “at a moment … when history repeats itself and the United States of the nineteenth century, like England of the mid-sixteenth century, is affirming its imperial ambitions, ambitions that had already been mapped by the discourse on race/racism during the European Renaissance, ambitions that have since given authority to imperial powers to reproduce themselves and to reproduce the sense of superiority of agents in a position of epistemic authority to classify the world.”25 These tensions shaped relations between ethnic Mexican and Anglo people in Texas, between the United States and Mexico, and between the United States and the rest of the Americas.

In the early 20th century, historian Herbert Eugene Bolton scripted a White Legend of Spanish padres risking their lives on the northern frontier of New Spain and Mexico, civilizing rather than exterminating Indians and Mexicans.26 But this version was resisted; Spanish and Mexican failures confirmed American exceptionalism with its Protestant Manifest Destiny. The Black Legend affirmed the American Empire. Scholars since Bolton have sought to complicate this Black Legend/White Legend framework, but local and national historiographies continue to embrace this simple narrative.

Southern California boosters recuperated a Spanish golden age in California in the early decades of the 20th century. The San Diego World’s Fair (1915–1916) presented Spanish-styled architecture to promote a worldly image of southern California to visitors from around the globe. Kagan suggests that this throwback styling, embraced by artists and writers, as well, was a retreat from the stresses and chaos of rapid industrialization.27 This embrace of an imagined Spanish past managed to erase Catholicism as well as Indians and Mexicans from the imagined present and future of the American Empire.

At the same time, American Catholics were excavating the Spanish past in the United States. Francis Clement Kelley, president of the Catholic Church Extension Society, worked to rewrite American history with a Catholic history that predated the Protestant arrival at Plymouth Rock. Through Extension Magazine, which in 1910 had more subscribers than National Geographic and Atlantic Monthly combined, Kelley created a Catholic Golden Age in the Americas, where brave padres weathered extreme weather, rabid Indians, and superstitious Mexicans to bring the gospel to America.28 Kelley’s work combatted the nativist fervor aimed at Catholic immigrants in the East, who were imagined to be loyal to the pope before the president, and thus not qualified to be republican citizens. In the process, he imagined a Catholic borderlands, which was possible due not only to US expansion but more importantly to the Catholic foundation laid by Spanish friars centuries earlier. This ownership of American history was important in making Northeastern and Midwestern American Catholics “real” Americans and part and parcel of the American civilizing project. This Spanish Catholic inheritance proved important in cementing American Catholic identity in the early 20th century. American expansion shadowed the Spanish Empire, leaving American Catholics with the important work of defending Catholic souls in new and potential American territories.29 Kelley “adopted” Mexican bishops in exile from 1913 to 1917, housing them in Chicago, and acting as their official representative in the United States. In this way, Catholicism transcended the US–Mexico border, which migrants and other parts of American and Mexican culture had yet to accomplish. As I argue in Catholic Borderlands, the religious aspect of US–Mexico relations has been largely overlooked in political and cultural histories of the two countries.

The Atlantic Turn in Colonial History

In the late 20th century, some colonial historians reimagined the field by displacing Europe as the cultural, political, and economic force of history and replacing it with the Atlantic Ocean. This scholarship challenged models that reified the superiority of European peoples and cultures over those of indigenous North and South America and Africa. Some of this scholarship also disrupted European narratives of civilization and savagery. Much has been made about the distinctions between British and Spanish colonization and the inherent cruelty associated with Spanish colonization, in contrast to the progressive British-cum-American narrative. In fact, British Protestants and Spanish Catholics had remarkably similar justifications for their colonial projects: Jorge Cañizares Esguerra writes, “biblically sanctioned interpretation of expansion, part of a long-standing Christian tradition of holy violence aimed at demonic enemies from within and without.”30 Indigenous peoples in the borderlands region have faced colonization from multiple parties, including the French, Spanish, Mexicans, and Americans, along with their accompanying Catholic, Protestant, and evangelical missionaries. Cañizares is part of the wave of Atlantic historians re-imagining colonial expansion using a different set of analytical tools.

Owning the Spanish Missions: American Relics of a Romantic Past

The complicated legacy of the Spanish missions continues even into the 21st century. The significance of the Spanish missions has moved far beyond their religious meaning; the narrative value of the mission architecture and the romance of a disembodied Spanish past have remade the Spanish missions as genuine articles of American antiquity.

The California Spanish missions as a whole are the most intact, though some buildings remain in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, including the Alamo, along with a few remaining earlier missions in the US Southeast. “For many, the missions lie at the very heart of the [California’s] cultural identity: cherished symbols of a romanticized heritage; tourist destinations; storehouses of art and archaeological artifacts; inspirational settings for writers, painters and photographers; touchstones of an architectural style synonymous with California itself; and active sites of Catholic worship (in 19 of the 21 churches).”31 This statement belies the racial and political significance of the Spanish missions in the 20th and 21st centuries.

In early 20th-century California, Anglos embraced Spanish colonial architecture, creating a narrative that neglected the Mexican past of California, as well as Mexican-heritage Americans in their very midst. The 1915–1916 San Diego World’s Fair, Matthew Bokovoy argues, captured this very contradiction: an array of Spanish colonial-style structures presented a picturesque vision of southern California, without recognizing the destruction of prior civilizations before Spanish settlement and since. San Diego’s planners cast their celebration in contrast to Chicago’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893, which reflected European traditions and perspectives. San Diego boasted a “native” culture, architect Bertram Goodhue argued, cultivated by “generations of Spanish Conquistadores and priests.”32 Goodhue and his fellow planners sought to capture a Spanish Golden Age to demonstrate the regional character of the Southwest. This dramatic representation, with its deep European roots, managed to erase the Franciscans, as well as Indians and Mexicans, from the imagined present and future of the American Empire. “These efforts at locating an appropriate regional past aligned Anglos with conquistadors and padres while distancing them from the uncomfortably near, apparently primitive Indian [and Mexican] past. The stories of racial succession enacted at each of these venues lent Southern California a logic of history that was attuned to contemporary national rhetoric.”33 A Spanish revival was found elsewhere in the Southwest, and beyond, among artists, writers, and architects, as a refuge from rapid industrialization in the early 20th century.34 The celebration of the Spanish missions did not extend to Catholicism; it was still considered a largely backward and superstitious religion, and its adherents were considered ineligible for citizenship. Bokovoy and others have re-considered the early 20th century for its production of local narratives intended to sustain Anglo superiority in the rapidly changing US Southwest.

These narratives also operated on national and international scales. In the 1910s and 1920s, Rev. Francis Kelley created a usable past for American Catholics that centered Spanish Catholicism. Kelley, president of the Catholic Church Extension Society, presented readers of Extension Magazine the opportunity to be active participants in the growth of the American Empire. The Euro-American Catholics across the Northeast and Midwest who read Extension Magazine faced daily slights regarding their fitness as Americans. Their presumed loyalty to the pope before the president marked Catholics as ineligible for membership in the American project. The deep Catholic roots of the Southwest gave Euro-American Catholics a legitimate claim to the American empire.

In Extension Magazine, mission priests across the US Southwest wrote testimonials about the challenges they faced sustaining mission churches and schools, attending to their widespread flocks via chapel trains, automobiles, and even on horseback. One priest compared Kelley, who was based in Chicago, with Junípero Serra, the Franciscan missionary who built the California missions. “To associate the work of the Extension Society with this land of fantasy would seem incongruous, for it is a far cry from the modern deluge of Eastern Catholic tourists and home-seekers to the days of Father Junipero Serra and his first Extension Society among the Indians,” the missionary wrote. “And yet his modern Chicago successor,” he continued, referring to Kelley, “has found arid spots in this land of milk and honey upon which to rain its gifts, and this appeal is voiced that a forgotten corner of the Golden State may not become spiritually what it is materially, a desert waste.”35 Such fanciful comparisons underscore the work of Kelley and the Extension Society to construct a seamless narrative of Catholic succession from Serra and his associates to 20th-century missionaries in the Southwest, thus marking the very American landscape as historically Catholic.

Key symbols in national racial discourses have revolved around events and locations anchored in the US–Mexico borderlands. The Mission of San Antonio de Valero, better known as the Alamo, has transformed from a Spanish Catholic mission into a “national” symbol of Texas. A significant battle for Texas independence was staged there in 1836, but like the California missions, the Alamo experienced a reinvention in meaning in the early 20th century. The same kind of civic pride that characterized southern California’s Spanish revival led to a revival of Mexican-American War–era myths regarding heroism and ownership of Texas history and pride. The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, the Texas Cavaliers, and the Order of the Alamo annually reproduce a historically inaccurate story of Texas vs. Tejanos that is more reflective of 20th- and 21st-century ethnic tensions than the actual Battle of the Alamo (1836). The invented tradition sells: the “cradle of Texas liberty” is the number one tourist attraction in Texas, visited by 3 million people annually, and the most Instagrammed attraction in Texas.36 It has also been featured in movies as diverse at PeeWee’s Big Adventure (1985), Viva Max! (1969), and, of course, The Alamo (1960 and 2004). The representations consistently negate the Spanish Catholic origins of the mission and repurpose it as a shrine to white identity in Mexican American San Antonio.

Whitewashing the Borderlands: Tales of Anglo Succession

Richard Flores shows that the Battle of the Alamo took on new meaning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Between 1880 and 1920 a new social order was established as the Texas economy was reshaped by capitalism and by the influx of Anglo immigrants. In the decades that followed, San Antonians struggled to save and then define the Alamo in local, state, and even national terms. Flores argues that in the early 20th century, “the Alamo operated as a multiply inflected sign that serves the social, political, and economic interests of the dominant Anglo population.”37 The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, the Texas Cavaliers, and the Order of the Alamo have sustained that narrative throughout the 20th century. Holly Beachley Brear considers the annual pageantry associated with the Alamo—events that actually commemorate the victory at San Jacinto.38 Fiesta San Antonio, as the mislocated week of events is known, currently markets itself as “A Party with a Purpose.” Flores and Brear would argue that purpose is to reify a skewed narrative of Anglo victory over Hispanic corruption in the liberation of Texas from Mexico in 1836. In the early 21st century, Jorge Cañizares Esguerra makes the case that the Alamo, once a Catholic mission, has been transformed into a Confederate monument through the local historical reinventions of the past 150 years.39

The Evangelical Turn in Latino Studies

Evangelical congregations have grown exponentially in the early decades of the 21st century on both sides of the US–Mexico border. Gastón Espinoza notes that this development is hardly recent. Espinoza dates the Latino Pentecostal movement to the turn of the 20th century, when Francisco Olazábel, a Sinaloa-born Catholic whose mother converted to Pentecostalism, journeyed north to San Francisco and had an epiphany, which led to him returning to Mexico and becoming a Methodist minister. Olazábel continued crossing the border in both directions, evangelizing in Texas, Illinois, and California before defecting from the Methodist ministry to revisit Pentecostalism. By the 1920s, he worked a circuit across the United States, preaching to Mexican and Puerto Rican workers in labor camps and barrios. At the time of his death in a car accident in 1937, Olazabel had preached for and left a number of denominations, but his charismatic style and Spanish-language prophesies spoke clearly to embattled Latinos. “His life and ministry was the embodiment and dream of a thousand other Latinos who would never be able to cross the colorline of Jim Crow America in the 1930s.”40 As of 2013, 16 percent of Latinos are evangelical—almost a third of those who identify as Protestant, with particular growth among Salvadorans and Puerto Ricans.41 Latina/o studies has been slow in recognizing the importance of religion in Latinx communities; likewise, the study of evangelicalism has lagged behind studies of Catholic faith among Latina/o populations. In the last decade, scholarship on these communities have increased, including those that straddle the border. Daniel Ramírez argues that Pentecostalism’s malleability was ideal for working-class migrant populations who carried their faith through music and other family traditions that were portable and not prone to inspection by religious authorities.42

Further Reading

Beebe, Rose Marie, and Robert M. Senkewicz. Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015.Find this resource:

    Brear, Holly Beachley. Inherit the Alamo: Myth and Ritual at an American Shrine. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.Find this resource:

      Cañizares, Jorge. Puritan Conquistadors: Iberianizing the Atlantic, 1550–1700. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

        Groody, Daniel G. Border of Death, Valley of Life: An Immigrant Journey of Heart and Spirit. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.Find this resource:

          Haas, Astrid. “Borderlands Identities and Borderlands Ideologies in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop.” American Studies Journal 57 (2012). Web.Find this resource:

            Hinojosa, Felipe. Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith and Evangelical Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

              Kagan, Richard L. “Prescott’s Paradigm: American Historical Scholarship and the Decline of Spain.” The American Historical Review 101, no. 2 (1996): 423–446.Find this resource:

                Martínez, Anne M. Catholic Borderlands: Mapping Catholicism into American Empire, 1905–1935. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014.Find this resource:

                  Matovina, Timothy. Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

                    Peña, Elaine A. Performing Piety: Making Sared Space with the Virgin of Guadalupe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.Find this resource:

                      Pew Research Center. Religion and Public Life.

                      Schaafsma, Curtis F., and Carroll L. Riley. The Casas Grandes World. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1999.Find this resource:

                        Schmidt-Nowara, Christopher, and John M. Nieto-Phillips. Interpreting Spanish Colonialism: Empires, Nations, and Legends. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.Find this resource:

                          Wilcox, Michael V. The Pueblo Revolt and the Mythology of Conquest: An Indigenous Archaeology of Contact. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.Find this resource:


                            (1.) United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, “Archaeological Zone of Paquimé, Casas Grandes.”

                            (2.) Curtis F. Schaafsma and Carroll L. Riley, The Casas Grandes World (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1999), 191.

                            (3.) Michael V. Wilcox, The Pueblo Revolt and the Mythology of Conquest: An Indigenous Archaeology of Contact (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2009), 146.

                            (4.) United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee on Native American Catholics, “Native American Catholics at the Milennium,” Washington, DC, n.d.

                            (5.) Lizeth Elizondo, “Sex, Deviance, and Drama: Socioracial Relations on the Texas-Coahuila Borderlands, 1665–1820,” PhD diss., University of Texas, 2017.

                            (6.) Stephen F. Austin, “Second colony contract with permission to settle 500 Catholic families,” 1825, Gilder Lehrman Collection.

                            (7.) James K. Polk, “Hostilities by Mexico: Message from the President of the United States Relative to an Invasion and Commencement of Hostilities by Mexico,” May 11, 1846, Washington, DC.

                            (8.) Gene Brack, Mexico Views Manifest Destiny: An Essay on the Origins of the Mexican War (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1975), 170.

                            (9.) Blanche Marie McEniry, “American Catholics in the War with Mexico” (PhD diss., Catholic University of America, 1937). The Batallón de San Patricio was a unit of the Mexican army largely made up of deserters from the US army—mostly Irish—who defected and fought on the Mexican side in five major battles. See Robert Ryal Miller, Shamrock and Sword: The Saint Patrick’s Battalion in the U.S.-Mexican War (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989).

                            (10.) Walt Whitman, “The Foreign Press on the American President,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 8, 1947, reprinted in Cleveland Rodgers and John Black, eds., The Gathering of Forces: Editorials, Essays, Literary and Dramatic Reviews and Other Material Written by Walt Whitman as Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1846 and 1847 (New York: Putnam, 1920), 33.

                            (11.) LaVon B. Whetten and Don L. Searle, “Once a Haven, Still a Home,” Ensign: Magazine of the LDS Church, August 1985.

                            (12.) Alberto López Pulido, The Sacred World of the Penitentes (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), 45.

                            (13.) Francis C. Kelley, The Book of Red and Yellow: A Story of Blood with a Yellow Streak (Chicago: The Catholic Extension Society of the United States of America, 1915).

                            (14.) See Anne M. Martínez, Catholic Borderlands: Mapping Catholicism onto American Empire, 1905–1935 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014), ch. 5.

                            (15.) Rodolfo F. Acuña’s Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, now in its eighth edition, was first published in 1972 as Occupied America: The Chicano Struggle Toward Liberation; Acuña’s book has served as a cornerstone of Chicano history.

                            (16.) Jeanette Rodriguez, Our Lady of Guadalupe: Faith and Empowerment Among Mexican-American Women (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994), 161.

                            (17.) Kristy Nabhan-Warren. The Virgin of El Barrio: Marian Apparitions, Catholic Evangelizing, and Mexican American Activism (New York: NYU Press, 2005), 36.

                            (18.) See Dejan Duric, “Capturing the Legal Soul: Law, Life, and Liberation in the U.S. Sanctuary Movement, 1980–1989” (MA diss., University of Groningen, 2017).

                            (19.) Julián Aguilar, “Pop Francis Border Mass Awes El Paso Catholics,” The Texas Tribune, February 17, 2017.

                            (20.) Fernando Santos, “Border Wall Would Cleave Tribe, and Its Connection to Ancestral Land,” New York Times, February 20, 2017.

                            (21.) Pope Francis, Homily of his Holiness Pope Francis, Holy Mass and Canonization of Blessed Fr. Junípero Serra, National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC, September 23, 2015.

                            (22.) Simon Romero, “It Takes a Foot Thief,” New York Times, October 2, 2017. El Pasoans have also fought commemorations of Oñate, as documented in The Last Conquistador, a PBS POV documentary (2008).

                            (23.) “The Line: Protests over the Entrada,” New Mexico in Focus, Episode 1110, September 8, 2017.

                            (24.) Richard L. Kagan, “Prescott’s Paradigm: American Historical Scholarship and the Decline of Spain.” The American Historical Review 101, no. 2 (1996): 423–446.

                            (25.) Walter Mignolo, “Afterword,” in Rereading the Black Legend: The Discourses of Religious and Racial Difference in the Renaissance Empire, eds. Maureen Quilligan, Walter Mignolo, and Margaret Rich Greer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 322–323.

                            (26.) Herbert E. Bolton, “The Mission as a Frontier Institution in the Spanish-American Colonies,” The American Historical Review 23, no. 1 (1917): 42–61.

                            (27.) Richard L. Kagan, “The Spanish Craze in the United States: Cultural Entitlement and the Appropriation of Spain’s Cultural Patrimony, ca. 1890–ca. 1930,” Revista Complutense de Historia de América 6 (2010): 37–58.

                            (28.) N. W. Ayer and Son’s American Newspaper Annual and Directory (Philadelphia: N. W. Ayer, 1910), 111, 158, 362.

                            (29.) Martínez, Catholic Borderlands.

                            (30.) Jorge Cañizares, Puritan Conquistadors: Iberianizing the Atlantic, 1550–1700 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), 9.

                            (31.) Jamie Katz, “A Tour of California’s Spanish Missions,” Smithsonian Magazine, May 2011.

                            (32.) Matthew F. Bokovoy, The San Diego World’s Fairs and Southwestern Memory, 1880–1940 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005); see also Phoebe S. Kropp, California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); and Chris Wilson, The Myth of Santa Fe: Creating a Modern Regional Tradition (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997).

                            (33.) Kropp, 262.

                            (34.) Richard L. Kagan, “The Spanish Craze in the United States: Cultural Entitlement and the Appropriation of Spain’s Cultural Patrimony, ca. 1890–1930,” Revista Complutense de Historia de America 36 (2010): 37–58.

                            (35.) A California Missionary, “In the Footsteps of Junipero, Extension Magazine, April 1922 (quoted in Martinez, Catholic Borderlands, 65–66).

                            (37.) Richard R. Flores, Remembering the Alamo: Memory, Modernity, and the Master Symbol (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), 62.

                            (38.) Holly Beachley Brear, Inherit the Alamo: Myth and Ritual at an American Shrine (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995).

                            (39.) Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, “The Alamo: The First and Last Confederate Monument?,” in Arcade: Literature, Humanities & the World, September 18, 2017.

                            (40.) Gastón Espinoza, “El Azteca: Francisco Olazabal and Latino PentecostalCharisma, Power, and Faith Healing in the Borderlands,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 68, no. 3 (September 1999): 610.

                            (41.) Pew Research Center, “The Shifting Religious Identity of Latinos in the United States,” May 7, 2014.

                            (42.) Daniel Ramírez, Migrating Faith: Pentecostalism in the United States and Mexico in the Twentieth Century (Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).