The establishment of the Jesuit Province of Paraguay in 1609 expanded upon the “spiritual conquest” of the Guaranís of South America. The liminal position of this territory, located between the southern boundaries of the dominions of the Iberian monarchies in America, conditioned the policy of conversion applied to the indigenous peoples who inhabited this region. Missionaries sought to attract the attention of indigenous leaders to catechesis to ensure evangelization, but much of their positive results stemmed from a convergence of mythical and historical motivations. Along with the use of firearms, used to repel the attacks of the bandeirantes from the captaincy of São Paulo, these factors contributed to a political alliance forming between the Jesuits and the catechized Guaraní. This alliance, in turn, allowed for the creation of a successful social, political, and cultural arrangement.
The foundation of these Christian Indian settlements—known as missions—was one of the variants of the “Republic of Indians,” a framework for limited indigenous self-government codified in Spanish law, which enabled the Guaranís to overcome increasing social fragmentation and reorient their cultural activities. Since teaching “arts and crafts” was a leading vehicle for evangelization, many indigenous people also became literate. Lessons in reading and writing taught in the Guaraní language, through seminars, catechisms, and dictionaries, familiarized the population of the missions with written culture. Daily life in these Christian communities allowed the natives, under the tutelage of the Jesuits, to overcome the precariousness of the conditions to which they were subjected as exploited workers. It also afforded them an opportunity to recreate a semblance of their way of life (ñande reko) adjusted to colonial parameters.
The mission economy supported tens of thousands of Guaraní Indians and made the Jesuit reducciones (1609 to 1767) the most populous and financially prosperous of all the missions among native peoples of the Americas. The communal structure of collective labor, shared ownership, and redistribution of communal property formed the basis of the mission economy and seemed to leave little room for the possession of private property, independent trade, and economic initiative on the part of the resident Guaraní. Late 18th century Jesuit authors reinforced such an understanding in an attempt to defend their order and its actions in Paraguay. They argued that the Guaraní were incapable of managing their own affairs and that Jesuit management of the communally structured economy was indispensible for the wellbeing of both the missions and the Guaraní. Such accounts overlook evidence to the contrary. Mission Guaraní did in fact own private property—yerba mate, horses, clothing, and jewelry—and Jesuit leaders repeatedly issued orders for the missionaries to allow the Guaraní to independently trade yerba mate. Furthermore, although Jesuit authors repeatedly denied that they paid mission Guaraní wages—to do so would go against the communal structure that they so vehemently defended—the missionaries acknowledged that they paid mission Guaraní bonuses as a reward for their skills or extra labor. These bonuses served as a way to motivate individual economic initiative or agency within the framework of the missions’ communal structure. In sum, the communal structure allowed for more flexibility in the ownership of private property, independent commerce, and economic initiative by the Guaraní than has been portrayed in both the 18th century writings of Jesuit authors and much of the current literature.
Michael Kenneth Huner
Like many topics in Paraguayan history, the subjects of popular religion and death are under-researched. And yet, if we can conclude anything about them, experiences involving popular religion and death, like many cultural aspects in Paraguay, have intersected with experiences of nationhood. We find many historical and present-day manifestations of this, most conspicuously in language, which inevitably also draws our attention to questions of syncretic religious legacies. Still today most Paraguayans speak Guaraní, a vernacular of indigenous origin. This language itself is a colonial product of the “spiritual conquest,” whose subsequent role in galvanizing popular participation in two postcolonial wars has long been noted. In fact, perusing national monuments and local cemeteries today draws us to a specific time period when many formative links among syncretic experiences of religion, death, and nationhood were being constructed: the fateful López era (1840–1870) that culminated in the cataclysmic War of the Triple Alliance. Here we find how a modern nation-building project attempted to channel, rather than suppress, popular religious energies, and we encounter the many contradictory, and formative, consequences this project produced. A sampling of scholarly literature and primary sources from within a broader framework of Paraguayan history likewise reveals how links among popular religion, death, and state formation are indeed recurring themes for more research that needs to be done.
Luis R. Corteguera
Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Inquisition in New Spain tried individuals for a broad range of sacrilegious acts against religious objects, including spitting, trampling, stabbing, and breaking them to pieces. Men and women also desecrated images through verbal insults, irreverent gestures, and even sexual acts. In most of these cases, the term sacrilege does not adequately reflect the often-complex motivations behind such actions. The Protestant iconoclastic violence of the 16th century unleashed on Catholic sacred images has made us think of acts of sacrilege as primarily directed at denying the power of images and their ability to represent divinity. Yet even seemingly obvious cases of iconoclasm in New Spain challenge this assumption. In many and possibly most cases, such actions betrayed the longing of men and women for spiritual closeness with divinity. The anger, desperation, and desolation sacrilegists sometimes expressed were not always unlike the ardent emotions that sacred images could elicit from devout Catholics. At other times, men and women sought to appropriate the power of sacred images and relics for reasons that challenge an easy distinction between religious and superstitious intentions. Taken together, cases of sacrilege, blasphemy, desecration, irreverence, profanation, and superstition can therefore reveal the variety and creativity of authorized and unauthorized religious practices in colonial Spanish America.