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.
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 Association of Communitarian Health Services (ASECSA) is a transnational, religiously influenced health program in Central America created during the Cold War. ASECSA was founded in 1978 by a small group of international health professionals with ties to programs started by Catholic and Protestant clergy and laity in Guatemala’s western highlands in the 1960s. It introduced a model of healthcare in which Maya health promoters and midwives became partners in healing rather than objects to be cured. Support for the health programs and ASECSA came from secular and religious international agencies, including the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), German Misereor, Catholic Relief Services, and the World Council of Churches. ASECSA was founded to disseminate knowledge of popular health education strategies used by health promoters and midwives to provide preventive and curative medical services to their communities. The education methods grew from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and its use by religious agents influenced by liberation theology. Although it was founded in Guatemala, ASECSA’s publications and meetings attracted participation by health professionals and paraprofessionals from Mexico, Central America, and even the Caribbean. Ecumenical religious centers affiliated with liberation theology in the 1960s and 1970s facilitated the development of popular health programs that played a defining role in the region.