Conquest Narratives and Social Activism in Latin America

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Modern scholars find ample opportunities to critique the work of their predecessors, and in many ways this reflects the mission of the academy: to build upon current knowledge by not only seeking voids but also by designing methods to fill them. At times, in the pursuit for truth it is easy to forget that contemporary social scientists also view subjects through a specific set of lenses. The modern paradigm by its nature sets present-day scholarship in opposition to that which preceded it. A more balanced empirical approach would not seek deconstruction for the sake of deconstruction, but rather to learn from mistakes of the past in order to move forward constructively. It argues in favor of an alternative narrative of the conquest, one that reduces the focus on friars as conquerors and oppressors, and redirects attention to their possible role as activists and social advocates. In the process of exploring this alternative perspective, another pertinent question emerges: Are modern day anthropologists and other social scientists engaged in social advocacy and activism doing the same thing that the friars of the conquest period were doing, in intention at least? If so, have modern scholars studied the mistakes of the past and integrated alternative models into their methods of action?

It seems a researcher’s foremost responsibility is to protect the interests of his subjects; however, what that means exactly is not clear. Those who promote activism assume several things: that today’s scholars know what is best and previous scholars – either the early anthropologists with whom contemporary ones try to disassociate or the Catholic friars, priests, and nuns who preceded them, with the intellectual paradigm no longer recognized as scholarship – were not also seeking what they saw to be best for indigenous populations. This essay seeks to address these issues with emphasis on the latter assumption. It is my belief that both are intricately woven into the temporal fabric of the academy and society at large. The paradigm, reflecting a particular zeitgeist, often makes little sense outside of its own context. It is the responsibility of the scholar to evaluate each movement on its own terms, which is not to suspend judgment but rather engage in a more critical analysis.

I discuss this in three parts. Do social science scholars know what is best and furthermore what responsibilities are associated with that knowledge? Secondly, I attempt to unravel some criticisms waged against previous scholars, i.e. Spanish Catholic friars who have come to be regarded as colonizing forces. Included in this will be a general discussion of paradigms. Lastly, I use the Virgin of Guadalupe as an example of mediation between two colliding cultures.

The Crystal Ball

Matthew Restall begins with an intriguing question: “Were the Mayas of colonial Yucatan actually Mayas?” (“Maya Ethnogenesis” 64). Grant D. Jones, who ironically dedicates his work “to the memory of the Maya whose lives were transformed or cut short,” believes from a linguistic perspective there exist “deep historical affiliations” within the Yucatan, but admits that the early history is “too poorly understood” (3). This raises the question of indigeneity and how the term is applied and used. Over time ethnic identifications fluctuate, and further obfuscation results from political conflicts rallying around these terms. Today’s scholar, considering humanitarian responsibilities toward cultures studied, must face Restall’s own answer to his question: “In terms of both the identities they claimed and those assigned to them, they were not [Mayas]” (64). He says the evidence confirms his idea that the group of people currently identified by scholars as Mayan “did not consistently call themselves that or any other name that indicated they saw themselves as members of a common ethnic group” (Ibid.).

This raises several flags and forces one to question whether scholars, as suggested by Restall, have not invented these categories. What would that mean for today’s scholar? Victor D. Montejo, focusing on self-identification, provides a reply by appealing to public heritage – a collective sense of self, based on perceived connections with a common ancestral set and viewed as a valuable indentifying factor to be preserved for future generations. A self-labeled “Mayan anthropologist and writer,” Montejo wants to help advise researchers in “dismantling the stereotypes and images created by early anthropologists” (123-4). Claiming his people must reassert its “Mayanness,” he hopes to “dispel the political amnesia of the majority of Maya” (125); the goal “is to ignite a stronger desire to empower ourselves and promote our identities for the future” (Ibid.). Inevitably the cultural memory critique emerges, complicating the discussion: When memory is counterbalanced by social amnesia does it hold any value at all or is it a socially-constructed stuffed shirt?

Montejo’s preemptive strike against critics of collective memory is well-intended but is not without weaknesses. He addresses Fischer and Griffin’s idea that the Mayanness movement seeks to revive “ancient patterns of Mayan culture as essential relics to be worshipped” (Montejo 128) and fields Hobsbawm’s criticism that such revivalist movements use ancient material to invent tradition and consequently cultural significance. He admits the Maya are continually “creating and recreating their Mayan culture and redefining themselves” (129), but denies he is creating a “romantic past.” He says the Maya are not inventing themselves “to the same degree as Western cultures” and that “for us, the Maya, cultural heritage is clearly visible, and its roots are still strong and firmly embedded in Mayan soil” (Ibid.). Here the argument loses steam, gets sidetracked, and the conclusions suffer. His concluding remarks hinge on the idea that Mayans are the true Mayans. They should be recognized as such “because there are elements that strongly link them to the millennial history and tradition of their Mayan ancestors” (144). The argument is questionable.

The idea of heritage, however, makes the case credible and compatible with Edward Fischer’s model. In a cultural memory study, Larry Griffin and Peggy Hargis offer an opening line which rivals Restall’s in wit: “This much we know; the past is not really, can never be, past at all” (42). History in this sense becomes organic and is compatible with the argument for authentic indigeneity. Adopting this model eliminates the need for empirical data definitively mapping a direct lineage from today’s Maya to those of the ancient world. This historical approach, the study of memory, Griffin and Hargis say, “is not exactly the academic study of history” (43); however, they admit “the exploration on collective and social memory, has proffered new questions about the interpretations of how collectivities and individuals are both constituted by the past and mobilize it for present-day projects” (Ibid.). The past is an efficient way to deal with the present, reinforcing Montejo’s point about self-identification, which is what may be referred to as heritage. Truth aside, one’s story about oneself becomes true on its own terms; the representation provides a true account of how a person or a people view themselves in a wider context. In the case of Montejo, one is sure that he sees himself as Mayan but may wonder if Mayans (the wider group) accept Montejo as one among equals. Would his indigeneity be questioned because of his decision to enter what another “Mayan” might consider as colonial?

Scientifically proven links with a past is near-impossible in terms of heritage and memory is not to adopt a radically relativistic approach. Viewing history organically requires a shift in paradigm. It is not a denial of a true past but the acceptance of a historical present. We are forced to see through packaged periodization and evaluate knowledge of the past as knowledge from the past forming an individual or collective consciousness of the present. In addition to thinking critically about the methods and actions of scholars who have come before, today’s researchers have a greater responsibility. Each generation has one generation’s worth of successes and failures more than the previous of which to be critical. Additionally, this generation of scholars has learned to be critical of its own practices.

The basic responsibility of social researchers is to the people and cultures they study, which includes working with the person or group’s best interest in mind, avoiding situations which might cause them harm. The American Anthropological Association notes that researchers must consider the potential social and political repercussions resulting from their findings before disseminating that information. On these terms, recording, documenting, interpreting, and ultimately preserving cultural and material artifacts to the best of one’s ability are ethical duties. These fulfill the scholar’s obligations to hosts, informants, interviewees, performers, etc. by helping to save the stories, emotions, pains, and fortunes, which are perceived to be integral to a group’s heritage – for present and future generations.

Must every social researcher be an activist? This hinges on another question: Is the scholar committed to truth and confident that he or she possesses it? Many have come bearing truths before and countless classroom hours are dedicated to their deconstruction. Has the researcher thought critically about past truths, learned from them, and made adjustments? Has he or she considered what future critical analysis may reveal about his or her activism? One cannot predict the future, or be sure of universal truths; however, one can hope to get close. Activism requires due diligence. Advocating aggressive activism is risky business, but turning a blind eye to human injustices is inexcusable and is outside the boundaries of moral relativism.

According to the American Anthropological Association, advocacy on the part of the researcher is “an individual decision, but not an ethical responsibility.” Here too, in terms of ethical certainty, an empirical decision is difficult; Bentham’s “utilitarian calculus” cannot provide a reliable answer.

The Oppressive Forces of a Western God

As Montejo has argued, a Mayan identity is like a Western one in terms of social construction. Each is constructed in relation to the other. Otherness is inherent in any self-identification; without it, there is no need for identity. The unity of opposites is as old as philosophical inquiry itself, yet it is often forgotten. Before the West’s current aegis and the nationalist (imperialist resulting) period preceding it, homogenization was religious in nature.1 Rather than rallying under a flag, the West, prior to the end of the eighteenth century rallied under a different religious symbol – the cross.2 Regardless of the symbol it is imperative to focus on the struggle to learn from the past.

Citing Hegel and Foucault, Matthew Liebmann concludes: “Power and domination are not one-way streets. The very concept of power asserts the mutuality of the relationship between the dominant and the dominated” (2008, 142). This dynamic relationship is reiterated in Julianna Barr’s Peace Came in the Form of a Woman (2007), where it is claimed that Spanish images of the Virgin helped mediate relationships between the natives and conquistadors. She says in their gendered hierarchy, the image represented a peaceful embodiment and the Spaniard had the option of resisting their interpretation or making accommodations. Neither party, however, is a stranger to cultural accommodation. On both sides of the Atlantic, icons and rituals, myths and images, pantheons and chapels were bought, sold, and traded. New Spain was no exception.

Restall says “the Franciscans were the driving force behind efforts to convert native peoples and building a colonial church” (2003, 9). He provides several stories attesting to the effectiveness of the friars. On the Incan siege on Cuzco in 1537, he claims “accounts…by both Spaniard and Andeans…credit the intervention of Santiago and the Virgin as important explanatory factors, if not the deciding factor” (133). He claims further that Franciscans and Dominicans promoted the idea of divine providence as the reason behind God’s interference in the Conquest (133). Victories, especially among recent converts and groups allied with the conquistadors, were interpreted as miracles. Evidence seemed to indicate that the Spaniards were destined to dominate the native populations, and although the ideological religious victories reverted to hands of secular domination, those friars – the original ethnographers (15) – saw themselves as the first activists among the indigenous population, building missions, chapels, hospitals, and schools.

Anthony Grafton says friars believed the natives might become better Christians than the Europeans and further: “Friars were trained…to observe and investigate. The tools of the Inquisition… provided them with a set of questions to ask about beliefs and rituals in the Americas” (Grafton 1992, 93).3 Seventeenth century Jesuit, Carlos de Siguenza y Gongora, wrote about professed women in the Conceptionist convent of Jesus Maria, in Mexico City, regarding them as “efficacious venues of divine favor,” and claiming that “God’s distribution of His bounty had been made among all people regardless of gender and race” (Lavrin 1999, 233-4). A half century later, in a letter to Phillip IV, Juan de Palafox, bishop of Puebla, recognized spirituality as a natural Indian trait, praising “their great piety, devotion, innocence, humility, and other exemplary qualities” (Ibid., 237).

The natives may have sensed a positive change in the new regime, and a scholar today may interpret this as building a false consciousness on the part of the friars, but it is difficult for researchers to ascertain motives on either side. The friars were fulfilling their vows by converting the world, and may have intended to usher in the second coming of Christ; the native allies of the Spanish saw an aggressive overlord overthrown and perhaps anticipated a new era of peace. Most post-colonial researchers, especially those who advocate activism in Latin America, would shudder at the idea that Spanish friars were engaged in the same work, and that they too shared the vision of a better life for oppressed masses. William Taylor calls this period “the ‘spiritual conquest’ … not so much the conversion of native people to Christianity as the place of religion in the formation and maintenance of colonial rule” (1996, 10). The idea of a “spiritual conquest” is itself zeitgeist-dependent terminology, grounded in the post-enlightenment thinking which convinced Daniel Boorstin in The Discoverers (1983) to claim the Christians “conquered” the Roman Empire. The water is muddied further in the present case. In a post-enlightenment/post-colonial/post-modern world, which is worse, ending imperialism or using religion to do it? Perhaps definitions of “better life” and our socio-political paradigms have shifted in tandem. Modern thinkers may feel that humanity is better prepared this time to handle the disentanglement of world powers, that we might avoid descending into another “dark age” (another paradigmatic term). This is not to suggest that we model ourselves on the work of the friars but rather learn from their successes and mistakes, in addition to those of secular authorities, early social scientists, and governments and their armies. Cultural collisions have happened since time immemorial and Latin American history can provide today’s student of cultural history with some valuable insight; it provides clues about the context of cultural change in the unrecorded annals of western history and ideas about the our present conditions and the future of our society.

Lavrin’s “Indian Brides of Christ” provides historical and ethnographic insight on the role of the friars during Taylor’s “spiritual conquest.” Lavrin asks: “Could an Indian woman become a nun?” and wonders why it took it took two centuries and “a passionate exchange of contradictory opinions” to accomplish this feat (225). She argues, “during the first years of evangelization, friars tinkered with the idea of conventual life for indigenous women, but they soon abandoned it in favor of religious indoctrination and education for life” (225). For her this is an exhibition of the society’s “biases regarding race, gender, and class,” noting that “male Indian nobles began to receive indoctrination and education to facilitate a rapid religious and cultural adjustment” (226). The first convent, Nuestra Sra. de la Concepcion (1550), was built for women of Spanish descent. Lavrin points out that included were “two mestiza daughters of Isabel de Moctezuma” (229). Around then Franciscans backed off convent building. The First Mexican Council in 1555 and the Third Provincial Council 1585 rejected Indian ordination (230); however, Lavrin makes it clear that the “Vatican toned down its language to a statement that such ordination would demand great caution” (Ibid.).

This case may be interpreted in several ways. It is feasible to suggest that the Church epitomized racism, seeking to reproduce the hierarchical society which served as the foundation for its wealth and power in Europe, or that it had a sexist agenda designed to perpetuate the Old World’s rigid patriarchy. It is equally plausible to suggest that the Vatican, having well-over a millennium’s worth of experience in the religious conversion business was skeptical about pre-Columbian religious practices – in some ways like those which it had experienced in rural European communities, but in other ways unlike anything they had seen before. The question was left to the discretion of the local bishops.4 It may be suggested that the hospitals, churches, and schools aimed at “education for life,” although seen today as tools of colonization, were not viewed that way in the sixteenth century, and furthermore that these friars were engaged in many of the same kinds of activism which is promoted today. In terms of sexism and racism, one must wonder how much power the friars had regarding the dynamics of the socio-political structure of New Spain.5 More importantly, who should be considered the “Church” there: the friars, the politically entrenched secular bishops, or the noblemen bearing the symbol of the crucifix?

Cultural Resilience and Social Capital

Contemplating the cultural diversity – language, ritual, ethnicity, etc. — among the native population and the clash of civilizations upon Spanish arrival, one is struck by the possibilities in a romantic sense, and the seemingly insurmountable difficulties in a materialist sense. Lavrin notes: “Race and spirituality made a strange and potent mixture in the New World. European Christianity confronted a tough situation when the issue of admitting a new race to the elected body of the brides of Christ was posed in the sixteenth century” (1999, 255). The “tough situation” was more than simply a gender issue; it involved a “shift from hesitation and doubt to an approval that, while not shared or felt by all, was at least a sincere acknowledgement of the natives’ capability for living the faith as fully as any true “old Christian” (Ibid.). Matthew Liebmann has effectively argued that both individual and group identities are “recursive, constantly shifting, negotiated strategies of alliance building…they constantly shape and are shaped by perceived similarities and differences” (133). The examination of identity involves the analysis of “ethnicity, gender, class, faction, race, etc.,” which adds to the difficulty because it makes identity a “malleable concept” (Ibid.).

Malleable identities and cultural reciprocity is exciting for the curious and scary for the entrenched. It is seldom a quick process and it is never finished. It is reasonable to that political structures on all sides would be suspicious of contending ambitions. It is also clear why some natives would readily accept the new powers and their religion while others would dig in their heels against the perceived enemy. Lastly, it seems clear why the friars would be willing to embrace the diversity in their pursuit as “fishers of men” and equally evident why the Vatican would issue a word of caution on the ordination of natives.

Liebmann adds weight to this interpretation. After the Pueblo rebellion in 1680, natives adopted a return-to-tradition strategy in order to eradicate the Spanish influence upon their tribes. Archaeology and ethnohistory collected data to support the theory that during the decolonization years (1680-92), the Pueblo continued to use “Christian imagery and material culture” (132). While some see this as evidence the natives refused to disengage from the Catholic faith, remaining subordinate to Spanish domination, Liebmann takes a different approach. He says this interpretation “denies agency to Pueblo peoples” and makes the assumption that “Christian symbols meant the same thing to all people at all times” (133). In this sense, the objects and images reflect the agency of those who embrace them. For Liebmann, they were used in ways the Pueblos understood as not contradictory with their own traditional beliefs, such as the use of halos and concentric circles in artistic representations. He also implies intentional manipulation of objects which speak out in opposition to Spanish Catholicism; he notes the use of Christian imagery on traditional katsina figures which missionaries believed to be “devils” (138).

Two ideas emerge from Liebmann’s discussion. Cultural conversion is ongoing, and the use of Catholic imagery as either a component of traditional, pre-colonial ritual, or as an antagonistic tool adds to the richness of reciprocity. Intentional or not, adoption of the imagery became part of Pueblo vernacular. Despite any resistance to the perceived inappropriate use of these objects on the part of the missionaries, they too became ever more aware of the progressively blurring lines between their cultures.

An accord was struck and it is aptly captured in the title of Julianna Barr’s work: Peace Came in the Form of a Woman. In the first book published (1648) on the Virgin of Guadalupe, Imagen de la Virgen María, Miguel Sánchez writes: “Guadalupe bestowed many favors on the native peoples of Mesoamerica…in order to ‘inspire, teach, and attract them to the Catholic faith’” (Matovina 2009, 61). Sanchez drew comparisons between the image of the Virgin and the woman described in Revelations 12:1-2: 1: “Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars. Then being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth.” This birth was the new Christian world and Matovina suggests that Jesuits began to “postulate in Neoplatonic terms that her image authentically depicted the divine concept of Mary” and that:

Mary was sacramentally present in the perpetual miracle of the Guadalupe image…. Christ evangelized the Old World through the apostles’ preaching of the word, while Mary of Guadalupe effected the evangelization of the New World through her miraculous image, a visual means of communication highly suited to the indigenous psyche. (72)

According to Matovina, Sanchez “professed Guadalupe as ‘a native of this land and its first “Creole woman’ …. Benedict XIV assigned as the epigraph for the office of her feast day: ‘God has not done thus for any other nation’” (73).

Scholars have not universally accepted this interpretation. Jeannette Peterson (1992) said by the time of the First Mexican Council in 1555 the Church hierarchy was forced to accept its “failure to eradicate paganism” and acknowledge “Indian resistance to domination” (40). She then indicates that friars began to incorporate native beliefs by substituting “Christian saints for old gods,” and concludes “the Virgin of Guadalupe was one such fusion of a European mother of God with native mother goddesses” (ibid.). She cites a complaint by the Franciscan Sahagun in 1576 that “pilgrimages to Tepeyac were only a continuation of pre-Hispanic practices and that natives consistently referred to Guadalupe as Tonantzin” (Ibid.). Her allusion to the friar’s complaint actually bolsters the case of those with whom she takes issue. It stands as evidence of the cultural give-and-take, exposing the resilience and power of cultural continuity. Her discussion of “fusion” adds nothing to the conversation. The method she highlights is well-known throughout western history. In Acts 17:23, Paul tells the Athenians that their altar to “the unknown god” is intended for the Judeo-Christian god which encompasses all the rest. While this allusion may seem tenuous and perhaps specious, one can find specific, documented use of Christian/Pagan reciprocity in the sixth century “Apostle of England,” Augustine of Canterbury who overtly encouraged it and was renowned for his success. These methods were no secret. The Jesuit, Juan Uvaldo de Anguita, established a mission in the early eighteenth century explicitly for this purpose. According to Lavrin:

[Uvaldo de Anguita] established the first link between the new and the old world and the new and the old Christians. East and West had met …. He juxtaposed the symbols of the old deities and the Christian ones to prove to his audience that it was possible to build Christian life on the foundations of pagan gods and festivities. (258)

In short, finding commonalities and negotiating differences between colliding cultures is the ongoing story of civilization. Hugo Nutini has argued that after Catholicism became the dominant religious system in Mexico it was aggressively challenged by the eloquent preaching of Protestant missionaries. He notes that in the last fifty years both of these formidable organizations face the rising challenge of what he calls “Native Evangelism” (2000, 51).

Peterson continues: with her “humble attitude and pious gesture, the Virgin of Guadalupe conveniently reflected the colonial church’s image of the native population that it sought to bring under its control” (40), adding that it was “a lucrative source of income for the church…[and] was still paternalistic and exclusionary” (45). Bias aside, Peterson brings some helpful information to light. She claims that the Virgin’s apparitions happened several times over the centuries and points out the association between the Virgin and pulque, the ritual drink of pre-colonial priests made from the maguey plant dating back at least two millennia. She notes that the Virgin is still called “the Mother of Maguey” in parts of Mexico (Peterson 1992, 45 and Taylor 1987, 19). Astutely, Peterson points out an ambivalence about the Virgin using various examples of material culture concluding that “the Virgin is still seen as both a symbol heralding freedom and a signifier of submission” (47). William Taylor supports this: “The idea that one symbol [Guadalupe] can stand both for submission to authority and liberation will not surprise most students of the history of religions” (1996, 161).

Matovina says most scholarship has “examined the Guadalupe image, apparition accounts, and its historical context as a means to explore the collision of civilizations between the Old and New Worlds and the ongoing implications of this clash for Christianity in the Americas and beyond” (62). He also agrees “her relation to the historical process of mestizaje (racial mixing) and nation building” (65) adds to her complexity, as she has become associated with both the struggle to overcome the negative effects of the conquest of the Americas and the hope for a new future of greater justice […] (66). This interpretation is not as clear cut as it seems. Hidalgo’s use of the image on the path toward Mexican independence, and the increase in such use in later years helped create a blurred line between religion and politics. This effected self-identification and lent itself to the paradox described by Peterson.

The feminist critique goes a step further, claiming the image was a tool not only for conquering a race, but subjugating women in the process. Althaus-Reid argues that a “Marian false consciousness” stretches back to the conquistadors:

Mary is a concept which comes to the continent at the same time as the concept of Indios. The presence of the icon and its nativisation produces a sense of continuity which is false, unmasks the oppressive role of the foreign religion of Christianity in the continent and keeps endorsing women with boundaries, aspirations and ideals which are imperialist in nature and ideological in method….[it is an illusion] under the heavy weight of a metaphysical and logical conquest. It is an ethical victory for the colonisers, under the banner of Mary, the icon which shows women why they are not real women. (Althaus-Reid 2000, 49)

She says artistic representations of the Virgin introduced to the native populations were de-sexualizing Mary, and asks: “What does the Guadalupana have under her skirts?” She argues while Mary’s “womb” is constantly discussed, it is never depicted: “Unfortunately, the Virgin seldom shows her vulva in her numerous apparitions… the womb is the area of words, of seminal speeches while the vulva is that shocking pink swollenness which speaks by its mere presence” (63).

Her ideas of “logical conquest” and “ethical victory” are interesting because they indicate ideological, intellectual, and psychological warfare. The goals of this sort of battle are political, economic, and spiritual. Matovina says the Virgin “provides hope and inspiration for Mexican Americans … called to embrace their identity as mixed-race mestizos, synthesize the richness from their parent cultures, and lead the way in constructing a society in which the barriers between peoples are broken (81). This conflicts with Althaus-Reed’s critique; however, it need not be considered an opposition to feminist theory. “For the Chicana feminist theorists,” argues Pineda-Madrid, “a liberative interpretation of Guadalupe needs to create space and support for Chicanas as speaking subjects, needs to heal and transform Chicanas so as to deepen their self-esteem, and needs to enable Chicanas (and others) to know even more deeply the inter-connectedness of all humankind and of all creation” (2005, 3).

Activists are not new to ideological warfare. When cultures come together, each is subject to change. Whether we are engaged in nationalizing, capitalizing, socializing, democratizing, secularizing, de-marginalizing, or idealizing indigenous identities, we are involved in political, economic, and spiritual battles aimed at a “logical conquest” and an “ethical victory.”

Concluding Remarks

Roberta Rice, in a review essay of several books on the indigenous rights movements in Latin America (2007), says that the “flurry” of organized political movements has been the impetus for “a veritable explosion of scholarship” in those regions (210). She concludes that indigenous groups are not only “questioning the legitimacy of the nation-state,” but are also “contesting the very terms of democratic citizenship” (214). Two key questions emerge from her essay: “What are the implications of the legal and institutional gains of indigenous movements for the pressing development demands of the region’s indigenous peoples?” Secondly, “would indigenous movements be more effective in advancing their agendas without participating in formal political processes?” (214).

These questions penetrate the heart of the discussion. As scholarship seeks to identify and eliminate the problems causing untold atrocities against humanity, it must also realize the implications of its activism. One chooses a side in a wager with high stakes and little certainty. History has shown that earlier forms of advocacy have gone wrong and are met with severe criticism and even animosity. The intentions of the friars in Mesoamerica may not be determined but their actions are debated. While some see them as spiritual conquistadors working to subjugate natives, others observe that by promoting the adoption of Christianity and mediating between Catholic and pagan ritual – Guadalupe for example – the preachers did not “justify or abet the Spanish conquest but broke the cycle of indigenous victimization and subjugation…. [It] not only converted the indigenous peoples from practices like human sacrifice but also demanded that Spanish Catholics repent of their ethnocentrism and violence” (Matovina 2009, 90). Some have argued that veneration of the Virgin reinforced a European social structure (Althaus-Reed and Peterson), while others saw it as “a critique of the existing social order, a rejection of Spanish values and a guide to action… the opposite of structure and of everything hierarchical, paternalistic, and Hispanic” (Taylor 1987, 20).

In the wake of post-modernism, anthropologists have responded in a couple of ways. According to Shannon Speed they have either resorted to “retrenchment in the realm of the theoretical and the textual” or have engaged in “activist approaches” (Speed 2008, 66). Latin America has become a hotbed for such activism through both grass roots campaigns and NGOs. Susanne Jonas highlights a “National Dialog” which was initiated by the Catholic Church in 1989 to bring influential members of all groups in Guatemala. While those in control – the government, military, and business leaders – boycotted the discussion, “[it] expressed a clear consensus by the other sectors of society in favor of a substantive political settlement” (Jonas 1996, 150). These kinds of strategies appear to be examples of best practice in humanitarian activism. Civil disobedience only becomes a moral mandate when legal and legitimate options for resistance are exhausted. The National Dialog and the idea that religious mediation may help in the fight toward social justice is emerging throughout the region. Nuti notes revitalization efforts in Mexico, namely the community development group Acción Catolica (2000, 52). Edward Fischer endorsed this type of activism in his work on civil society, which he says “allows the expression of will, of hopes and aspirations for the future, along with a sense of choice, self-determination, and empowerment” (2007, 2). He says:

The complexity of civil society resides in its quantum-mechanical aspect: simultaneously a point of resistance and of hegemonic collusion, civil society is formed from a contradiction that cannot be reconciled. The ethnographic challenge, then, is to represent this complexity without trying to force a synthesis of the thesis and antithesis. (2)

Indigenous movements are the clear result of violations against humanity. Poverty, exploitation, and political and economic experimentation created an unstable environment which is driving the indigenous rights movements. These civil society organizations build international relationships which Fischer claims can “help pressure the state from without, just as grass-roots action applies pressure from within” (2007, 3-4).

His definition of civil society is vague, but helpful for this discussion; it is what it is not. It is “not of the government, not of the private sector.” He continues: “While at its broadest it can encompass everything from knitting circles to the Catholic Church, in practice it most often refers to organized NGOs” (4). These groups serve the movements, through regional development, mass media, and international networks, by utilizing local economies and socio-cultural capital to “bring economic thought and market forces to bear on governance and governmentalities” (7). This capital need not be purely economic. Heritage, as identity spiritually mediated through objects, or as wealth mediated though memory (as in Elizabeth Ferry’s work).

The friars, like the Mexica warriors before them, and the nationalists, capitalists, socialists, and anthropologists who followed, were engaged in ideological, intellectual, and psychological warfare. This is not intended to be a negative commentary. It should teach, inspire, and motivate twenty-first century researchers, professors, preachers, officials of both NGOs and governments, and activists. There is an important and active role to be played by today’s social researchers in Mesoamerica; they provide “on-the-ground diversity” (Fischer 2007, 1), and record, interpret, and disseminate data which, in the right hands, may help alleviate tensions in the regions they study. Civil society, in the form of NGOs, churches, or public media require the knowledge acquired by these researchers. World powers should consult the academy and anthropologists and other social scientists should play a consultative role in military operations.

This prescription does not come without its warnings. Heritage is real despite questions of its empirical legitimacy. It has been argued that memory is not knowledge of the past, but knowledge from the past, and that knowledge can become blurred over time. The researcher’s responsibility is to tell the story embraced by the people and to offer insight regarding the social improvements they desire. Fischer makes it clear: “[T]here can also be a heavy-handedness of good intentions that can become oppressive, even racist, in visions of indigenous futures built on distant moral projects and romanticized dreams” (3-4). The discretion is ours. Proceed with caution.



Althaus-Reed, Marcella. Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender and Politics. New York: Routledge, 2000

Barr, Julianna. Peace Came in the Form of a Woman. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2007.

“Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association.” American Anthropological Association Website. 1998.

Fischer, Edward. “Indigenous Peoples, Neo-liberal Regimes, and Varieties of Civil Society in Latin America.” Social Analysis 51.2 (2007).1-18

Grafton, Anthony. New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1992.

Griffin, Larry and Peggy Hargis. “Surveying Memory: The Past in Black and White.” Southern Literary Journal 40 (2008). 42-69.

Jonas, Susanne, “Dangerous Liaisons: The US in Guatemala.” Foreign Policy 103 (1996). 144-160.

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