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The Americas 61.4 (2005) 611-646

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In Servitio Dei:

Fray Diego De Landa, The Franciscan Order, and the Return of the Extirpattion of Idolatry in the Colonial Diocese of Yucatán, 1573–1579*

Missouri State University
Springfield, Missouri

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"My dear spiritual brothers and fathers, you whose relationship to me is closer than that of my own blood. . . . Even though my present position as Bishop might appear to separate me from you, I swear that it cannot divide me from you, because I have and always will be a son of our Father Saint Francis. . . . Now that I have returned, I come to you not as bishop, but rather as a son of this holy province into whose brotherhood I once again seek to incorporate myself. . . ."
—-Fray Diego de Landa, October 1573
(Spoken before the Franciscan congregation of friars in Mérida upon his arrival as the second bishop of Yucatán) [End Page 611]
"And of the idolatries that there were, I say that those who have procured to discover these idolatries and expose them and with great zeal for the honor of God those who look for idolatry and denounce it to the judges so that they can be punished, they are none other than the same religious friars of the order of Saint Francis . . ."
—Bishop of Yucatán, Diego Vazquez de Mercado, 1603


On the afternoon of June 15, 1574, the conflict between the Franciscan Order and the local governor of the province of Yucatán intensified. A heated controversy had emerged between the recently appointed bishop of Yucatán, Fray Diego de Landa, and the provincial governor, Francisco Velázquez de Gijón. On that afternoon, the dean of the cathedral of Mérida, Licenciado Cristobal de Miranda, went to the home of the provincial governor with a message from the bishop. The governor had recently received an order of excommunication issued by the bishop for his actions against several Franciscan friars.

Velázquez had been appointed governor just before Landa's arrival in Yucatán in October 1573.1 Early in 1574, two Franciscan friars openly preached against the governor, stating that he inhumanely exploited the Indians. Governor Velázquez responded by formulating a civil trial against the two Franciscan friars and demanding that the bishop hand them over to the secular authorities.2 The bishop quickly excommunicated the governor and the secular authorities and placed the city of Mérida under a total interdict.

That summer afternoon, the dean of the cathedral, under direct instructions from the bishop, had come to reason with the governor and convince him to seek absolution and render obedience to the Church. Bishop Landa also instructed Miranda to order the governor to hand over the legal proceedings he had drawn up against several Franciscan friars. The two men met outside of the governor's home near the central plaza of the city of Mérida and they exchanged heated words. The discussion grew more boisterous as they began to argue. Finally, when asked to hand over the documents, [End Page 612] an enraged governor Velázquez replied in anger: "I'd rather be torn to pieces than hand over those papers!"3 When Miranda insisted, reminding Velázquez of his excommunication and the bishop's orders, the governor grew even more enraged. Instead of complying with the request, the governor angrily exclaimed in the presence of the dean,

By the body of Christ . . . Now the bishop again . . . If he has two balls I have four, and I swear to God if I could I would mount him and his Fray Gregorio . . . and I swear I would lock them within a room and let them die of hunger . . .4

These inflamed words earned the governor the lifelong animosity of Bishop Landa and the Franciscan order, resulting in a later ecclesiastical trial for blasphemy and disobedience to ecclesiastical orders.

At first glance, the apparent cause of...


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