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The Americas 61.4 (2005) 565-570

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Franciscans in Colonial Latin America

University of Minnesota
Morris, Minnesota

The history of the Franciscan order in the Americas has been a staple of Latin American history for decades. The origins of this journal can be found in a small group of dedicated Franciscans eager to share the culture and history of Latin America with others in the United States. The landmark studies and chronicles of Franciscans, in particular, and Church history, in general, dominated Latin American history throughout much of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, for the last few decades studies of the religious orders fell out of favor among historians as attention was rightly turned to native and subaltern peoples and their agency with the colonial state. The early studies tended to focus on the activities of the early missionaries engaged in what Robert Ricard characterized as the spiritual conquest.1 Scholars today are far less interested in these quasi- hagiographic studies and far more interested in the actual working out of the conversion of native peoples to Christianity. The conversion too is seen less as a forgone conclusion and more as part of a negotiation or as Louise Burkhart has termed it a "moral dialogue."2

These articles mark an exciting new era in Franciscan history, looking at the complex processes that marked the evangelization of the New World. In the old history, on the one hand, the missionaries were normally characterized as saintly, self-effacing, fervently embracing apostolic poverty, and the natives [End Page 565] were portrayed as humble, simple, guileless, and eager to embrace Christianity. On the other hand, the secular clergy and most Spanish officials were characterized as being poorly educated, venial, corrupt, and lazy. In these articles, while we see many of the old themes coming back (especially conflicts between secular and regular clergy and conflicts of jurisdictions), the authors have discovered that the stories differed from what we had been led to believe.

A wonderful example of things not being what they seemed forms the heart of Jeanette Peterson's study of the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Taking Stafford Poole's work as one of her points of departure, rather than investigating the legend of Guadalupe, the pious myth of her apparition to Juan Diego, Peterson looks at the concrete reality of the image itself.3 A painting on a rough canvas, executed in the early to mid-sixteenth century, the painting became the central image of the cult of the Virgin at Tepeyac. Her study diverges dramatically from others in that she offers a synthesis of diverse works written from many disciplinary perspectives. Her goal is to better understand the actual image of the Virgin of Guadalupe as distinct from the cult that grew up around that image. An additional theme that she develops that links her work to the others in this collection is the Franciscan Order. The group of native artists from which the purported painter of the image of the virgin came was one associated with the Franciscan chapel of San José de los Naturales.

The Franciscan experience in Yucatan provides another example of how the new historical approach diverges from tradition. In his fascinating study, John Chuchiak focuses on some of the events surrounding the variously vilified and praised yet always enigmatic character of Fr. Diego de Landa.4 Landa, as is well known, had two careers in Yucatan, one as a friar (and eventually provincial) and another later as Bishop. In Chuchiak's analysis the seemingly clear-cut divisions between secular clerics and regular clerics become muddied when confronted with reality, rather than in an imagined colonial state. Although Landa became the bishop and thus temporal head of the local diocese and its secular clerics, he continued to favor his confreres of the Friars Minor. The nature of Church-State relations in the sixteenth century tended to ally the secular clergy, and bishops, with the civil authorities against the regulars. But in the special case of the Yucatan, Landa and the Franciscans, the episcopal authority allied with the...


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