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Towards a New Interpretation of the Colonial Regime in Sonora, 1681–1821

From: Journal of the Southwest
Volume 50, Number 4, Winter 2008
pp. 377-413 | 10.1353/jsw.2008.0004

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María del Valle Borrero Silva  

Ignacio Almada Bay, José Marcos Medina Bustos, and María del Valle Borrero Silva are research professors in the Centro de Estudios Históricos de Región y Frontera at El Colegio de Sonora, Hermosillo.

Jeff Banister  

Jeff Banister is assistant editor of Journal of the Southwest.


The authors are grateful for the generous support of the Programa de Mejoramiento del Profesoriado (PROMEP). A version of this essay was published in the journal Región y Sociedad 19 (2007), under the title “Hacía una nueva interpretación del régimen colonial en Sonora. Descubriendo a los indios y redimensionamiento a los misioneros, 1681–1821.” They also wish to thank Michael Brescia, assistant curator of ethnohistory at the Arizona State Museum, for his thoughtful comments and insight.


1. Grageda Bustamante (2003) has published a collection of works on the history of expulsions from the region. Also, our argument here is based on the notion that the centrality of language is one of the primary principles of hermeneutics: knowledge is mediated by language, interpretation is of critical importance, and the present conditions the study of the past. Indeed, there is no direct or true conduit to the past. What we have instead are representations of it that come to us through diverse chains of mediation. If language mediates everything, then the sources we turn to for interpreting history are themselves just interpretations. Traces of the past are thus expressed in particular plot lines. For the purposes of this essay, however, and with this reasoning in mind, we have adopted a stance of “selective relativity,” choosing from among diverse historical interpretations those that we consider the most plausible, including those of an extra-linguistic nature.

2. Earlier versions of this portion of the essay were presented at the Tercer foro de las misiones del noroeste de México. Origen y destino, Hermosillo, November 2005 and in the Seminario de instituciones novohispanas, at the Universidad de Guadalajara, 2005–2006.

3. We are aware of the difficulties involved in tracing indigenous peoples using non-Indian sources; that is, those that fall within a European worldview. See Griffen (2000: 249–73) and Cramaussel (2000: 275–303).

4. For example, between 1748 and 1750 the Seri would so successfully resist attempts to “reduce” and Christianize them that, in missionaries' opinion, military expeditions and deportation were required to bring them under the banner of Christianity. Between 1751 and 1771, Seri and Spaniards were engaged in all-out war. Hostilities broke out once again between 1777 and 1803. See Sheridan (1999).

5. See Spicer (1994: 152–55) for a periodization of the mission system's deterioration. Sheridan (1988: 10) suggests that after the 1740 rebellion, guerrilla war devastated the province.

6. Navarro García (1984: 206). The period of intensification of nomadic Indian attacks proposed by Navarro García coincides with that of William L. Merrill (2000: 634–37), though Merrill takes a different tack.

7. Hausberger (1999: 51–55). Bannon (1974: 204) mentioned these difficulties, which he illustrated with the testimony of a Father Ortíz, who wrote in 1745 that “the priests who have learned a language from the Indians of these missions say that it is impossible to compose a catechism in their dialect, due to the lack of terms with which to explain the doctrine of the Faith, and the best-informed interpreters say the same thing.” For a discussion of the importance of the interpreters and their distortions in transmitting the missionaries' message to the population, see Brown (1984: 101).

8. “Although I promised to be silent regarding the Fathers of this province, dead by the cruel violence of evil acts. . . . I only refer to the number of 6 subjects whose lives ended at the hands of such violence.” P. José Toral, Huépaca, Sonora, 31 de diciembre de 1743, in Burrus and Zubillaga (1982, p. 141); other testimonies on pp. 123 and 136. See also Reff (1991: 42, 140–41, 248, 260–64) and Hausberger (1993: 43).

9. Burrus and Zubillaga (1986: 93, 117–30). The quotation is taken from the report of Jesuit Juan Antonio Baltasar, visitor of missions, after an inspection he...

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