Latin American Research Review 39.2 (2004) 211-220
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Pushing the Borders of Latin American Mission History
Since the early 1990s, scholars have purported to create a "new mission history" different from the triumphal, institutional, and Spanish-biased history that characterized much of earlier mission and borderlands historiography.1 Recent work has emphasized the "indigenous" past of the missions, especially in terms of their demographic, socioeconomic, environmental, and cultural aspects, with particular attention to changing ethnicity and identity in the mission populations.2 [End Page 211] These trends are reflected, in varying degrees, among the works considered here, in spite of the fact that their geographic reach is enormous, ranging from the northern and southern poles of the Spanish empire in the Americas to Asia, and that some are archivally based analyses of specific topics or groups while others offer larger syntheses. Nonetheless, common themes emerge: the enduring state of conflict in frontier areas and the instability of missions; the diversity, multiplicity, and mobility of indigenous groups, their ecological environments, and their resource bases; the divergent interests and goals of Spaniards (missionaries and civilian officials) in these areas; the degree and nature of change in mission populations (demographic, ethnic, religious, and cultural); and the ability of scholars to interpret the past of mostly nonliterate "others." I offer here brief individual synopses of these monographs (that will not do justice to their density), followed by an analysis of their contributions to current mission historiography and debates.
Two of these studies use extensive documentary sources to consider frontier areas populated by largely nonsedentary peoples. In The Chaco Mission Frontier: The Guaycuruan Experience, James S. Saeger gives us the results of his intensive study of Guaycuruan peoples of South America's Gran Chaco. He concludes from his examination of ethnographic sources and Spanish records that Guaycuruans exercised a great deal of choice in their use of missions, taking issue with those historians who see missions as fundamental instruments of conquest.3 Rather than institutions that coerced and ultimately wiped out indigenous populations, these Jesuit missions were transitory spaces that allowed hunter-gatherers to adapt to changing conditions and resources and to retain elements of their religion and culture, even as some became artisans and herders. In another twist, Saeger argues that the economic and political power of caciques was enhanced through their affiliation with missions. Guaycuruans adopted varied migratory strategies, and they benefited from the horse and other European material introductions to continue to wage war with other groups as well as engage in new patterns of regional trade. According to Saeger, the periodic desertion of missions rather than epidemic disease provides the main explanation for demographic lows. In the violent and changing conditions (including those produced by their own degradation of the environment) of this eighteenth-century frontier, Guaycuruans took advantage [End Page 212] of the material benefits and respite (e.g., dietary enhancements and more security for women) offered by missions, more or less as they saw fit. Because the Gran Chaco contained no great riches in terms of minerals, fertile...