- Expecting Pears from an Elm Tree: Franciscan Missions on the Chiriguano Frontier in the Heart of South America, 1830–1949
This is no ordinary frontier study, but the fruit of 20 years of archival research, on-site investigation, and reflection by Erick Langer on a mission system that existed in southeastern Bolivia from 1830 to 1949. The Chiriguanos, Guaraní-speaking cultivators of corn, migrated from central Brazil to the foothills of the Andes, where they encountered and enslaved the Arawakan Chanés, made enemies of the nomadic peoples of the Chaco, and defeated the armies of the Incas and their Spanish successors, both of whom erected lines of forts to protect the highlands from these and other lowlanders. The republican-era mission system was the Chiriguanos’ third. The managerial Jesuits who came in 1690 had met martyrdom in the Cordillera wars of the 1720s and 1730s, and the Franciscans who came next, bearing gifts, had been forced to leave during the [End Page 134] wars for independence. For the first 50 years of the republican era, the Chiriguanos, connected to Paraguay by language and to Argentina by seasonal migration, remained dominant in the region, exacting tribute in the form of grazing fees from the creole ranchers and drawing them into their system of shifting alliances, a “society against the state” in Clastrian terms. The third mission system, introduced by Italian Franciscans from the convents of Tarija and Potosí, was the Bolivian government’s only hope of curbing the Chiriguanos’ “love of liberty,” and resulted in opening their territory to ranchers, drafting them for service in the conquest of the Chaco, and submerging them in the cholo labor force.
As formerly, the Chiriguanos accepted missions for their own reasons and on their own terms. They let the Franciscans take their part in the contest between corn and cattle and help them build fine, fortified towns, but they resisted indoctrination, and for years into each mission’s life cycle the unconverted outnumbered the converted. Traditional chiefs retained their authority and their multiple, industrious wives, and the men went off to labor in the sugarcane fields of northern Argentina on a “mission trail” that connected them to the wrong economy. Langer poses the Bolivian frontier against the rich background of the intellectual and political currents and conflicts of contemporary Europe. These struggles, transferred to the South American heartland, where political and religious conservatism alternated with liberalism and anticlericalism, led to abrupt reversals in the Bolivian attitude toward the “civilizing mission,” to civil and border wars fought with indigenous troops on both sides, and, during the messianic rebellion of 1892 and the Chaco War of 1932–1935, to ethnocidal massacres.
Avoiding the old demography-fueled debate about the relative benevolence, or deadliness, of colonial mission systems, Langer groups them into four categories, based on degree of acculturation: hybrid, annihilating (including the reductions), short-term, and autonomous. In the field of Latin American frontiers, Langer’s analytic framework alone would make this an important book. By comparison with the better-known colonial missions, he finds that republican-era missionaries were more independent of the state and that Indians enjoyed greater autonomy. Although the mission enterprise was colonial at heart, the missions were outgrown before their work was complete, and a “mission culture” outlasted the missions themselves.
Like any pioneering study, this one leads to further questions. One wonders about the women and children who were the missions’ main residents, the herbal lore and efficacious healers that found their places there, the cultural meaning of mobility levels, the sharing of missionary and cacique authority in a society organized for war, the moral distinction between subsistence and an alienable surplus, the incidence and importance of drought and famine, the private military colonies of the 1880s, the advent of the repeating rifle, and the effects of the schools, with their work-study curriculum, female enclosure, and focus on...