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  • Crosses, Caves, and Matachinis: Divergent Appropriations of Catholic Discourse in Northwestern New Spain*
  • Cynthia Radding

. . . Christianity became wholeheartedly an element of indigenous culture. The Christian miracle was a given integrated into daily life as it was into the landscape, space and time of the pueblo.1

Recent ethnohistorical trends point to a renewed interest in the complex interplay of beliefs and ritual practices that gave rise to multiple expressions of religiosity in different temporal and spatial settings of colonial America. Religion provides a rich thematic matrix for exploring the boundaries of alterité between Amerindian and European actors and figures centrally, as well, in the internal development of different cultural and ethnic identities.2 Cosmology, [End Page 177] understood as those systems of belief that bind individuals to their communities and to the wider universe, informs different peoples’ concepts of time and their sense of history. The Maya of Yucatán, for example, integrated both linear and cyclical notions of time into their cosmic order in ways that rendered sensible their rhythms of accommodation and resistance to foreign domination.3 Moreover, cultural constructions of the past rely heavily on myths that fuse spiritual beliefs with ethnic claims to the land, as observed in the intricate connections between syncretic religion and the survival of ethnic polities in colonial Oaxaca.4 Ethnic rationalizations of space, it has been argued, underwrote particular aesthetic and cognitive approaches to spatial and temporal “mapping” which, in turn, brought a religious dimension to the notion of territoriality.5

Discussions of colonial religion among the Amerindian peoples of the Americas often diverge along the parallel themes of idolatry and evangelization. Classic works by R. Ricard on “spiritual conquest” and by Miguel León-Portilla and N. Wachtel on the “vision of the vanquished” have examined either the depth of penetration of Christian concepts into native cosmology or the role of idolatry as a form of resistance.6 An alternative view that steps back from the fascination with extirpation trials, witchcraft, and idolatry has focused our attention [End Page 178] on the selective appropriation of Catholic content and ritual by Mesoamerican and Andean communities. The overlayering of mythical sequences and theological elements, the lodging of the Christian saints in the spiritual world of the American peoples, and the designation of sacred places of both pre-Hispanic and colonial origin, are all suggestive of a syncretic process of cultural change that, through conflict and contestation, gave rise to new hybrid religious expressions.7 What the ethnohistory of colonial America seems to reveal is not so much the persistence of pre-conquest traits and beliefs, nor the traceable penetration of Christian religious content in native practices, but rather a dynamic religiosity that is itself generated in different localities and time periods. The polysemie quality of colonial religious constructions is expressive of ethnogenesis, the historical process by which subjugated ethnic polities re-create their cultural identities through both material and spiritual means.8

Moving beyond Mesoamerica and the Andean highlands this process is no less germaine to the diverse frontiers of Spanish America, [End Page 179] although its forms of expression vary and the textual and pictographic evidence for religious syncretism becomes more diffuse.9 The notion of “spiritual conquest” is closely associated with the missionary endeavors of the major European religious orders that, in many ways, accomplished the material conquest of the eastern selva of the Andes, the great Amazonian basin and its transitional zones, the Paraguayan tributaries, and the northern arid steppes and plains of New Spain. In these areas of wondrous cultural diversity, inhabited by semi-nomadic agriculturalists and hunter-gatherers, Spanish and Portuguese policies of reducción (often confounded by slave-raiding and warfare and following in the wake of demographic crises and territorial displacement) forced Native Americans to salvage their communities within the institutional confines of the mission. Even as they reconstituted their basic social units under colonial domination they also elaborated new cosmic visions that borrowed from both Christian and pagan sources.10 [End Page 180]

This article examines the structural adaptations and the appropriations of Christian content and expression by the village peoples of highland Sonora, in northwestern Mexico, that were brought under Spanish colonial sway...


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pp. 177-203
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