Thoughts on the early Spanish missionaries to California & their relationship with the Mexicans

Being here, with time to reflect while Clancy has been labouring industriously, Ive given a lot of thought to the psychic resonance of California, particularly relationship between the Catholic Missionaries & the indigenous peoples; trying to see how the balance-sheet stacks up.

In Alta (present day) California the 'first nation/s' were hunter-gatherer tribes living at survival level, but in Baja California & Meso-America they were elaborate civilisations which the conquistadors shattered. As far as I can see the population of the latter were so cowed by the outrageous cruelty of their belief-system, that they therefore adapted relatively easily, indeed willingly, to the brutal simplicity (or simple brutality) of the Franciscans - who were allowed by their order to administer up to 25 lashes by way of 'correction'. An idea that their founder would have found 'surprising', yet in which they found no paradox. For an actual 'punishment' military force was required.

By the missionaries emphasis on the cross, the redemptive suffering aspect of Christ, it seems that both conqueror & conquered were united by their separately-interpreted cult/s of death in a sado-masochistic pact - where violence & death were simply a given part of their 'realities'. The one mutually-enjoyed sport was bull fighting! (Indeed you could say that this legacy persists in Hollywood where any amount of violence is permitted, but two people are not allowed to be seen in bed naked.)

When Clancy & I visited Portugal 6 years ago we were struck by what I termed the cult of ecstatic death. And the existence of this was very much confirmed by what I read about the recent Zurbaràn exhibition in London, tho didnt see it. The whole theology that the Franciscans were preaching in the new world appeared to be that suffering was the way to heaven, a suffering they doubtless experienced themselves in the very harsh conditions, and were happy to enforce in the belief that they were assisting 'the natives' path to (their) God. The very opposite to liberation theology.

What has been interesting to study in the various museums is the way in which Mexican* art & rituals remain fixated by death of this very day: altho most surviving art is veneered with Christianity, no doubt sincerely, the frequent presence of the skull or death-mask in 'native' art indicate not a culture of transfigured death but a starkly intractable, almost pornographic, obsession with the death, not as final but as an occult reality: where the spirits of the disembodied can be prayed to and invoked, as happens in candomblé & other chthonic South American religions. There is an amusing series of models in one museum of skeletons dressed in everyday Mexican clothing cheerily but spookily performing normal tasks such as riding a bicycle or knife grinding.

It is as if the prevailing 'folk view' of death is of people continuing to live exactly the same life as they did before but dead. There is no heaven, no transformation, just 'life(/death) as normal'. In the centuries after the missionary era the Catholic church seems to have assimilated this subtext in a way that allowed both Western-Christian & indigenous South American interpretations to coexist by carefully never articulating a received understanding of the death cult symbolism.
I saw a film a couple of years back which showed that the font of a large basilica in Mexico City is actually carved from a basalt sacrificial altar. I think it probable that the indigenous peoples here dont see any contradiction in this - anymore than Europeans do in the fact that our calendar & religious ideas are based on a Christianisation of Roman customs. In one museum I read a report that early ethnographers had the utmost difficulty in discovering what the various celebratory practices actually meant to those who performed them, because the fetish-wearers would usually reply simply “it is the custom”.
  • *All California was Mexican after the collapse of the Spanish empire until the US invasion of 1847 captured Alta California. As a matter of fact the AmerIndians, supposedly freed from their serfdom to the Franciscans where they were kept confined in what were essentially self-supporting concentration camps of up to 2500 neophytes (Christian converts), suffered worse under Mexican measures designed to liberate them & make the mission stations into pueblos (self-governing communities), because, without experience of business, the AmerIndians were easily duped out of their rights, often by corrupt Mexican Govt officials themselves. This was compounded after 1847 when unscrupulous American lawyers registered ownership of land which the Indians believed they owned by hereditary right.
My conclusion, after a great deal of study & reflection, is that the coming of Christianity to MesoAmerica was probably beneficial, as the social order that existed there was truly bestial for all its sophistication. (eg this altar stone in the form of a python's head) The replacement of that myth with a benigner one can only have been good, notwithstanding the negative aspects of its imposition.

In the case of the AmerIndians I see little evidence that enforced Christianisation was in their interests, either in intention or effect. As with Australian aborginals the tribes lived reasonably peaceably within the rhythms of the land, occasionally migrating & skirmishing with neibours as European nation-tribes had done in the prehistoric era, thus Catholic attempts to convert, settle & 'civilise' their people as individuals without regard to sensitive tribal balances led to the more-or-less unmitigated disaster all over America Norte. OTOH you could look at it that phenomenologically and say that when cultures collide it's inevitable there will be a winner & a loser.

Another interesting question is why the MesoAmericans evolved a highly elaborate social organisation & the AmerIndians didnt? Given that theyre the same Asiatic ethnic stock the only explanation seems to be a Marxist one, that environment in which the former lived was economically productive enough to allow settlement and ultimately social diversification. Thus people could be released from agriculture to socially productive tasks like building and art. Whereas the latter's environment made even the transition from hunter-gatherer to pastoralist infeasible.

At least one of the local AmerIndian tribes, whose land I visited, seems to have got its act together rather conspicuously http://www.palatribe.com/. But that may just be a function of its survival at all. It has a vast casino & resort.

Others, such as the native Diegan Kuméyaay (kumI-A), exist only as names. Interestingly, for those who have studied the distinction between tribalism & larger social groupings, the name for the Kuméyaay shamans was Kuseyaay indicating philologically how this role more than the temporal leadership was the central role of their existence.


A further clue to the relationship was given in a meeting I had with some San Diego piano teachers. One said of a pupil: because of the tears I knew she had made a real link to the music. In the context of this article, the relevance of that remark is that I at once saw that the Friars would have quickly learnt that drawing tears from their illiterate audience was the clearest form of connexion, and that the best way to touch these unsophisticated people was to preach to them about the physical pain & suffering of Christ. And that the peculiarly Spanish hyper-realistic evocation of the pain of the cross must both have touched these simple credulous people, but also served as a reminder & warning of the pain they might experience if they did not follow the church's teachings - both here & hereafter.

Given that Spain was the nation that created the grisliest game show ever, the Auto-da-Fè where the accused were invited to recant of sins without even knowing exactly what they were charged with, where the public entertainment was that if their recantation didnt match the (invisible) charge-sheet, or even if it did, they were likely to be burnt anyway, pour encourager les autres; and given the literalistic view of the Spanish that whatever torment they inflicted was justified if it 'saved' the sinner from 'a worse fate'. And how would the Friars know who had truly repented & been saved unless they wept? And how would they make them weep? I suspect there are some very dark links that bound the missionaries to their neophytes and that was where the secret of the strange occult link between persecutor/s & victim/s lay.

1 comment:

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