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Michoacán and Eden

Michoacán and Eden
Vasco de Quiroga and the Evangelization of Western Mexico

A colonial Spanish bishop's project to evangelize Mexico.

April 2000
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214 pages | 6 x 9 | 11 line drawings, 1 map |

Don Vasco de Quiroga (1470-1565) was the first bishop of Michoacán in Western Mexico. Driven by the desire to convert the native Purhépecha-Chichimec peoples to a purified form of Christianity, free of the corruptions of European Catholicism, he sought to establish New World Edens in Michoacán by congregating the people into pueblo-hospital communities, where mendicant friars could more easily teach them the fundamental beliefs of Christianity and the values of Spanish culture.

In this broadly synthetic study, Bernardino Verástique explores Vasco de Quiroga's evangelizing project in its full cultural and historical context. He begins by recreating the complex and not wholly incompatible worldviews of the Purhépecha and the Spaniards at the time of their first encounter in 1521. With Quiroga as a focal point, Verástique then traces the uneasy process of assimilation and resistance that occurred on both sides as the Spaniards established political and religious dominance in Michoacán. He describes the syncretisms, or fusions, between Christianity and indigenous beliefs and practices that arose among the Purhépecha and relates these to similar developments in other regions of Mexico.

Written especially for students and general readers, this book demonstrates how cultural and geographical environments influence religious experience, while it adds to our understanding of the process of indigenous appropriation of Christian theological concepts in the New World.

  • List Of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • One: The Purhépecha-Chichimec of Michoacán
  • Two: The Purhépecha Religious Worldview
  • Three: The Historical Landscape of Spain
  • Four: Religion in Spain on the Eve of the Conquest
  • Five: The Conquest of Michoacán and the Appointment of Vasco de Quiroga
  • Six: The Christianization of the Purhépecha
  • Seven: Información en derecho: Quiroga's Report to the Royal Council of the Indies
  • Eight: The Utopian Experiment: Santa Fe de la Laguna
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Introduction

The late Bernardino Verástique was Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio.


In 1519 the Spanish governor of Cuba, Diego Velásquez, commissioned a military expedition to the mainland of Mexico. Its task was to search for gold and to secure slaves. Velásquez appointed Hernán Cortés, a young nobleman and member of the Santiago de Cuba town council, to command the expeditionary force. However, rather than following Velásquez's orders to establish a trading port on the Mexican east coast, Cortés instead led his troops into the mountainous interior, where they waged an assault on the wealthy urban cultures of the Mesoamerican highlands. On August 23, 1521, after a ferocious four-month siege, the Aztec emperor, Cuauhtemoctzin, surrendered the island capital of Tenochtitlán to Cortés and his Tlaxcalan allies. With the most powerful indigenous state in ruins, Cortés then turned his armies westward, toward the second most powerful Amerindian state, the Purhépecha kingdom of Michoacán.

The accommodation of the indigenous people of Michoacán to the subsequent military and spiritual conquest of western Mexico is the topic of the present study. This book focuses on the role of the famous judge and bishop Don Vasco de Quiroga (1477/8-1565) in the evangelization of the Purhépecha. Vasco de Quiroga was the first bishop of Michoacán, serving from 1535 to his death in 1565. During his tenure, he was known for his sometimes violent authoritarianism as well as his Franciscan-like compassion for the native people. In his diocese, he promoted a policy of congregating the Purhépecha into Amerindian pueblos (towns), where the mendicant friars could more easily teach them the fundamental beliefs of Christianity and the values of Spanish culture. Quiroga drew his organizational model for the pueblos from two primary sources: the ancient Judeo-Christian myth of Eden and Plato's idea of the republic as a perfect commonwealth governed by intellectuals.

In order to realize his vision of a Christian utopia, Quiroga patronized the construction of three pueblos—each of which included a hospital—the great cathedral of Santa Ana, and many churches and schools. He also established the Colegio de San Nicolás Obispo. Quiroga believed that the towns' residents should adhere to the principles of simple living, hard work, rigorous religious devotion, and universal education in farming and crafts. The stated goal of his plan was to lessen human misery. Nonetheless, the forcible congregation of the Amerindians left them vulnerable to the virulent epidemics that swept through Michoacán during Quiroga's residency.

To this day Quiroga is a controversial figure in the historiography of Mexico, for conflicting accounts of his life abound. The Mexican historian Aguayo Spencer regards him as a taumaturgo (miracle worker). Quiroga's earliest biographer, Juan José Moreno, portrays Quiroga as the "best man who has lived in these blessed places of Michoacán." Enrique Cárdenas de la Peña argues that Don Vasco laid the foundations of what would later become the Mexican social security system; he calls Quiroga "the Apostle of the New World." The Jesuit Paul Callens describes the bishop as a great reformer. Benjamin Jarnes, Paul Lietz, and Nicolás León also depict Quiroga as a positive historical figure, offering little critical interpretation of his life and actions. Silvio Zavala, who focuses on Quiroga's pueblo-hospitals, exaggerates the influence of Thomas More's book Utopia on the bishop. Lewis Hanke and Fintan B. Warren assume that because Quiroga was a Renaissance humanist, he must be considered a social liberal and defender of Amerindian rationality and culture. But if the latter were completely true, then Quiroga's rigid stance against the religious and secular forces that opposed him would be hard to understand. Moreover, if the bishop were a liberal and a pluralist, he surely would have sided with Bartolomé de Las Casas in the jurisdictional conflicts between church and state in the Americas. However, as Marcel Bataillon has pointed out, Quiroga publicly opposed Las Casas and defended the encomenderos and the encomienda system in New Spain.

With regard to the apparent contradictions concerning the historical legacy of Don Vasco de Quiroga, the present study offers the following thesis: that these contradictions are due to the continual transmission of misinformation concerning the "New World" and to historical interpretations shaped by the authors' own prejudices and worldviews. Although this book most likely will not be free of all such errors, it aims to elucidate the subject from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, seeking thereby to arrive at a more accurate view of the conquest of Michoacán.

The subject of Mesoamerica's encounter with Catholic Spain has excited the imaginations of historians for nearly five hundred years now. A unifying theme in the vast historiography of the conquest has come to be known, tragically, as "the problem of the Indian." According to the Mexican historian Edmundo O'Gorman, the central problems for scholars of Mexico have been how to comprehend the Mexican historical past as a continuum and how to allow for the idea of uniqueness in Mexico's autochthonous, colonial, and nationalist periods. O'Gorman states that scholars must contend with the difficulty of accounting for one Mexico among the many Mexicos. Problems concerning the Amerindians most likely arise from scholars' inability, or downright refusal, to acknowledge how their own worldviews retrospectively legitimate specific systems of exploitation in the New World. After examining the conceptions of history and the past that were manifested in the conquest, the historian Enrique Florescano asserts that "in this era there was no dominant interpretation of history; rather, multiple interpretations of the past co-existed, produced by diverse sectors of the population, and each one of them was nourished by different concepts of time and the past."

The Amerindian question is so controversial within the borders of Mexico that scholars have been incapable of identifying the merits of the Christianization or evangelization project. The claim of Spanish Catholicism to a "spiritual conquest" has appeared to nullify the Amerindians' gods. Needless to say, in a mestizo (mixed-blood) society, this problem is intensified and manifests itself in self-hatred, alienation, and feelings of illegitimacy.

The debate over the motives of the conquest has so inflamed the European imagination that the result has been a historiography of stereotypes and speculative excesses. As Benjamin Keen has noted, until his death Columbus believed that the Native Americans were Orientals. Peter Mártir de Anglería argued that the Amerindians were descendants of the lost tribe of Israel. The European conquerors believed that the New World cultures had to conform to the ontological parameters of the Book of Genesis. This judgment resulted in outlandish explanations of the Amerindians' place in the scheme of JudeoChristian cosmology. In the first half of the sixteenth century the question of the nature of the Amerindians led to a prolonged theological debate concerning their humanity. If the Spanish theologians had been able to prove that the Amerindians were inhuman, then there would have been no need to baptize them, and they could have been legitimately classified as slaves. In a famous moment in this great debate concerning the humanity of the Amerindians, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda stated at the University of Valladolid that certain Amerindian customs proved that "they be neither bears nor monkeys nor are they without the power of reason, that is to say, they are not animals; but men albeit imperfect."

The sixteenth-century controversy concerning the Amerindians' status sometimes manifested the Spaniards' racism, as in the case of such early chroniclers as Gómara and Oviedo, who defended the brutality of the conquest as necessary in dealing with a barbaric people. Even pro-Amerindian mendicants such as Motolinía, Sahagún, Durán, and Mendieta described the American aborigines as either angels or beasts, steeped in ignorance and superstition.

After 1767 and the expulsion from the Americas of the Society of Jesus, there arose a nostalgic literature that compared the Mesoamerican civilizations with the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. This triumphalist strategy was employed by New World mestizos to counter the Spanish Creoles' pretensions to racial and cultural superiority. Both Francisco Javier Clavijero and Pedro José Márquez could be included in the vanguard of this important group of writers. In Clavijero's words, by glorifying Mesoamerican civilization he hoped "to restore the truth to its splendor, truth obscured by an incredible multitude of writers on America."

The debate over the humanity of the Amerindians often demonstrated Europe's preoccupation with the justification of its own worldview. For instance, we see that Voltaire, who supported the idea of an enlightened aristocracy, praised the Aztecs because he believed their system of kingship resembled that of the French monarchy. In contrast, Montesquieu and Raynal, avowed enemies of the monarchy, criticized the Aztec rulers as irresponsible tyrants. And the idea of the "noble savage" (that the native people of the Americas led uncorrupted, naturally virtuous lives) has its source in the romantic writings and visual art of Europe.

The Native American did not fare much better in the early twentieth century. Noted anthropologists like Edward Tylor and Lewis Morgan employed popular Darwinian theories of biological determinism and evolution to postulate that the Amerindian was a being who had lost out in the struggle for existence. Tylor and Morgan regarded Native Americans in the grand evolutionary structure as biological and cultural deviants whose worth for scholars resided in their value as research subjects. Thus the native people were viewed as specimens to be described and then assigned a lowly place in the hierarchy of evolution.

Aside from a few fine studies, in the contemporary period the Amerindian continues to be classified as a "savage mind" or a kind of Paleolithic survivor in a hostile postmodern world. Perhaps the continuous web of misunderstandings that have shaped "white and Indian" relations can be explained by the simple political fact that Amerindians have been the losers in the battle for land, a battle that began in the sixteenth century and continues to this day.

In addition to the debate about the nature of the Amerindians, this study also is concerned necessarily with the idea of cultural synthesis. Thus it explores the meeting and eventual blending of the Purhépecha and Spanish cultures in Michoacán. An important assumption of my analysis is that a basic characteristic of a culture is its symbolic construction of boundaries, both internal and external. In other words, a culture's core identity is encapsulated in its perception of differences: differences within the culture, such as varying caste and class statuses, and differences between it and surrounding cultures. A community and its members thus define themselves in relation to significant others. For example, the Purhépecha elites saw themselves as the heirs of the Toltec kings and believed that they had a sacred entitlement to the land, which they held was given to them by divine beings. They distinguished their social and political autonomy in relation to their bitter enemies-their Aztec cousins and the fierce Chichimec nomads to the north. The Spanish after their arrival categorized the Purhépecha as indios; hence the Purhépecha's autonomous identity came to depend on their opposition to the Spanish perception of them as a subcaste. Likewise, the formation of the Spanish cristiano identity was characterized by the prolonged process of cultural differentiation called the Reconquista. The cristianos ultimately defined their cultural boundaries in terms of their religious differences with Iberian Muslims and Jews.' My objective in viewing the people and events in Michoacán in such a way is to highlight the cultural contours, or worldviews, that each party brought with it to the encounter. By employing this approach, I hope to demonstrate that the Purhépecha and Spanish responses and accommodations to one another were based in complex historical experiences and in presuppositions concerning their respective cosmologies.

I have organized the present study into eight chapters. The first two chapters investigate the rise to political and cultural dominance of the Purhépecha-Chichimec clans in western Mexico. Chapter 1 begins with a discussion of the geography of Michoacán and proceeds to an interpretation of the cultural traditions prevalent before the ascendancy of the Purhépecha aristocracy in the late thirteenth century. Chapter 2 presents an analysis of Purhépecha religion. Here I demonstrate that the Purhépecha religion exhibits a dualistic theology that is common to all Mesoamerican religious thought. Chapters 3 and 4 evaluate the history and culture of Spain on the eve of the Conquest of Mexico. They delineate the many cultural influences and heterodox ideas that merged in the peninsula to form the militant ideology of Reconquista Spain. In the remaining four chapters, I focus on Don Vasco de Quiroga. Chapter 5 examines the violent decade of the 1520s in Mexico and the reasons surrounding Quiroga's appointment, and Chapter 6 studies the evangelization of Michoacán and the consolidation of Quiroga's diocese in the period of 1533 to 1565. Chapter 7 analyzes Bishop Quiroga's longest written work, Información en derecho, while Chapter 8 investigates Quiroga's utopian experiment in the town of Santa Fe de la Laguna. I conclude with an epilogue comparing the conquest of Michoacán to similar political and religious efforts to subjugate the Amerindians in other locations of New Spain.


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