In 1528, seven years after the fall of Tenochtitlan, the crown of Castile issued a wide-ranging series of decrees formalizing its control over Mexico. In one of them, King Carlos I called for the sons of Mexico’s Native leaders to be removed from their communities and indoctrinated in Spanish religious schools. His objectives were explicit and clear. Not only was he obliged by Christian duty (and a papal concession) to spread the gospel, he also wished to remake Native culture in Spain’s own image. “Once they have become civilized [puestos en policía] and orderly and rational in their lifestyles,” read the order, they were to return home and transmit these traits to their own communities in a self-perpetuating virtuous cycle (Orozco y Berra et al. 1878: 17).1
The sentiments behind the royal order of 1528 were not new. Nor would they fade away; the crown reiterated its preference for such schemes repeatedly over the centuries—even going so far as to fund them sporadically.2 Explicitly going well beyond purely religious concerns with salvation, it was a colonial project of cultural reeducation and transformation, one that was revived under different principles by advocates of national “progress” and “gradual civilization” across the Western Hemisphere in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.3 The belief was that isolating children from their families would halt the natural process of intergenerational cultural transmission, thereby cultivating a population that was less alien, more obedient, and more profitable to the colonizers. As the Mexican Franciscan friar Juan de Torquemada (1975: 63) proudly wrote in the early seventeenth century, “This New World, which was very great in its number of peoples, [was converted] by no instrument more than by its children, because the children were the teachers of the evangelizers, and the children were also preachers, and the children oversaw the destruction of idolatry.”
Yet one of the clearest lessons of Spanish American history is that cultures are never so thoroughly malleable, and every effort at mass social engineering has unintended consequences (see, for example, Mumford 2012). The theory of cultural transformation was applied, not by pitting abstract notions of “civilization” and “savagery” against one another in an ether, but among flesh-and-blood humans in physical spaces. These were the famous missions of Spanish America, as well as the urban schools for Native children commonly called colegios. The colegios were residential colleges administered by specialists among the religious orders, most commonly the Franciscans and Jesuits. However, they were mostly financed by locally derived donations and revenues, while volunteers and workers from nearby communities maintained their structures and enabled their activities. The colegios were therefore deeply integrated into local life, and their primary mission of top-down cultural intervention was always mediated by their assumption of social and cultural roles reflecting the needs and interests of local people.
As community institutions, then, colegios and other such evangelical-educational missions were more than mere schools; they were civic nodes that enabled some of the only opportunities for Native peoples under colonial rule to self-organize and provide mutual support in effective and semiautonomous ways. They were access points to the “salvation economy” that enabled individuals to invest in the spiritual well-being of their families; they were property owners, producers, and lenders; they supported the labor of the artisans and craftsmen who built and beautified their buildings; they administered the annual festivals that set the rhythms of community life; they hosted the confraternities that functioned as mutual aid societies, paying for funeral expenses and supporting widows and orphans; and they provided care and treatment to the ailing, the infirm, and the elderly. Going further, colegios and missions also promised some measure of legal protection for Native communities against land- and labor-hungry settlers and landowners, not only by organizing and focusing joint efforts but also by aligning them with religious orders well equipped to litigate (Díaz 2013; Crewe 2019). And more subtly, they produced a small but steady stream of literate and interculturally competent Indigenous leaders. Contrary to the assumptions behind the 1528 royal order, rather than becoming unquestioning cultural vanguards of Hispanism, many alumni—with a command of Spanish laws, rhetoric, and the written word—became persistent, effective, and sometimes quite radical advocates for better treatment of Native people within Spanish domains (Dueñas 2010; de la Puente Luna 2018; Díaz 2010; McDonough 2014; Ramos and Yannakakis 2014; Alaperrine-Bouyer 2002; Charles 2010; Segovia-Liga 2017). (The same can be said for some of their former teachers as well; see Villella 2016.) The best evidence of this countercolonial aspect of the colegios was the perennial opposition they faced by those who argued it was not appropriate for Native people to master the subtle power of the pen—Latin, rhetoric, and logic—lest they become too effective in defending themselves with the colonizers’ own laws, legal institutions, and philosophical structures (see Alaperrine-Bouyer 2007).
It should not be surprising, then, that the colegios of colonial Spanish America were not typically seen by Native contemporaries as cultural Trojan horses. Rather, they regarded them as their own, as one of the few colonial institutions that existed primarily for their own benefit rather than for the profit of outsiders. Many Native leaders and communities fought consistently for such institutions and fiercely resented any attempts to deny them or dilute their exclusively Indigenous memberships (Díaz 2015). Indeed, they demanded more colegios, not fewer. As the governor and officials of the Indigenous communities of Mexico City complained in 1770, the dearth of educational opportunities brought scorn and mistreatment from Spaniards who called them idolatrous, uncouth, and wild while “strip[ping] us of the talents and faculties that God has provided us alongside all other men.”4
The dual, contradictory nature of the colegios—as explicit tools of cultural extirpation and as essential institutions of Native autonomy, empowerment, and self-advocacy—is difficult to capture holistically. Religious histories and histories of education overlap closely, but their varying emphases may prevent necessary dialogue. Much also depends on which sources are consulted. Studies based on records produced by the religious orders themselves—such as the Jesuits’ annual reports or the practical manuals for operating the colegios—will tend to emphasize the Christian lives of the institutions: the catechisms, the daily rituals, lessons, and maintenance of the facilities (see Kobayashi 1974; Gómez Canedo 1982; Gonzalbo Aizpuru 1990; Wright 1998). Such accounts capture the sophistication of the evangelical process in intimate detail, as well as its theological and ideological foundations and its roots in different Christian intellectual and philosophical traditions (Gallagher 1978; Albó 2016; Melvin 2012; Alaperrine-Bouyer 2005). Less synthetic sources such as notarial and administrative documents, meanwhile, reveal the institutions’ worldly interactions with surrounding communities, such as their ownership of properties, their participation in local and regional markets, and their social networks of donors and beneficiaries.5 In this sense, they played social and economic roles parallel to those of religious institutions serving non-Native communities.
The ethnohistorical emphasis on centering Indigenous experiences can bridge these two strands of scholarship and illuminate how and where the official objectives of the institutions—imperialist and evangelical—intersected with the material and existential interests of Indigenous peoples. Foregrounding Native subjectivity—shifting our perspective into the Native neighborhoods that funded and maintained the colegios—reveals how they figured prominently in the social, political, and economic strategies of the Indigenous residents, their families, and the surrounding communities, as well as how these interests differed from those of both their Spanish sponsors and colonial expectations more generally.6 Native-centered histories will highlight the (often volunteered) labors of the colegios’ Indigenous residents and neighbors, thereby drawing attention to the entire complex economy that created and maintained such institutions in the first place. This extensive activity, which involved not only the craftspeople but also an entire material supply chain, goes largely unacknowledged in Spanish-authored documents, which tend to credit Spanish founders for having “built” a particular colegio or mission.7 On the intellectual side, an emphasis on Native subjectivity will reveal the colegios’ role in the complex process by which Indigenous thinkers and artists “indigenized” their own religious instruction, producing a range of distinct Christian aesthetics and theological emphases rooted in regional traditions (Christensen 2013; Tavárez 2017). It is also necessary to properly explain how children raised in institutions explicitly built for colonial indoctrination could so often become such trenchant critics of the colonial regime itself.
The essays in this issue bring this ethnohistorical treatment to the colegios and missions. Some of them analyze sources that differ from those used in more traditional histories of colonial education. In other instances, when the essays consider Spanish-authored sources, they nonetheless center attention on the Indigenous subjects and the dynamics created between them and colonial officials. The articles included herein provide a vista on education not only for Natives but also for Mestizos (people of Spanish and Indigenous descent), in colegios and religious missions. The geographical area covered here includes two of the major urban centers (Mexico City and Lima) and a very important mission hub (Río de la Plata) of colonial Spanish America. Together, these six articles seek, in the words of Bradley Benton, a more intimate look into colegios and missions, by providing a set of case studies that offer a small glimpse into a complex world defined by religion, education, and colonization.
The idea for this special issue on educational institutions stems from a session held at the American Society for Ethnohistory Conference in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2018. Our objective with the panel then, and with the special issue now, has been to bring to light elements of the missions and colegios that have not been discussed previously and that complicate the narrative of these spaces as instruments of control and domination. Although four of the six articles included here were not part of that session, they fit seamlessly into the discussion of the roles Natives played in the educational spaces opened exclusively for them and sponsored in large part by the Catholic Church. The articles included here show some of the ways in which these projects, intended to extirpate cultural traits, also became spaces of autonomy for the Mestizo and Native populations.
The dual nature of these educational spaces—as means for and against colonial domination—complicates the larger impact they had in colonial society. This special issue contributes to the existing scholarship on these institutions providing additional studies that underline how the colegios and missions opened opportunities to self-organize, to receive legal protection, and more importantly to acquire an education that would allow colonial subjects to improve their social and economic situation. Ultimately, these articles offer much more than a novel version of what happened in these educational spaces: they talk about the history of the church and its involvement with Natives and Mestizos, they illustrate the intricacies of colonial politics, the establishment of social networks, and the multifaceted nature of these educational spaces.
This special issue opens with Bradley Benton’s article on the colegios that were founded in Mexico City for the children that resulted from the informal unions of Spanish men and Indigenous women during the first few years after the wars of conquest in the sixteenth century, and who were, according to a royal edict, “wandering among the Indians.” There were clear prejudices against the idea of these children spending time with their Native mothers’ families and communities. Therefore, the colegio of San Juan de Letrán for boys, and the Colegio de Nuestra Señora de la Caridad for girls, were opened with the intention to educate and “civilize” them. For her part, Alcira Dueñas argues in her article that the colegios opened for the Indigenous nobility in Peru had similar intentions: they were intended to shape Native consciousness and turn Indigenous peoples into royal subjects. El Príncipe and San Borja were colegios founded outside of Lima and in Cuzco for the Native nobility where members of the Jesuit order implemented pedagogies of affection through art that supplemented the more traditional teachings of the catechism. Dueñas uses the annual letters (reports) written by the Jesuits in charge of these schools to ascertain the methods used to control the subjectivities of their students. Analogously, Kristin Huffine, whose article centers on the Guaraní missions of the Río de la Plata, explores the use of translated European religious texts for the spiritual formation of Guaraní Christians and catechumens. Huffine argues that these translations, intended for Indigenous readers, were meant to shape subjects into good Catholics. Similarly to what Dueñas illustrates in her article, the Jesuits in the Río de la Plata missions also tried to have an effect on the senses of their students and to encourage meditation and spiritual discernment.
These spiritual practices were quite complex and advanced, and demonstrate how sophisticated the caciques, cabildantes, mayordomos, and other readers of these texts were in their understanding of Christian doctrine and European culture in general. This knowledge, along with academic instruction, as Dueñas states in her article, gave Indigenous peoples the tools to move about the colonial order with ease. For example, Indigenous peoples who were literate and were cognizant of the complexities of the religious and legal systems initiated lawsuits and participated actively in positions of power in the church and the government. Therefore, more colegios exclusively for the Indigenous population were requested, because they recognized the potential benefits and the possibilities to improve their social status.
Susan Ramírez illustrates in her article how the initiatives to further schooling for the Native populations came mostly from within the Indigenous communities, but also how difficult it was to overcome certain obstacles, especially in the rural areas of Peru. During the second half of the eighteenth century, Bourbon mandates reinforced early interest on the part of the crown to educate the Native populations, although by this time the notion of education was informed by enlightened ideas and was clearly disassociating from religious instruction. Yet even from within the church, as in the case of the enlightened bishop from Trujillo, we find a strong push to open schools for Indigenous children that would benefit all and not only the nobility. In Mexico in the early nineteenth century we find that same interest in maintaining spaces of ethnic autonomy, as with the case of the Colegio of San Gregorio. Argelia Segovia’s article reveals how, even after the expulsion of the Jesuits, the school kept its Indigenous character. While this initiative also faced obstacles similar to the ones highlighted by Ramírez, they were able to find enough support at San Gregorio to maintain their collective identity, even after its separation from religious sponsorship.
In addition to acquiring an education and belonging to an exclusively Indigenous space, the colegios gave the students, their families, and the communities at large access to a network of social and financial support that Mónica Díaz refers to, in her article, as the “economy of salvation.” Through memberships in confraternities and congregations associated with the colegios, people could access a system of credit that helped them in both spiritual and material ways.8 Bradley Benton’s article also takes into consideration that element in the first colegios for Mestizos that opened in Mexico City. In addition to educating and preserving the virtue of the children, these colegios functioned as credit institutions that could lend money and help people in other ways. Individuals would also bequest money in their wills to the colegios, and as in the case of San Gregorio, they would invest in their spiritual well-being by donating money to a charitable cause, such as the dowry for an orphan girl to profess in the Convent of Corpus Christi. The prayers of the orphans of San Juan de Letrán, and those of the nuns of Corpus Christi, seemed to have been powerful commodities that encouraged people to leave their earthly wealth to these institutions. Altogether, these articles offer new perspectives for the study of Spanish America’s colegios and missions and are intended as an invitation to explore similar institutions in different geographical regions and time periods.
The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the US government.
“Que se embien veinte yndios á Castilla para que deprendan las cosas de la fé.” Unless otherwise stated, all translations are our own.
Recopilación de las Leyes de los Reynos de las Indias, book 1, title 23, law 11, Archivo Digital de la Legislación del Perú, https://leyes.congreso.gob.pe/leyes_indias.aspx (accessed 9 April 2021).
The reference is to the 1857 Canadian “Act to Encourage the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes in the Provinces.” On the assimilationist education of Native peoples in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, see Prucha 1973; Reyhner and Elder 2004; Larson 2004; Karasch 2014; Bazant 1993; Miller 1996.
Opinion of the Governors and Officials of San Juan Tenochtitlan and Santiago Tlatelolco, 11 April 1770, Archivo General de Indias, Seville, Audiencia de México vol. 1937, fols. 836–37.
See, for example, Schmidt Díaz de León 2012; Lavrín 1999. Given their clearer autonomy and physical isolation, these studies are most advanced with regards to the rural missions. See also Jackson 2017; Crewe 2019; Sarreal 2014.
An early example of this kind of synthesis is Schroeder 2000.
It’s important to note that confraternities and congregations were communal religious organizations that were not always ascribed to colegios; in many instances, they existed independently of these. For a thorough examination of Franciscan confraternities, see Dierksmeier 2020.