The author has brought together a considerable amount of information about the practice and practices of religion in sixteenth-century Mexico. The main emphasis is on the Indians’ reaction to a new body of religious tenets, new rites, and a new way of life.
One can readily agree with Peñalosa that much has been written about those who evangelized the natives and all too little about the natives who were evangelized: “Nada, o casi nada, hay que añadir a lo mucho y bueno que se ha escrito sobre los misioneros españoles que evangelizaron; muy poco, en cambio, se ha dicho sobre los indios evangelizados. El protagonista de estas páginas es precisamente el indio que abandona sus antiguos cultos y acepta el mensaje de la fe” (P. 5).
The author devotes his first chapter (pp. 11-25) to the religious practices of the Indians before the coming of the Spaniards. The subject is too vast for satisfactory treatment in a few pages. All that can be set forth is a brief outline of some Aztec practices. Even at that, it is not the Indian himself who is revealing his pre-Hispanic religious thinking and rites, but the Spanish chronicler who is recording them and passing judgment upon them.
The greater part of the book, however, is devoted to a study of how the natives reacted to Christianity and how they practiced it. For Peñalosa three elements constitute religious life: doctrine (creencias), conduct or a way of life (conductas), and practices (prácticas). He chose to analyze the last in greater detail because, in his opinion, the other two cannot be adequately and directly known.
The agents (gestores) of religious practices are limited to four: the four religious orders (Franciscans, Augustinians, Dominicans, and Jesuits), the bishops, the diocesan clergy, and the laity. As far as the religious orders are concerned, Peñalosa limits his study to the activity of the Franciscans, Augustinians, and Dominicans, barely mentioning the coming of the Jesuits (pp. 35-36). Considerable attention is paid to the enactments of the three Mexican Councils and their effect upon the religious practices of the natives.
In a long and very detailed section (pp. 91-136), he studies the reception of the sacraments by the natives. In chapters VI-IX, which specify the religious practices of the natives from the Mass to private devotions, the author justifies the main title he chose for the volume.
In the last two chapters (X and XI), he considers some aspects of the book’s secondary title (Asedios de sociología religiosa), by recalling the diverse geography of New Spain, the racial composition of the population (which he reckons at eleven million) at the time of the coming of the Spaniards, and the native social structures. He believes that the modem reader can best understand the present religious situation in Mexico by viewing the historical evolution of the natives’ reaction to and practice of the faith through the centuries, especially during the sixteenth century.
For this handy synthesis of the religious practices in sixteenth-century Mexico, Peñalosa drew mainly upon the religious chroniclers and the enactments of the three national councils.