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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: August 2012

4 - Ways to the Sacred


The Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521 was followed almost immediately by the ardent attempt by picked bodies of missionary friars to convert the Mexican Indians to Christianity, or more precisely, given the friars' view of things, to liberate the natives from their miserable servitude to the Devil. I will be concerned in what follows not with recording the early missionaries' ambitions and apparent early triumphs, which perspective has tended to dominate much of the writing in the field, but rather to uncover some part of the ‘concealed and mysterious dialectics’ of European and native interactions, in order to discover how the ‘religion’ practised by Mexican Indians in the later sixteenth century, when the main conversion thrust was over, can best be understood. If the enquiry incorporates rather more consideration of awkward and inconclusive theoretical issues than historians readily tolerate, that is because the enterprise requires it.

First, the sources. In Mexico there is a baffling hiatus in documentation for the first twenty years or so after the conquest. Systematic records are a reflex of stability, and the memorializing impulse depends on the sense that some phase in a great story is over. Authority had been slippery in Mexico, in an unstable context of a restless and rapidly dispersing Spanish population and a demoralized and rapidly diminishing Indian one, but with the installation of the first Viceroy in 1535 both the steady record-keeping and the memorializing effectively began.

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