A review of the  “Cultural Legacy of the Jesuits in Latin America”,  Conference organised by the Institute of Latin American Studies

November 24th, 2017

A review of the “Cultural Legacy of the Jesuits in Latin America”, Conference organised by the Institute of Latin American Studies

The 17th of November I attended a conference called “Cultural Legacy of the Jesuits in Latin America”, where different scholars lectured about a range of topics involving the Jesuits work in Latin America, especially between the XVI-XVIII centuries. What encouraged me to attend the conference was to know more about the first centuries of the Jesuits in what was at the time an undiscovered land, the obstacles they dealt with, and especially to comprehend the view they had in discovering this new ‘other’.

One of the lectures was about the importance of the Jesuits Maps. Imagine arriving at a vast land like the Amazon region, with the task of evangelizing in the wildest place you have ever seen. Flora, fauna and cultures you have never even imagined existed. Now you will understand how mapping the new land was absolutely crucial for the work of the Jesuits. Domingo Ledezma, one of the lecturers, has been studying the Jesuits Maps for a long time. He explained how the maps had a variety of purposes and characteristics. One purpose of the maps was political, as they were sent to Spain or the Vatican in order to get support for the missionary activities. They were also used to defend the Spanish endeavours to control the Amazon River against the Portuguese. Second, they had a scientific purpose, as they portrayed the new flora and fauna.  There was also a geographical purpose which can seem obvious but nevertheless important. Through the maps Jesuits were informed about frontiers, languages, ethnic groups, rights, and where Jesuits had lost their lives. Finally, Ledezma highlighted two other important facts about the Jesuits maps. First, is that they are infused by a Jesuit way of thinking about visual rhetoric. This can be appreciated in the number of allegoric symbols of religion and of the Company of Jesus.  The second fact is that to produce the maps, Jesuits relied heavily on the help provided by indigenous people, which also reflects the good relations with almost all of them. The deep knowledge native people had of the land is reflected in maps like the one pictured, produced by Samuel Fritz. This map of an area of the Amazon has proven to be almost exact to what satellite images show of the place.

Other talks were about the missionary work itself. Barbara Ganson, another lecturer at the conference, told us a little bit about Father Antonio Ruiz de Montoya, a Peruvian Jesuit who wrote Conquista spiritual in 1639. Montoya devoted much of his life to studying the Guaraní language and culture. He deeply admired their culture and their talents, and also was an advocator for the liberation of Guarani slaves in Spain. However, what strikes me is how Montoya perceived shamans or the local hechiceros. He portrayed them as messengers of the Devil instead of a simple cultural and spiritual representation of power. As Ganson said about Montoya, “he captured the Guaraníes voices but still saw them with his own cultural eyes”. The allusion to the devil to explain unknown things or cultural differences was a common resource used by the Jesuits in the first few centuries in Latin America. By explaining deep complex practices as acts of the Devil, Jesuits were losing the chance to know even more about the culture of the natives and how rich it was.
Oriel Ambrogio’s presentation was about the administration and perception of baptism in certain areas of Latin America. He explained how baptism shaped local perceptions of the role of the missionary as a foreign hechicero (or shaman) able to either heal the moribund or cause death. Holy water in this context was either seen as a cause of death when received by dying people, or as an extra protection from illness when received by healthy people. Some members of native communities also perceived baptism as an instrument of cultural novelty able to reorganize socio-political and economical intertribal balances. In this sense, baptism emerged as an opportunity for people to improve their economic and social conditions.

Finally, there were two other lectures that I found very interesting. One of these lectures was about the literary legacy of the Jesuits in exile. When Jesuits were expelled from the Americas in 1767, most of them devoted themselves to write about the land they left behind. And they wrote a lot. Just imagine that 5000 Jesuits arrived from exile and most of them wrote more than one book, and you will realize such an enormous production. They wrote about anthropology, about linguistics, philosophy, social science, ethnography, art history, architecture, among other issues. They also wrote imaginative literature in forms of epics, most of the times about the conquest and the new land. The literary literacy of the Jesuits is crucial for understanding the History of the American continent, its culture and especially the encounter between two absolutely different cultures. It also demonstrates how the Jesuits excelled in their efforts of understanding the new continent. Old writings and books are being discovered or given importance only now, which makes even more interesting the understanding of this past.

The second lecture was about the importance of Fr Eusebio Kino, a Jesuit missionary from the XVII century who covered the area of what is now the Mexican-American border. During the last decades, he has been raised as an exemplary figure of bravery and recognised as a prototypical civilizer, whose works of conversion initiated a process of pacification of what was a savage frontier. Civil society on both sides of the border have used his figure to heal the deep divisions the border has caused. It is certainly impressive how the life and values of a Jesuit who lived centuries ago, becomes important for dealing with contemporary problems. In this sense, Jesuits, for example, have invoked Kino in solidarity with the suffering of immigrants, a prophetic symbol of transcultural justice and protector of the marginalized people.

In conclusion, conferences like this reveal how the past acquires meaning in the understanding of the present and how the lessons from the past added to an increased consciousness of the richness of cultural differences and the need to respect them, can help us in dealing with complex contemporary issues.

Clarisa Reichhard