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Religion and Society

A Giant Crucible called the New World

Globalisation has elevated the events of encounter and clash between men of different cultures to being a phenomenon of planetary dimensions. The communications revolution, the intensification of human, economic and cultural exchange, and mass migrations, impose the truly crucial task of achieving a positive foundation for co-existence between different cultures. Prof. Javier Prades rightly states that 'to find similar scenarios one would have to go back to the time of the great European migrations and to the epoch of the geographical discoveries of the sixteen and seventeenth centuries' [Il Riformista, 05.03.07].


And in fact the peculiarity of what we call Latin America, that is to say the very newness of its origins, is provided by the great and dramatic encounter/clash between men and cultures, and very different ethnic groups and peoples, an event without equal in the Christian era and perhaps since the very dawn of history. The New World was the result, and at the same time the unleashing effect of, an extraordinary historical novelty - the various events of so many peoples, islands of great civilisations dispersed in the vast oceans of the Neolithic age, until that time in communication with each other only with difficulty, suddenly irrupted into universal history. The circumnavigation of the African coast by the Portuguese who went on to the lands of the far east, the completion of centuries of re-conquest in the Iberian peninsula and the drawing near of Christopher Columbus to the 'unknown lands', at the end of his navigation towards the east, broke the siege of the Muslim crescent of Mediterranean and European Christendom. There was thus achieved the first great wave of globalisation: the expansion of Christendom, which carried within its heart an impetus towards universality, ensured that for the first time the reach of man's entirety became revealed to his gaze. The Catholic orb was in fact doubled in size with the evangelisation of the New World, and specifically at the moment when Europe experienced the most dramatic of its divisions with the Protestant Reformation. This was the dawn of modernity.


One is dealing here, therefore, with an event that was much more complex and important that a mere encounter/clash between Spaniards, Portuguese and Indios, to whom would be subsequently added black slaves deported from Africa. On the one hand there came from Hispania a rather variegated humanity, with a more than millennium-old historical background made up of successive stratifications of civilisations, of complex ethnic interbreeding and forms of assimilation marked by profound regional differences. It was also the result of centuries of social and racial interbreeding with moors and Jews. On the other, the appellation 'Indios' given by Columbus to the inhabitants of the new lands, constituted solely a generic reference which was from many points of view also erroneous. In the New World a prototype of the Indio did not exist; rather, there was a very great variety of civilisations, peoples and human groups, generated by migratory processes, adaptations and assimilations, which went back millennia, with very different levels of development and very limited interchanges. A characteristic of this situation was the Babel of a very great number of languages which could be traced back to various linguistic families that we not connected to a common denominator. A broad contingent of African slaves, used above all in the tropical plantations, taken by slave traders from different and rather stratified societies spread along the African Atlantic coast from the River Senegal to Angola, was incorporated into this complex reality. If one goes back to its origins, one can say that in the New World the three principal human lineages had given each other an appointment - the Mongols, the Caucasians, and the blacks. Thus the Catholic José Vasconcelos, the Minister for Public Education at the time of the Mexican revolution, would write centuries later with poetic exaltation of a 'synthesis race', an 'integral race', a 'cosmic race' made 'by the genius and the blood of all peoples'. 'We Americans by birth…are neither Indians nor Europeans but a mixed race', observed Simón Bolívar during his exile in Jamaica.



Mixed Marriages


Latin America was born as an essentially hybrid continent both ethnically and culturally, although this hybridisation was differentiated according to times and places and was internally lacerated and unfinished because of phenomena of oppression and exclusion. No other continent has witnessed such an interbreeding of races that is so imposing and so complex. This was undoubtedly favoured by the scarce number of Spanish and Portuguese women who accompanied the first explorations and colonisations. The scarcity of women had an impact above all in Brazil. It is important to stress, however, that between the Spaniards and Portuguese in the New World there never emerged an instinct of sexual repugnance, not even at the outset and notwithstanding the surprise of meeting unknown human beings. Quite the contrary! Indios chroniclers and witnesses often narrate the admiration of the Spaniards for the young native women and of the Portuguese for the mulatto women. At the beginning of the sixteenth century both the Spaniards and the Portuguese lived surrounded by native women, certainly often obtained through force, at other times received as gifts from tribal chiefs as signs of friendship, but also often attracted by the conquistadores who they then associated with spontaneously. Mixed marriages were explicitly allowed by the Crown of Spain as early as 1501. There was a large number of marriages between Spaniards and the daughters of the native aristocracy and from these marriages came the first hybrid generation accepted as Spanish which would play an active role in the final stages of the conquest. Most of the people of mixed race, however, came from extra-marital relations. Casual sexual relations and various forms of cohabitation formed the origin of most of the interbreeding. In this dramatic, unequal and intense process of the creation of new peoples there was no 'racial hatred'. It is certainly the case that the Spaniards cared a great deal about their own linaje, a form of racial pride, claiming as a title of honour limpieza de sangre and thus normally seeing as degrading regular marriage with coloured women. But, wrote two of the best observers of the Indias in the eighteenth century, 'rare is the family in which there is no mixture of blood'. Social and racial prejudices ended up by being concentrated in a social organisation which a Chilean scholar called 'pigmentocracy' (the lightest tonality of skin corresponded to the highest levels on the social ladder; the darkest tonality of skin corresponded to the lowest).


The birth of these new peoples and the complex construction of new societies was much more of an ordeal and much more dramatic than was the case with the thirteen colonies of North America. Faced with ethnic and cultural differences, the Anglo-Saxon and Protestant immigrants saw colonisation as a mobile frontier of families and colonies to be increasingly transplanted to the west. For them, for centuries, the saying 'a good Indian is a dead Indian', remained valid. In the meanwhile black slaves were kept in conditions of absolute apartheid. It is clear that Catholicism and Puritanism displayed substantial differences in addressing this new reality.


The historical significance of this capacity for unification lies in it showing itself to be an indispensable instrument of assimilation and cultural fusion. In this process of fusion what was of Hispanic provenance obtained a role of supremacy. The conquest meant that Hispanisation acquired a dominant function. The Mexo-American empires, such as the Aztec and Inca empires, which had themselves been constructed through violence, were destroyed by violence. It is clear that the culture of Mediterranean Christendom, in its Hispanic-Lusitanian expression and in the full ferment of the Renaissance , was superior from many points of view to the most evolved native cultures. As the great Venezuelan scholar Mariano Picón-Salas writes: 'although the artistic and religious creations of their most evolved cultures could be compared to those of the East, in other aspects of their lives they had not yet completely overcome the Neolithic period'. The native civilisations were without the spiritual, technological and political resources needed to face up to the great historical challenge of European expansion. The weakness of the natives grew worse with the extermination, during the conquest, of the priestly caste, which was the custodian in an exclusive way of the highest cultural instruments. This decapitation provoked, within the vertical and totalitarian structure of Tenochtitlan (Aztecs) or of Tihuantinsuyo (Incas), a sudden collapse because of the interruption of the ritual procedures of initiation and of the transmission of religious cosmogonies, astronomy, the plastic arts, teaching, writing and poetry. The native masses, subordinated and oppressed within these great empires, experienced the collapse of their traditional 'worlds' and observed the change in their 'lords' with silent indifference and mysterious impassiveness. Decimated by the demographic catastrophe (provoked above all else by epidemics), exploited for their labour in the fields and in the mines, they conserved only their rudimental and residual cultural forms in domestic life and their lives together in their villages. Despite this, however, very numerous and disparate native elements were assimilated in this cultural fusion. One need only think here of certain methods of cultivating the land, the preparation of food and alimentation, the artisan processes of weaving, ceramics and gold jewellery, the persistence of religious roots and many other aspects of their customs. Of notable importance was also their contribution to the plastic arts (architecture and sculpture) and painting, where the natives, under the guidance of European teaches, were able to impress a physiognomy that was totally special to the new works.



the Intelligence of the Missionaries


Everything that managed to survive from the native communities and cultures, everything that could be appreciated, recovered and even developed of the native traditions and languages, was the outcome of the passion and the intelligence of the missionaries: in encountering the natives in their great work of evangelisation, they were involved in a careful observation and systematic study of the local cultures and languages. As the Colombian historian Liévano Aguire writes: 'unique in history, there took place the event of a great colonial power that dedicated a great part of the intellectual efforts of its best men not so much to solving the problem of how to exploit more effectively the natives of its own domains as to defending the natives of the conquered lands from its own subjects'. The historian Lewis Hanke defines this role of the missionaries, supported at first by Isabella of Castile and then by the Emperors Charles V and Phillip II, as a great 'fight for justice', within the context of a great controversy that broke out in Spain and in America. The ethnic and cultural hybridisation would not have been possible without the upholding of the humanity of the Indios and the defence of their freedom and dignity. This assumption was very clear from the outset and is evident in an admirable way in the will of Queen Isabella of Castile. Pope Paul II, in his Brief of 2 June 1537, unleashed words of fire against all forms of reducing the natives to slavery, 'real men not only capable of the Christian faith but who…run readily to receive it'; 'one cannot usurp their freedom nor the ownership of their goods'. At the three successive Councils of Lima, the bishops reconfirmed their title of 'Protectors of the Indios' against every shameless abuse by the colonisers and the supposed 'ministers of God' wherever they lowered themselves to being 'slaughterers of the Indios'. Las leyes nuevas de Indias was the fruit of this passionate work of acceptance of suffering native humanity, the expression of 'paternal affection and care for the good of their new and tender plants of the Church'. In his excellent Sudamérica. Biografía di un continente, the German Ernst Samhaber writes that 'if in America the Indian race was indeed able to maintain itself, this was due to the Catholic Church'.


In the light of these observations, the almost generalised baptism of the Indios should not be seen only as the clearest reaffirmation of their human dignity but also as the birth of a new identity. All the chronicles of the first century of evangelisation narrate the massive affluence, at times even of a tumultuous character, of Indios who asked for baptism. There was an 'Indian thirst' for Christianity which Benedict XVI very suitably emphasised in his recent speech in Aparecida: 'Christ was the Saviour that they silently yearned for'. The new men of hybridisation and the new people that emerged from them were thus marked by the impress of baptismal regeneration within a new alliance. The Indios, who had been beaten down and were displaced because of the collapse of their 'worlds', acquired a new awareness of their dignity and discovered the new meaning of their lives.



a Mother for all Peoples


The Chilean Pedro Morandé has identified in the Marian cult the characteristic religious expression of the Iberian-Indian-American hybridisation: 'the image of the Pachamama, or mother earth, or Tonatzin, or mother of all men, only to cite some examples of the cultural tradition of the principal centres of American-Indian worship, found in Mary the possibility of jointly penetrating, integrating and appreciating the real experience of encounter that was taking place between the peoples that at that time were beginning to know each other. Hybridisation also found in the Marian cult its path of access to the history of Latin America and the world context that was beginning to take shape, given that the venerated image of Mary did not represent a jurisdictional limit or a principle of ethnic or social differentiation but constituted, instead, the possibility of recognising and expressing the uniqueness of the human condition beyond particular historical circumstances. In Mary was venerated and discovered the global meaning of the experience of children who came from different histories but who saw themselves as having the same origin, of pilgrims who, despite the diversity of the pathways taken, discovered an identical destiny. In her was also venerated the encounter between God and man, and in her arms one discovered the incarnated Word that becomes bread, that includes everyone without exclusion, and answers the needs of men'. The historical event of the Marian apparition at Tepeyac was the decisive fact and the primordial symbol of this encounter. The native Juan Diego was the chosen one and the messenger of the Mother of Christ and the Mother of the new peoples. This allowed the Latin American bishops to state that 'the Gospel incarnated in our peoples unites them in a historical-cultural originality that we call Latin America', whose identity finds as its shining symbol the 'mixed face of Mary of Guadalupe', the great teacher of an assimilated evangelisation (cf. Puebla, p. 446). The chronicles say that in the years immediately after the apparitions millions of natives asked for baptism.


The cultural substratum of American hybridisation, as a unitary base and expressive modality, would generate 'Baroque' popular Catholicism. Latin America was born with the first European modernity, that is to say with the Baroque, an expression of an incipient modernity. The Cuban novelist Lezama Lima says that 'the American Baroque lord, who was the first to be authentically planted in our world, participated in, watched over and stewarded the great syntheses that are to be found at its roots, the Hispanic-native and the Hispanic-negroid'. The Baroque represented for Latin America a true, integral 'cosmic vision' that was able to include all peoples and all the particularities of the natural environment, nourished by a real experience of encounter and communication between different cultural traditions, in the case of cultures as well that were by then weakened or of forms of integration that were very problematic for their protagonists. Exuberant and excessive, this was expressed in the flowering of popular piety in which the mystical dimension of the Christian faith (which dramatic and festive at the same time) converged with the dramatic character of the indigenous cosmogonies in a rituality that prevailed over the moral dimension. Sacramentalisation and the innumerable devotions generated a continuum between faith and culture which was also expressed in great works of art and literature. This marked the mentality, the aesthetic sensibility and the collective psychology of the new peoples. Its greatest symbols were the mixed image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the mixed figure and work of the first chronicler of Peru, the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, the prophetic and mystical synthesis of the sculptures of the Brazilian mulatto Aleijadinho, the masterpieces of the Sagrario metropolitano in Mexico City, the church of the convent of Tepozotlán, the parish church of Tasco, and many other such works.



the Tragedy of the Indios


After the dismantling by the principal powers of the time of the extraordinary experience of the Franciscan and Jesuit reducciones, and in particular those of the guaranies of Paraguay - a great attempt at Christian incorporation and the modern progress of the native communities and cultures towards a new civilisation, beyond the dominion of the sword and money - the situation of marginalisation and exploitation of the natives grew worse during the period of the Bourbon dynasty. But this deterioration became much more 'brutal and dangerous', as Pierre Chaunu observes, after the wars of independence. Where a perceptive scholar such as Humboldt had, during his long journeys in the continent at the beginning of the nineteenth century, encountered natives who were 'poor but free…whose status is preferable to that of the peasants of most of northern Europe', the new republics, under the control of the Creole oligarchies, engaged in the systematic abrogation of the forms of protection that still existed for the indigenous communities, trespassed on their lands, confiscated the possessions of the Church, which constituted a vast network of help for the poor, and promoted, country by country, campaigns of extermination of the Indios, with the forced transfer of the survivors to the gelid lands of the south, in the arid lands of the high mountains, forcing many to take refuge in the tropical forests. The move was from the romantic folklore of the 'noble savage' to contempt for 'degenerate' races, in line with the parameters that were typical of the 'progressive' generation of positivist science in which prevailed the ideological synthesis of Spencer, the culmination of the era of Victorian imperialism. One of the fathers of contemporary racism, Count Gobineau, was the French consul in Brazil, from where he wrote all his contempt for the mixture of races. It was no accident, therefore, that the American twentieth century began with the tumultuous explosion of the Mexican revolution and the violent irruption into history of the peasant and native masses, or that the Peruvian Victor R. Haya de la Torre then launched the new concept of 'Indo-America'.



a Question of Land and Culture


That contemporary Latin America is made up of a great variety of ethnic and cultural components is more than evident. The distinction made by the Brazilian anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro between 'witness peoples' (based upon the inheritance, the disruption and the assimilation of the great native civilisations, along the spine of the Andes), the 'new peoples' (who arose from Hispanic-African-Indigenous interbreeding, in Brazil and in part of the Antilles) and the 'transplanted peoples' (the outcome of the massive European immigration of the second part of the nineteenth century into the great plains of the almost unpopulated South American cone) is useful and clarifying here. It is also true that Latin American society continues to be the expression of an incomplete and lacerated hybridisation. Today, it is above all the question of the native peoples that is being proposed again with contemporary relevance and urgency. The native areas are the most backward, the most exploited, the poorest and the most discriminated against, and the most in need of justice and development. The dramatic question of the native peoples is a question of land and culture in a shared homeland, without exclusions. The forced assimilation of the natives through a modernisation which condemns them to become a miserable, cultureless and anonymous proletariat should be seen as a lethal process. The defence of so-called 'reserves' for the Indios which are certainly destined to dissolve with time is not however a realisable alternative. Every ingenuous or ideological apologia of primitive indigenous communities, fixed in the Neolithic age, is in itself a lethal process. If the natives do not have available to them the essential elements to dialogue with the tremendous power of modern culture and work, if they turn inwards to the mythical values of their ancestors, and if they do not speak anything else but their rudimental aboriginal languages, they will be condemned to be slaves of new lords or to disappear in a state of total abandonment. They will be forced to address the attack of modernity without any instrument of defence against its technological and productive power and its means of mass communication. There is a need, instead, for realistic and bold policies that appreciate the best of their cultural heritage, and that contemplate all the transformations that are needed with a view to literacy and schooling, in order to achieve progress at an economic and occupational level, community self-determination within the contexts of greater horizons, and a worthy integration into the lives of the nations of the world. John Paul II was able to summarise in a happy phrase an idea that does not only apply to Mexico: 'Mexico needs its natives and the natives need Mexico'. The Servant of God pronounced these words on the first day of September 2002 during the celebration for the canonisation of Juan Diego - a strong sign of the appreciation of the Catholic tradition of the native peoples and of the renewed commitment of the Church to their dignity and their rights.


Over the last fifteen years in various regions of Latin America we have witnessed the emergence and the establishment, with ever greater vigour, of native movements in the social and political field. They have thus demonstrated the strength that they have accumulated over centuries of humiliations and oppressions. The Latin American Episcopate, at its fifth general conference held in Aparecida (13-31 May 2007), wanted to stress the solidarity of the Church with the natives at the level of the burdensome and painful injustices that they have endured, as well as its commitment to their legitimate claims. A completely different thing, however, is the ideological manipulation of a kind of nativism, the product of a curious convergence between neo-populist caudillos, intellectuals who are the orphans of Marxism, and international networks of environmentalist and nativist NGOs of European and North American origins, that are often against every work of progress, together with powerful interests that want to 'internationalise' Amazonia. Pastors and missionaries are not absent who, although full of generous intentions, oscillate between the naïf and the ideological. In general, all of these converge in proposing again the usual 'black legend' directed against the Catholic Church and its evangelisation, in drawing upon the myth of the 'noble savage', in attempting to bring to the fore in an artificial way old cosmogonies and mythologies, wizards, witch doctors and religious rites, in opposing native roots to Spanish roots, and in some cases in wanting to promote an 'indigenous Church' that is rather autonomous in doctrinal and disciplinary matters. But it is well known that the criteria for racial classifications in our complex societies are extremely dubious and lack scientific rigour. Some people argue that thirty million natives live within the population of Latin America but in reality one is dealing by now with people derived from mixing at the level of blood, language, culture and religion. They are defined as being 'natives' only because of their condition of social and cultural marginalisation. The Church, as it has always done, today, as well, is committed to becoming increasingly solidarity-inspired company for the native peoples, but it remains at the same time 'careful in the face of attempts to eradicate the Catholic faith of the indigenous communities', as the final document of Aparecida declares, 'something that would leave them defenceless and confused in the fact of the assaults of ideologies and certain alienating groups who gravely endanger the wellbeing of these communities themselves'.



a Shared Home


During the proceedings of the Fifth General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate in Aparecida the proposal was advanced to define Latin American society simply as multiethnic, multicultural, and pluralistic in religious terms. It is certainly the case that this definition could appear something that is taken for granted but this apparent superficial reflection on our reality conceals the risk of reducing the conception of Latin America to the idea of a sub-continent without an identity, a simple juxtaposition and opposition of ethnic groups, cultures and religions. It is difficult to imagine a worse assumption with which to address the great challenges of the development, the democratisation and the integration of Latin America, and to manage to achieve, strengthened in its own identity, its own ideals and interests, and its positive and beneficial incorporation into the dynamisms of globalisation! With wisdom the Latin American bishops at Aparecida stated that 'the dignity of seeing ourselves as a family of Latin Americans and Caribbean people implies a singular experience of proximity, fraternity and solidarity. We are not only a continent, a fact that is purely geographical characterised by a disharmonious mosaic of contents. We are not even a sum of juxtaposed peoples and ethnic groups. One and plural, Latin America is the common home, the great homeland of brothers… 'of peoples', as John Paul II stated at Santo Domingo (12 October 1992), 'which geography itself, the Christian faith, language and culture have united definitively in the journey of history''. 'The Gospel', as Benedict XVI said when inaugurating this fifth conference, 'has become…the leading element of a dynamic synthesis which, with various facets according to the various nations expresses, anyway, the identity of the Latin American peoples'. Hybridisation, once again, was recognised by the Latin American bishops as the 'social and cultural basis of our peoples', although lacerated by the wounds produced by very many dominations and marginalisation, certainly still needing to incorporate Todas las sangres (the title of the famous novel by the Peruvian José M. Arguedas), thereby overcoming the obstacle of strident inequalities. The 'most valuable treasure' that the Church offers not only to the natives but also to all Latin Americans is that of faith Jesus Christ who rose again; the inexhaustible source of communion with God and between men, by whom all are redeemed, regenerated and appreciated in their humanity, becoming brothers because the sons of the same Father, members of the same Body, and united by a shared history and a shared destiny.