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Themes – Reconquista


Weak attempts to restore the Spanish presence in the Rio Grande Valley occurred almost as soon as beleaguered colonists arrived in El Paso in 1680. However, not until 1692 with the arrival of Don Diego de Vargas, was a concerted effort to regain lost territory mounted, and not for the traditional reasons. By the end of the 17th century, the Spanish in Mexico City and Madrid were concerned with the incursion of the French into the Kingdom of New Spain. In 1682, Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, led a French expedition out of the Great Lakes down the Mississippi River to its mouth. On April 9, La Salle proclaimed the river, its delta, and all adjacent lands possessions of King Louis XIV. French couerers du bois were trading with the Arikara and Pawnee on the eastern fringes of the empire on the High Plains. Further, this French presence had pushed the Comanche, the Kansas, the Wichita and the Osage Indians into Apache and Navajo hunting grounds. The Apache and the Navajo were forced further west, into traditional Pueblo lands. A Spanish presence was needed north of El Paso in order to protect the silver-producing provinces of northern Mexico. Labeling his effort the “Second Reconquista,” De Vargas moved north from El Paso in 1693. He met little opposition.  In 1696, de Vargas defeated a second coordinated Pueblo revolt and Spanish authority was restored. Only the Hopi, ensconced in the Three Mesas of northern Arizona, remained unreconciled. They were, however, sufficiently isolated from Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Taos that their activities and practices could be ignored without ill effect in the rest of Nuevo Mexico. The authority that de Vargas restored was different than that of the 17th century.

The new colonial administrative policy allowed for Pueblo religious and political autonomy. Within each pueblo, the Spanish established the town government system that the monarchy had granted small townships in Spain in the 17th century. Pueblo caciques (leaders) and medicine men chose those who would represent the pueblo when dealing with Spanish authorities. Under the nominal supervision of the Spanish constable in the area, these administrations operated in similar fashion to the pre-colonial pueblo communal organizations prior to 1598. There were some concerted efforts between 1707 and 1715 to eradicate Pueblo religious practices, however, in the end, the Puebloans were allowed to manage their local affairs themselves. Religious practices were tolerated, but wary Pueblos guarded their traditional practices, allowing only trusted outsiders to observe their ceremonies. At the same time, in public, a fusion of the Indian natural world and the Christian supernatural world emerged in the cult of the saints.

Unable to eradicate native practices, the Franciscan friars again attempted to co-opt native rituals through a modification of European ecclesiastical iconography. The friars first began to paint animal hides with religious images in the 17th century. The church later banned these, but the power of the saints in everyday life was an important part of Catholicism in Spain, Mexico and New Mexico. Vast distances, however, meant that there was only limited access to carvings and paintings of saints. As a result, local carvers and painters began to copy images from books and produce their own santos (carved figures of the saints). The friars began adopting locally produced santos depicting the most popular “New World” saints.  St. James rode a horse. Oxen pulled the plow of St. Isidro. St. Raphael held a native fish. Our Lady of Guadalupe emerged as the most popular female saint in the New World. More santos depicting her image exist than any other saint in New Mexico. This combination of saints was different than those most popular in Europe. Further, the Cristo, the most important of the santos, appears with blood streaming from beneath his loincloth only in New Mexico. The blood resembles drops of rain and relates, not only to the flagellation practices of the rain societies of the pre-Columbian native religions, but also to the penitential practices of New Mexicans during Holy Week. In the 18th century, the Virgin Mary, the second-most important icon in the “New World,” appeared clothed in robes decorated with corn ears and stalks, the moon at her feet, and surrounded by flowers and butterflies. These images represent the incorporation of Native American fertility symbols into Christian iconography and signify an attempt to bring peace to the century-long struggle between the friars and the caciques for the hearts and minds of the Puebloans. The cult of the saints continues today, creating and recreating santos according to traditional 18th century patterns and forms. In their restoration of the church after 1696, the Franciscans, once again, concentrated on the syncretization of the visible, the cult of the saints, in an effort to win over the inner person to Catholicism. As a result, two religious practices, Catholicism and the kiva, existed side-by-side, united in the natural realm, separated in the mystical and supernatural.