Saturday, July 11, 2009

Mission accomplished: Santa Cruz

Last weekend, the Jesuits and I ventured on a pilgrimage to Santa Cruz to see the Jesuit Missions built in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The post-Enlightenment missions were designed based upon Thomas Moore´s Utopia with the purpose of creating a utopic communal living space to teach the local Chiquitanias about God. Rather than forcing the people to change their customs and convert to Catholicism as the Franciscans had done, the Jesuits first opened schools where they taught baroque music and handicrafts. While the people learned to play music and compose, the Jesuits began instructing about God.

Unlike those living in the Altiplano, the Chiquitania people had no prior sense of a god. They believed every object had a spirit; they would ask the jaguar permission before going hunting, and trees permission before chopping them down. Four enemy tribes inhabited the region each speaking different tongues and celebrating different cultural traditions. Combating a long history of inter-tribal wars, the Jesuits sought to create peace between the tribes by having each tribe share long houses with members of other tribes. As evidence of their respect for the existing culture of the people, the Jesuits gave the tribal leaders places of honor in the long houses, and the only seats in the church.

The Jesuits based their teaching upon the principles of the Bible they thought would best be understood by the Chiquitanias. They allowed the people to keep their own traditions and provided housing and food for all who chose to live in the mission. The music and art taught was meant to show the people an aspect of God. The idea was that when truly beautiful music and art is created, God is present. To further illustrate the glory of God as good, the Jesuits created the main sanctuary as a place of only positive biblical art. The 12 stations of the cross, for example, were replaced by 12 happy and plump cherubs. The Chiquitanias had a sense of good and bad, evil and glorious, so the main sanctuary only represented the glorious, and the funerary chapel housed the more sacrificial representations of Jesus.

The Jesuits were a victim of their own success. After nearly 200 years of running the missions, the woodcrafts, bread, and music produced in the missions had become so famous and profitable that the Spanish Crown decided to expel the Jesuits from the missions and send Franciscans in their place. The Chiquitanias were ¨freed¨in the process, sent back into the wild with little more than the clothes on their backs.

Some missions have changed significantly since the expulsion of the Jesuits. We visited San Javier first, the most historically accurate, and then Concepcion, which was completely altered in the 1970s under the Franciscans. I actually liked the way Concepcion was redone because the stations of the cross and all of the biblical carvings represent the bible in terms of Bolivian history. To show the suffering of Jesus in the stations of the cross, a Bolivian Dictator plays the role of Pontius Pilot condemning Jesus and indigenously dressed women crying signify the women who weapt for Jesus.

Santa Cruz has a semi-tropical climate. One of my favorite parts of my stay was a hike I took with some of the Jesuits up to a place called ¨the Rock,¨a large granite rock-face in the middle of the forest. On our way to the Rock, we saw a rattle snake, bats, many colorful butterflies, and huge and brilliantly colored poisonous spiders. It was an aracnophobiacs nightmare!

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