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San Diego de Pamatácuaro: A Mountain Shrine in Colonial Mexico

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This chapter examines the apparent contradiction surrounding a shrine in a small mountain town in western Mexico after Spanish contact. The residents of a wholly and monolingually indigenous town, Pamatácuaro, erected a shrine to their town’s patron saint, San Diego. The shrine was at least in part a propitiation for succor in the face of epidemic disease and colonial predation. Yet it had no formal approval from the diocese and the town never had a resident priest. The shrine, then, took on a life of its own—a place where indigenous people claiming Catholicism as their official religion sought the favor of a Catholic saint even as the lived religion of the region was a synthesis of Spanish Catholicism and Purépecha animism. As such the shrine occupied an intermediate space in a network of cultural, political and spiritual exchange and transit.

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  1. 1.

    Especially helpful was his work Beach Crossings: Voyaging across Times, Cultures and Self (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), in which he argues for a sort of excavation of memory, both collective and personal.

  2. 2.

    I do not suggest that all “popular” religion must be dichotomously opposed to “official” religion. Rather, in this specific case, formal Catholicism simply did not exist in the town. It was literally a town abandoned by the structural, official Catholicism of the Roman Church even if its inhabitants claimed to be Catholic.

  3. 3.

    I have reconstructed the geography from various sources. Inquisition cases from the region often tell of routes and journeys, as in the investigation discussed below, concerning the imposters: AGN, Inq., vol. 252, exp. s/n, fs. 211–72. Land grants and disputes also offer extensive detail of the region. See, among others, AGN, Tierras, vol. 79, exp. 9, vol. 83, exp. 2, vol. 2681, exp. 10, vol. 2721, vol. 2723, exp. 20, vol. 3669, exp. 5. For foundation of sugar mills (trapiches), see AGN, Tierras, vol. 2717, exps. 21, vol. 2739, exp. 2. Secondary sources particularly useful have been Vicente González Méndez and Héctor Ortiz Ybarra, Los Reyes, Tingüindín, Tancítaro, Tocumbo y Peribán (Morelia: Gobierno del Estado de Michoacán, 1980) and Rodrigo Martínez Baracs, Caminos cruzados: Fray Maturino Gilberti en Perivan (Zamora: El Colegio de Michoacán; INAH, 2005).

  4. 4.

    Population decline can be quantified from sources such as the “Suma de visitas,” in Papeles de Nueva España (PNE) ed. Francisco Paso y Troncoso (Madrid: Tip. Sucesores de Rivadeneyra, 1905) and the Relaciones geográficas, though the descriptive agony is often missing. The study of epidemic disease and its consequences in Mexico is a virtual historiographic cottage industry. The specific disease of the 1576-7 plague is not clear though most believe it was smallpox or typhus; others think it was an American disease. In either case the cocolitztli, of both 1545 and 1576, was a kind of viral hemorrhagic fever and caused terrible mortality.

  5. 5.

    This is a composite description derived from a reading of several congregación accounts of the region. The original congregación report for the region does not appear extant, though there are portions of the report in AGN, Congregaciones (there is only one volume in this archive section). In 1599 the congregación of Tingambato, AGN, Tierras, vol. 64, exp. 3; in 1599 of Huaniqueo AGN, Tierras, vol. 2777, exp. 11. A reading of the 1598 congregación of Zapotlan/Tuxpan (in present-day Jalisco), AGN, Tierras, vol. 59, exp. 5, and the 1604 congregación of Pungarabato, deep in the tierra caliente, AGN, Inq., vol. 2926, exp. 7, were both instructive and heart-breaking for the misery described. Likewise, descriptions of congregaciones in the secondary literature are helpful, especially Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán, Problemas de la población indígena de la Cuenca de Tepalcatepec, Memorias del Instituto Nacional Indigenista, vol. III (Mexico: Instituto Nacional Indigenista, 1952); Hilda J. Aguirre Beltrán, La congregación de Tlacotepec, 1604-1606: Pueblo de indios de Tepeaca, Puebla (Mexico: SEP Cultura, 1984); Howard F. Cline, “Civil Congregations of the Indians of New Spain, 1598-1606,” Hispanic American Historical Review 26 (1949): 349–69; Peter Gerhard, “Congregaciones de indios en la Nueva España antes de 1570,” Historia Mexicana 26 (1977): 347–95; Leslie Byrd Simpson, “Studies in the Administration of the Indians in New Spain: The Civil Congregations,” Ibero-Americana 7 (1934).

  6. 6.

    It only appears in the archival record, as far as I can tell, in the inquisitional investigation of 1598 by the friar Diego Muñoz, AGN, Inq., vol. 252, exp. s/n, fs. 197–274.

  7. 7.

    Aguirre Beltrán, Cuenca, 12.

  8. 8.

    There is some discrepancy in the precise dates offered by Rea, 58. For the 1556 time in Tzintzuntzan, see Warren, “Introducción,” Vocabulario, 17.

  9. 9.

    Muñoz, 32–33.

  10. 10.

    AGN, Inq., vol. 270, exp. s/n, f. 128.

  11. 11.

    León Alanís, 309.

  12. 12.

    A good general history of the region is that by González Méndez and Ortiz Ybarra mentioned above. A fascinating discussion of the case surrounding the controversy over the Indians’ tribute requirements to the encomendero in nearby Peribán is found in Rodrigo Martínez Baracs, Caminos cruzados: Fray Maturino Gilberti en Perivan (Zamora, 2005).

  13. 13.

    Gerhard, Historical Geography of New Spain, 250–52, González Méndez and Ortiz Ybarra, Los Reyes, Tingüindín, Tancítaro, Tocumbo y Peribán, 112–14.

  14. 14.

    In some ways this cannot be proven though in none of the available descriptions of doctrina placement and assignment of priests does a resident priest appear in Pamatácuaro . Missionary chroniclers offer detailed accounts of where doctrinas were established in Michoacán, along with founding dates and the missionaries associated with their foundation and oversight. See Alonso de la Rea, Chrónica de la Orden de N. seráphico P.S. Francisco, prouincia de S. Pedro. y S. Pablo de Mechoacán en la Nueua España (Mexico: Por la viuda de Bernardo Calderón, 1643) and Diego Muñoz, Descripción de la provincia de San Pedro y San Pablo de Michoacán, en las Indias de la Nueva España, intro. José Ramírez Flores (Guadalajara: Instituto Jalisciense de Antropología e Historia, 1965 [c. 1585]). There is good information on diocesan geography in José Bravo Ugarte, Diócesis y obispos de la iglesia mexicana (1519–1965) (Mexico: Editorial Jus, 1965) and the contemporaneous summary: El Obispado de Michoacán en el siglo XVII; informe inédito de beneficios, pueblos y lenguas, nota preliminar de Ramón López Lara (Morelia: Fímax Publicistas, 1973). When Ramírez de Prado became bishop he noted in 1642 that most indigenous towns had no resident priest and that in many cases rural clergy only spoke Spanish. See Marcos Ramírez del Prado, Ordenanças para los Curas, Beneficiados, y Vacarios de toda su Dioecesi (Mexico: n.p., 1657 [1642]). Secondary scholarship is likewise silent on the matter. See, for example, Peter Gerhard, A Guide to the Historical Geography of New Spain, 1519–1821, revised ed. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993); Martínez Baracs, Caminos cruzados.

  15. 15.

    Rea, Chrónica, 69.

  16. 16.

    Aguirre Beltrán, Cuenca, 79–80.

  17. 17.

    Aguirre Beltrán, Cuenca, 80.

  18. 18.

    Discussions are found in Aguirre Beltrán, La congregación de Tlacotepec; Cline, “Civil Congregations;” Gerhard, “Congregaciones;” Simpson, “Civil Congregations.”

  19. 19.

    As was case with Cuparataro and Santa Catarina near Capula: AGN, Tierras vol. 2695, exp. 2.

  20. 20.

    AGN, Congregaciones, vol. 1, exp. s/n, f. 5v.

  21. 21.

    AGN, Congregaciones, vol. 1, exp. s/n, f. 10r.

  22. 22.

    In Huaniqueo in 1599: AGN, Tierras, vol. 2777, exp. 11; sometime prior to 1601 in Pénjamo: AGN, Tierras, vol. 2787, exp. 1.

  23. 23.

    AGN, Congregaciones, vol. 1, exp. 23, fs. 13–16.

  24. 24.

    Accoring to the account in Aguirre Beltrán, Cuenca, 84: “arrasó las milpas.” Similar stories are reported in AGN, Congregaciones, vol. 1, exp. s/n, f. 16v.

  25. 25.

    Aguirre Beltrán, Cuenca, 84.

  26. 26.

    AGN, Inq., vol. 270, exp. s/n, f. 128.

  27. 27.

    AGN, Inq., vol. 252, exp. s/n, fs. 197–200.

  28. 28.

    AGN, Inq., vol. 281, fs. 468-75.

  29. 29.

    AGN, Inq., vol. 471, exp. 3, f. 4.

  30. 30.

    AGN, Inq., vol. 122, exp. 4.

  31. 31.

    Elaborated at length in Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán, Regiones de refugio: El desarrollo de la comunidad y el proceso dominical en mestizo América (Mexico: Instituto Nacional Indigenista, 1967).

  32. 32.

    Aguirre Beltrán, Cuenca, 67, 81-82.

  33. 33.

    For a good overview, see Martínez Baracs, Caminos cruzados. Gilberti’s own words are offered in grand fashion in a memoria he penned criticizing bishop Quiroga, in AGN, Inq., vol. 43, exp. 6, fs. 202–3.

  34. 34.

    AGN, Inq., vol. 252, exp. s/n, fs. 197–274.

  35. 35.

    AGN, Inq., vol. 252, exp. s/n, f. 198.

  36. 36.

    AGN, Inq., vol. 252, exp. s/n, f. 199: “poca capaçidad y corto talento de los naturales y ternura en la fe.”

  37. 37.

    AGN, Inq., vol. 252, exp. s/n, f. 198: “tiene speriençia en esta prouinçia de Mechoacán de que a muchos años que algún ministro del demonio ynuentó unos librillos de mano que los yndios llaman Mahoma, que contienen (no la falsa secta deste falso y abominable propheta) sino algunos carácteres, e ynuocaçiones al demonio mezcladas, con palabras sanctas, y, no se sabe el origen, mas de auer cundido, por toda la prouinçia.”



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Correspondence to Martin Austin Nesvig .

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Nesvig, M.A. (2020). San Diego de Pamatácuaro: A Mountain Shrine in Colonial Mexico. In: Ocker, C., Elm, S. (eds) Material Christianity. Sophia Studies in Cross-cultural Philosophy of Traditions and Cultures, vol 32. Springer, Cham.

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