Jesuit missionaries have a storied history in Mexico’s Copper Canyon. From the 16th century to the present, their influence has shaped the culture of the native Tarahumara who call the rugged mountains their home.
“Jesuit” is the name given to members of the Society of Jesus,
a Catholic order founded in 1534 by St. Ignatius of Loyola. Their desire
to serve God and the Pope through education and missionary work brought
them to New Spain, now Mexico, in 1572.
Father Juan Fonte established the first mission pueblo among the Tarahumara
in 1611 and implemented the Jesuit policy of reducción,
or reduction, designed to Christianize and “civilize” native
peoples by bringing them into concentrated communities. Formerly, the
Tarahumara lived in isolated homesteads dispersed throughout the wild
mountains and canyons.
The Jesuits introduced the Tarahumara to irrigation, the plow, the axe,
new crops and domesticated animals—advancements that radically
altered their subsistence farming lifestyle.
As with most stories of colonization, while the missionaries brought
many welcome advancements to the natives, their contributions were not
always beneficial. In their minds they were doing the Lord’s work, “saving” the “wretched
Indian souls,” and many times this took on a violent hue as they
enlisted the assistance of the military to force the Tarahumara into
salvation. Beyond this, however, the most damaging elements to the Tarahumara
were not the Jesuits themselves, but the settlers who followed them.
The discovery of valuable mineral resources in the Copper Canyon area
prompted an influx of Spanish settlers looking to dig their fortunes
from land inhabited by the Tarahumara. The mines needed people to work
them, and the newly concentrated Tarahumara provided an easily organized
workforce that verged on slavery. The Jesuits were often the only obstacles
to their total exploitation. In addition, the Spanish brought with them
European diseases that caught the native population unguarded.
The Spanish encroachment, by missionaries and settlers alike, led many
Tarahumara to abandon the pueblos and move into increasingly rugged country,
making it difficult for the Spanish to exercise control over them. Epidemic
diseases swept through the pueblos and decimated the population. This
and the treatment they received in the mines led to uprisings that resulted
in the deaths of many priests and soldiers, and brutal military responses
that killed thousands of Tarahumara. In the end the Tarahumara abandoned
violent action for the isolationism that defines their culture today.
The Jesuits continued their work until 1767, when King Charles III of
Spain expelled the order from all Spanish territories. Monks from the
Franciscan order took their place, but their work lacked the intensity
of the Jesuits’. The Jesuits returned in 1900, and set about reopening
missions and establishing schools, orphanages, hospitals and clinics.
One of the most influential Jesuit priests during modern times was Father
Luis G. Verplancken, who worked for over 50 years to help the Tarahumara
community. In 1965 he established a clinic in the town of Creel, where
he faced a staggering infant mortality rate of 75%. It provided the
only hospital services for miles, and to this day Tarahumara walk for
days to Creel to seek medical attention. Father Verplancken organized
Tarahumara craft-making to raise money for the clinic, drilled wells,
built schools and brought fresh water and electricity to Creel. The Tarahumara
lost a tireless friend and ally when Father Verplancken died in 2004.
The Jesuit missionaries who came to this area of Mexico brought with
them both welcome and unwelcome elements of the "Old" World.
The relationship between the priests and the Tarahumara helped shape
the rich tapestry of Mexico. They had an indelible impact on Tarahumara
culture that visitors to the Copper Canyon can witness to this day.
Click Here for information on our Copper Canyon Tours.