Ron AUSTIN, Peregrino: A Pilgrim Journey into Catholic Mexico. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010. Pp 219. $19.99 pb ISBN 978-0-8028-6584-7.
Reviewed by Anneris GORIS, La Esperanza Center, 502 West 165 Street, New York, NY 10032

Peregrino is about purposely wandering, spiritually and physically, into the Catholic world of Mexico. The peregrino experience offers and even force a paradigm shift, an exploration of a new relation with Christ, "which transcends … cultures and circumstances” (p. viii). This perspective includes a different sense of time, identity, and belief. According to Austin, the Mexican sense of time predates the the Spanish Conquest (p. xi); identity emerges from being the first new race in the New World (p. xi); and this identity reflects a sense of concrete relationships (p. xi); connecting the concepts of ritual, beauty, and memory in manner unfamiliar to most Americans. Austin posits that the “journey to Mexico with open eyes and hearts can provide a rich opportunity to better understand … [their] beliefs and [Catholic] teachings” (p. xi). The book offers a unique opportunity to view important commonalities between the “religious concepts of the Indians … [and] those of Europeans” (p. 5). In a few pages, he astutely traces the similarities of the religious practices of indigenous people of Mexico and that of other early groups in different parts of the world. He contends that such a journey is only possible by “prob[ing] what the indigenous and the Catholic … shared in common for that was the ground on which Catholic Mexico was built” (pp. 3 and 4).

What becomes obvious through Austin’s skillfully crafted historical exploration is that what the conquistadores often perceived as strange, actually comprised the beginnings of native Christianity in Mexico. There was in the early Mesoamerican civilizations the belief in a “singular creator God;... they had household gods in every home; and their religious ceremonies … suggest at least the seeds of Christianity” (p. 4); something which Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, the nation’s first theologian (p. 77), affirmed in the play The Lord of the Seeds (p. 68). Provisions existed for important life rituals or ceremonies (p. 4). The celestial battle was balanced by appeasing the gods through the offerings of human sacrifices (p. 5). They saw the underworld as both the place of human origin and final destination (p. 5). For them, creation emerged from chaos, and catastrophes would end in destruction (p. 5). Elaborated rituals included preparation of food and items for the death, and the use of animals to guide spirits (p. 6). Parallels were noted between the Spanish Inquisition (auto-da-fe) and human sacrifices of the Aztecs (p. 24). Aztecs believed in a central god, Quetzalcoatl, who vowed to return (p. 6). Nahua nobles and children ate figures of their gods called Ixptlas (p. 48).

Austin’s masterful monumental and informative chronology about Spain at the time of the Conquest provides a good background for understanding the conquest of Nueva España (Mexico). As to the the alleged cruelties committed by the Conquistadores according to bishop Bartolome de las Casas, Austin states that they were not completely accurate; De las Casa “exaggerated the number of death at the hands of Spain; and depicted [natives] as innocent, humble, and, …as peaceable” (p. 37). He also ignored how many friars and other bishops protested the exploitation of indigenous people during the Conquest and his misrepresentations led to the myth of the Leyenda Negra (p. 37). The legends were used by Spain’s rivals, English, and Dutch, to depict Spain as a cruel monster, and the Indians as helplessly innocent (p. 38). Austin contends that these myths are the basis for the biases towards Mexicans by Anglo-Americans who have used them to argue that they were incapable of self-government, to promote bigotry and racism, and assure that Spain continued to be seen as the “ruthless foe” (pp. 38 and 39).

The reaction to the imposition of Spanish culture by the indigenous peoples of Mexico is described as “more a process of adaptation than resistance or rejection (p. 51). Citing Lockhart’s work, Austin concludes that: “The indigenous priests instead of casting doubt on the new doctrines insisted on retaining the core of their own traditions, while the friars, rather than employing persuasive arts, immediately undertook detailed instruction about the basic Christianity (p. 51), missionaries perceived “special affinities” with the Nahuas (p. 53) and early friars molded more than changed previous beliefs (p. 53). Austin explains that “Rather than being frozen in time or paralyzed by fear, the indigenous peoples were resourceful in merging their own institutions and beliefs with those of the Spaniards (p. 51). He explains that there were internal fights among Spanish and indigenous groups (p. 52), but claims that both groups were imperialists (p. 52). The acceptance of “new gods” was a natural and thoroughly traditional development (p. 53) emerging from the process of conquest. The indigenous religion was "ritualistic, propitiatory and corporate as was the Catholicism of the Castilians” (p. 53).

The Jesuits made important contributions to the development of Catholicism in the New World by introducing Spanish devotions emphasizing images, relics, and miracles (p. 70); they established numerous colleges for the formation of new elites (p. 70); they embraced notions of liberty and justice (p. 71); rescued religious art (p. 72); many died torturous deaths in remote places in the Americas (p. 72); and finally were expelled from New Spain (p. 71). Like the Jesuits, the author rediscovers Sor Juana de la Cruz’s Spanish verse, poetry, play, and her “theology of beauty” (as a face of God) as important elements in Mexican Catholic culture (p. 83 and p. 89) and as fundamental to Christian doctrine and mysticism (p. 90). Padre Hidalgo and Jose Maria Morelos were revolutionary priests who were captured and executed during the battles for Mexican independence in the 1800’s (p. 94).

The famous Nineteenth Century revolt [grito] “Viva Mexico! Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe,” is attributed to Padre Hidalgo (p. 95). The San Francisco battalion consisted of Irish Catholic soldiers who went over to the Mexican side against Americans (p. 100). The “colonial period in Mexico that ended in violent revolution in many ways mirrored European events, including a prolonged war against the Church (p. 109); banning female religious orders, forbidding processions, seizing Church’s property (p. 112), and severing relations with Rome (p. 112). Austin concludes that “The liberal reforms aimed not just at the clergy but ultimately at the Catholic faith itself actually liberated the Church from its entanglement with the privileges and corruption of the social status quo” (p. 113).

Austin concludes his fascinating account of the development of Catholicism in Mexico by describing major religious sites; a gift for vacationing in the history of the Catholic Church. The sites represent a peregrinaje [a journey] into Catholic Mexico and for that manner, humanity. I truly enjoyed reading this new and informative view of the Conquista. I agreed with Austin that there is a need for a journey into building bridges, not walls, between Americans and Mexicans (p. 182).

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