Viviana Díaz Balsera
University of Miami
The Historia Eclesiástica Indiana was completed in 1596 by Jerónimo de Mendieta. It was originally commissioned by the general of the Franciscan Order, Christopher de Cheffontaines as a chronicle that should narrate the great missionary deeds of the Friars Minor in Mexico. However, as Mendieta sat to write, his chronicle became ever more encompassing geographically and temporally. The text ended up comprising five books. The first one, which was the last to be written, narrates the discovery, conquest and decimation of the natives of the island of La Hispaniola. The second book is a relation of the pre-Hispanic past of the Mexicas. The third book narrates the emergence of the Indian Church in Mexico through the agency of the Franciscans and the following one the fall of this Church perpetrated by all other sectors of the Spanish colonizers. The fifth book is like an appendix, made up of short hagiographic notes about salient Franciscan missionaries in the lands of Anahuac. As a consequence of a 1577 policy of the Spanish Crown and like so many other important historical and ethnographic works about the New World in the sixteenth-century, Mendieta’s Historia Eclesiástica Indiana would not published until after the demise of Spanish domination in America.
A disciple of Motolinía, Jerónimo de Mendieta writes his HEI from an eroded millenarian perspective. Although there is an ongoing debate about the actual impact of millenarian discourses among the first Twelve Franciscans who arrived in Mexico in 1524, a quick reference to the controversial religious thinker Joachim di Fiore (1145?-1202) will enhance our understanding of the Twelve’s legendary eschatological zeal. Fiore divided history in three states or eras, each presided by one of the three persons of the Trinity. God the father was the predominant agent in history from the expulsion from Eden until the birth of Christ. The second state ran from the birth of Christ until a very near expected future. The third and last state was to be the consummation of history. It would be an era of freedom, of love, of childlike simplicity, where the Holy Spirit would confer a plenitudo intellectis with which humankind would be able to see truth without mediations. John Phelan and others have proposed that Mendieta was the last of the Franciscan millenarians. They believe that the friar envisioned the discovery and colonization of the Spanish Indies as events that would speed up the end of times since they would be a turning point in the eventual triumph of a much more spiritual Catholic Church on Earth. And indeed, in the first chapter of the First Book of the HEI, Mendieta hypothesizes that Franciscan friar Juan Pérez de Marchena had urged Columbus to pursue his discovery enterprise not so much because of Marchena’s cosmographic knowledge, but because of a direct revelation he had received from God (Mendieta 15). Similarly, in the first chapter of the Third Book, Hernán Cortés is depicted as having been divinely appointed to open the way for the conversion of countless souls that would compensate the Catholic Church’s losses perpetrated by Luther (Mendieta 174-75). Mendieta points out that there was a sign of providence in the fact that both Luther and Cortés were born in the same year and that Cortés had started to spread the Gospel in new, faraway lands also in the very same year that Luther had started to corrupt it in the old Christian world.
However, as soon as Mendieta’s actual narrative of the emergence of this new providential Indian Church begins to unfold, the forces of history start displacing his millenarian framework. And so it is that Mendieta wittingly or unwittingly undermines the eschatological meaning that his teacher Motolinía had ascribed to the massive reception of baptism among the Indians when he points out that once the tlatoque or rulers had received baptism, all of their subjects followed suit “without any contradiction” (Mendieta 257). This clarification is significant, because it is a tacit acknowledgment that the friars actively engaged pre-Hispanic social and political structures in the production of a Nahua Christian subjectivity, particularly those pertaining the organization of the upper classes.
But as is well documented and could not have passed unnoticed by Mendieta as late as the end of the sixteenth century, the privileged position of the tlatoque was reinforced by certain ceremonial practices that reinvigorated them with magical, sacred force and by a specialized education. Transmitted in utmost secret in the calmecac, this special knowledge was thought to be essential in conferring stability, order and duration to the universe. Due to their semi-divine status as mediators between the gods and men, only in very rare cases would the authority of the tlatoque be challenged by the people. Thus, when Mendieta states that in the early bright years of the missionary endeavor once the evangelical law had been accepted by the cabezas or rulers and noblemen, all their subjects would marvelously and invariably also become Christians, the unquestionable, collective obedience he is presupposing is, at best, a hybrid. It could have been based as much on a pre-Hispanic socio-political, magico-religious conception of the power of the rulers alien to Christianity as on the divine intervention trying to bring about the closure of history with the preaching of the Word in all corners of the world.
Because the Franciscans were being so successful in baptizing the Indians, the Dominicans and Augustinians, who arrived in 1526 and 1532 respectively, started to complain about the metonymical strategy of the Friars Minor in imparting the sacrament. This was the famous controversy over baptism by aspersion. The strategy in question consisted in applying oil and crimson to a small number of Indians in the name of all the community. What is significant to our discussion is the fact that Mendieta depicts the objection of the other mendicant orders as inspired by the Devil (267). Ironically, according to Mendieta’s narrative, it was the very missionaries who had come to free the lands of Anahuac from the grip of Satan, who had become his prey when opposing the divinely-inspired agency of the Minorites. The rifts among the mendicant orders as well as their struggle for power and prestige will be one of the forces of history deflecting the triumph of the Church. And the HEI will not only document this very worldly power struggle, but it will also embody it in its unqualified and biased defense of the deeds of the Franciscan missionaries, above and beyond all others.
But the breakdown of the providential-millenarian signification will reach its critical point in the HEI with the construction of the deep wound inflicted on European Christian subjectivity by the infamous abuse perpetrated on the new Christians of the New World. The last twelve chapters of Book Four are a lamentation for the plunder and tyrannical oppression brought about by the Spaniards to the New World. All the conflicts, factions and divisions among the colonizers that ravaged New Spain during the sixteenth century are invoked in one way or another in these chapters. Tragically, scandalously, mostly all sectors of Spanish colonial society will be portrayed as serious if not insurmountable impediments for the growth and conservation of the new, Indian Church. But the “mayor y más dañosa pestilencia” (HEI 519), the most devastating plague in the lands of Anáhuac will be depicted as having been brought about by an abominable institution implemented by the Spanish monarchs: the repartimiento. The repartimiento was a temporary, forced labor mechanism that facilitated Spaniards a small percentage of the male Indian population for tasks with a demonstrated need for manpower. Slightly different from the encomienda, the Indian workers in theory had to be remunerated for their services, food and transportation. Through Mendieta’s indictment of the repartimiento the historian bitingly exposes a debased Spanish Crown, torn between its spiritual, ecumenical task to win the great masses of Indians for the Catholic Church, and its temporal imperial imperatives to expand, dominate and endure.
The Historia Eclesiástica Indiana comes to a close giving a sense that the Christian God had again become a deus absconditus in the lands of Anahuac, much like in pre-Hispanic times. The scourge of Spanish greed had trashed so deeply the lands formerly ruled by the Devil, that no man, including the King of Spain was powerful enough to eradicate it. Finding no possible human agency capable of delivering the colonial edifice from the clutches of evil, no longer able to discern the signs of divine will, agency and intervention, the historian of one hundred years of colonial depravation resorts to one last option. Invoking an economy of utter defilement, Mendieta implores Providence to manifest itself again. Because the new Indian Church had been ruined by the evil of Spain, the failure of the colonial history in the New World and the wretchedness it had brought upon humankind could only give unceasing hope that God would finally be moved to compassion for His debased children, and show Himself once more to make them clean.
The Historia Eclesiástica Indiana has always been a marginalized text. Unpublished until after Mexican Independence, it seldom appears in our colonial course lists, nor has much been written about it. And yet, along the lines of Bartolomé de las Casas, the HEI offers a significant articulation of the profound moral crisis that was perceived to loom over the Spanish colonial expansion by many of those who had prominent roles in it. The repudiation of such expansion in the HEI by the spiritual conquistador Mendieta shows that while the dichotomies of colonizer/colonized, domination/resistance, self/other cannot be dismissed from the analysis of the Spanish colonial experience, they are insufficient to account for its specificities, contradictions and multiplicities. Such a repudiation offers evidence of what many postcolonial critics have been arguing during the last decade about the questionable prefix “post” and the suspect hyphen: namely, that the colonial contact in many occasions engenders a discourse of oppositionality both from the colonizer and the colonized that does not materialize after the fact of colonialism, but is contemporary to it. By the same token, the possibility of the coexistence between the colonial and its contestation also suggests that few postcolonial, postindependence spatio-temporalities are ever totally free from, and fully after, the colonial. And so it is that the complex position of the lamenting colonizer exemplified by the HEI should be taken into account as a significant presence in the early modern Spanish discourses of colonization not only to understand the latter more appropriately, but also because it may somehow mirror our own.
 The following discussion of the Historia Eclesiástica Indiana is a summary of the fourth part of my book in progress Franciscan Discourses of Evangelization and the Emergence of the Nahua Christian Subject in Sixteenth-Century Mexico.
 My page numbers are taken from the 1993 edition of the HEI by the Editorial Porrúa in Mexico.
 This is not entirely the case since Luther was born in 1483, two years earlier than Cortés. Also, Luther posted his audacious, schismatic 95 theses at the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517 whereas Cortés could have only started to preach the Word of Christ in the Mexican highlands in 1519.
 Montezuma is a clear case in point. His authority remained unchallenged even as a prisoner of the Spaniards, until the scandalous massacre of young pipiltin during the calendric feast of the Toxcatl ordered by Pedro de Alvarado, when Cortés was off to the coast to capture Pánfilo de Narváez.