A resurgent voice is being heard in Latin America. The 40 million indigenous peoples are no longer content to live on the margins of society. In a series of three articles in July 2004, the New York Times gave unusual attention to Indian political movements in Bolivia, (1) which are but a few of the many Indian activist movements in Latin America. Indeed, Indian political movements are the newest and strongest new political movements in the region.
After more than 500 years of marginalization, how did the situation change? A major reason is that religious groups contributed strongly to the rise of indigenous movements. Here many secular news sources falter, in part because they consistently overlook religion as a source of political activism. Or worse, having discovered that religion and politics are mutually related, reporters may simply identify one or two religious leaders and portray them as the plotters behind the activism.
The connections between religion and politics have become extraordinarily relevant in world and national politics, and for good or ill, religion and politics can no longer be kept off the front page. Since both religion and politics are highly normative phenomena, with both being concerned about what is "good" or "bad," it is not unusual that the two would be intertwined--or that the media would be unable to interpret well what is happening.
After five centuries of social exclusion, indigenous peoples became notably active in the 1970s. They demanded a fair share of educational and health services and recognition of their ancient rights to tribal lands so as to have sufficient land for their communities to farm. They opposed governmental policies of cultural assimilation, especially education only in Spanish. They fought for multicultural government policies, for preservation of their cultures and languages, and against ethnic discrimination in public life.
They gained political experience in municipal and provincial elections and elected deputies or senators to promote what they perceived as indigenous rights. The indigenous movements gained international prominence especially in 1992 through contesting celebration of the Fifth Centenary of Columbus's arrival in the Americas as an event of unqualified benefit for the region. The 1990s were also marked by national marches of indigenous protest in Ecuador and Bolivia and the Zapatista revolt in Chiapas, Mexico. At base, these were efforts to force national recognition of indigenous identity and to fight injustice and discrimination against indigenous persons and communities.
The following account is based on Resurgent Voices in Latin America: Indigenous Peoples, Political Mobilization, and Religious Change, a multiyear and multiauthor research study published by Rutgers University Press in 2004. (2) This article offers pastoral and missiological reflections on the study. Missionaries have been crucial to the indigenous resurgence. We first consider the work of Catholic missionaries to this largely Catholic region. Then we examine the increased presence of Protestant missionaries. Third, we look at contemporary issues toward which indigenous activism has been directed.
Modern Missionary Crusade to Latin America
After World War II Catholic seminaries and convents in the United States, Canada, and Europe were filled to overflowing with priests, brothers, and sisters. The Vatican issued a challenge for 10 percent of these resources to be sent to Latin America. The target was almost reached, as country after country stocked up with foreign missionaries from the West. More than half of the priests in many Latin American countries were foreign. These priests flowed into city and country parishes, generally arriving with much greater resources than those enjoyed by their national colleagues. Similarly, Protestant missionaries fanned out to cities and rural areas. Many Indians experienced this encounter with foreign missionaries of the twentieth century as a cultural shock, similar to that of the first century and a half of interaction with Spanish and Portuguese missionaries.
When missionaries from the North Atlantic countries began creating parishes and missions in Latin America, they were initially appalled at the heterodoxy apparent in the indigenous practice of Christianity (which had come about, in part, because of the long-standing lack of clergy and religious schools). Against the practices and beliefs of traditional indigenous religion, missionaries stressed orthodox Catholicism. Bishops, priests, and catechists began taking harder stands against traditional practices that seemed to them to have little to do with essential Christianity. Dioceses began forbidding the celebration of Catholic masses as part of certain traditional celebrations. Some missionaries viewed traditional practices as contrary to a modern understanding of Scripture. A few even went so far as to portray traditional practices as furthering mestizo political and economic control and the subordination of Indian peasants.
From Vatican II to Liberation Theology
An understanding of the critical religious changes that swept Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s is necessary in order to grasp the complex relationship that subsequently evolved between Christianity and the indigenous peoples. Changes within the institutional Catholic Church and the birth of liberation theology reshaped the Latin American religious and political landscape. Under the influence of missionaries and of internal reform initiated by Latin American bishops, the Catholic Church became renewed in a number of sectors. Millions of laypersons became active in the church and its social justice mission. Thousands of prayer and neighborhood improvement groups kept parishes busy. Seminary walls could not contain the number of students studying for the priesthood, whose numbers increased by 388 percent from 1972 to 2001, including a number of priests from indigenous backgrounds.
These events were spurred and supported by major changes within the institutional Catholic Church. The general thrust of Vatican Council II (1962-65) included two key factors that would affect Latin America: adaptation of a universal church to national and local cultures, and awareness of the presence of God in other religions (such as those of Latin America's indigenous). In 1968 the Medellin Conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM) reinforced these trends, emphasizing the "Latinamericanization" of the church. Changes in attitude toward the indigenous became inevitable. Inculturation--the process of discerning where God is at work in a culture and articulating a theology sensitive to the local context--became the aim of church leaders and theologians. To summarize, CELAM changed its policy toward the indigenous from indigenista to indigena, from paternalistic to collegial, in the 1970s and 1980s. (3) In its most specific form, guidelines for this indigenism included (1) defending the land, (2) learning the indigenous languages, (3) motivating self-determination, (4) equipping the community for contact with outsiders, (5) recovering cultural memory, (6) providing hope, and (7) stimulating alliances. (4)
Liberation theology also emerged in Latin America in the 1960s as a way of proposing that the church, as a people and an institution, exert an active role in society. This way of thinking contrasted to the previous role of the Latin American Catholic Church as an otherworldly, fiesta-bound institution. Liberation theology centered its concerns in a preferential option for the poor, weak, and vulnerable. Its theologians advocated social change, that is, action to promote justice, and emphasized communities with mixed lay and clerical leadership as the basis of action.
Liberation theology can claim an important contribution to present-day theologizing throughout the world, namely, its stress on method and on context. Both are salient here. Liberation theologians emphasize an inductive method: begin with a description of the world and the church within it, reflect on the situation from a biblical perspective, and act to bring the world and the church more in harmony with this biblical vision. Liberation theology also took the lead in what is today called contextual theology, a theology of utmost importance to many missiologists. (5) Contextual theology attempts to express Christian faith in distinct languages, thought patterns, and other cultural expressions.
The developers of liberation theology were Latin American religious thinkers, many of whom had been trained in Europe and the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. The main figures were Gustavo Gutierrez in Peru and Juan Luis Segundo in Uruguay, who were part of a core group of about a hundred theologians working together to formulate this new theology, especially in the 1970s. An Argentine Methodist, Jose Miguez Bonino, became the most prominent Protestant theologian in the group. Latin Americans quickly bonded with theologians from other regions of the world in the 1970s to form the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians. By and large, the missionaries working in Latin America were not the creators of liberation theology, although its main "consumers" were Catholic, and some Protestant, missionaries.
Just as liberation theology was becoming popular in Latin America, missionaries of all denominations came under severe criticism from academics and secular activists in the region. The first conference of the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, held in Barbados in 1971, served as a lightning rod, bringing the subject of religion and the indigenous peoples to the attention of the world. (6) Delegates to the conference charged that governments, international agencies, and missionaries were all participating in programs of ethnocide in Latin America. While the charges were leveled specifically about non-Andean Indians, by implication relations generally with missionaries, churches, and indigenous peoples were faulted. The Barbados conference repeated a position that some anthropologists had long held, namely, that missions were instruments of cultural imperialism. (7)
The Barbados conference not only served as a wake-up call for the churches but also helped to launch the international indigenous rights movement. (8) Anthropologists and indigenous activists at that meeting established themselves as catalysts for such a transnational movement. In part as a response to Barbados, religious institutions began playing a critical role in this process. In the last third of the twentieth century some religious bodies responded extensively to the perceived need to aid tribal leaders in organizing to pressure governments for full recognition of their rights and privileges as citizens. Throughout the 1970s the World Council of Churches flew Indian leaders to regional meetings dealing with these topics. Between 1970 and 1981 the Catholic bishops of Brazil sponsored fifteen meetings, bringing together hundreds of indigenous leaders from about two hundred groups. These international conferences, along with local assets provided through religious organizations, supplied the critical networks, resources, and ideological frameworks needed for the resurgence of Latin America's indigenous peoples.
Alison Brysk, in the best account so far of Indian movements as a transnational enterprise, found that liberation theology "played a critical role in establishing indigenous movements" and remains a fruitful concept. According to Brysk, "Concerned clergy were the most frequent (and periodically successful) interlocutors for Indian interests in Latin America." (9) In other words, liberation theology went beyond a merely academic setting to facilitate the empowerment of Latin American Indians. Spurred on by many of the tenets of liberation theology, thousands of missionaries have served the indigenous poor in Latin America through selfless service, even as they maintained their loyalties to their churches.
From Liberation to Indigenous Theology
A second link between liberation theology and indigenous mobilization relates to the theologians and missionaries themselves. In the 1980s and 1990s some theologians within the liberationist tradition who worked at indigenous think tanks began to rediscover the value of culture, which many missionaries and liberation theologians had previously ignored. These theologians entered into the long process of listening to the indigenous people and elaborating intellectually what they heard.
A number of missionaries in Bolivia, Peru, and elsewhere in Latin America also began to develop a theological perspective with a greater focus on the value of local culture. In this view, culture is crucial for description and explanation. Some early forms of liberation theology were seen as ignoring culture, emphasizing instead the strictly socioeconomic aspects of Latin America. Furthermore, culturalists believed that the liberationist perspective may have doomed many indigenous development projects because the projects were based on socioeconomic analysis that excluded cultural factors. Some members of this sector saw liberation theology as looking for a socialist world that never came. (10)
In the end, both liberationists and culturalists helped to foster the growth of indigenous theologians, who eventually brought about a fuller elaboration of teologia india. Indigenous theology became a major derivative of the liberationist movement. Some indigenous theologians also began to appear in print, not so much as liberationists, but as part of a small wave of theologians of inculturation. The Zapotec theologian Eleazar Lopez and others helped to make the Fourth Latin American Bishops Conference, in Santo Domingo in 1992, a new stage in the church's awareness of the indigenous people. Since then, Domingo Llanque in Peru, Enrique Jorda in Bolivia, a small group of indigenous theologians from the Catholic University, Cochabamba, Bolivia, and others have joined in the effort to create indigenous theology based on Andean, Mayan, Zapotec, or other indigenous cosmologies.
As religious changes were fundamentally altering the Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, evangelical Protestantism (11) began experiencing its first period of rapid growth in the region. Although Protestantism has a long history in Latin America, (12) early missionaries met with little success in their attempts to promote Protestant growth. The loss of China as a mission field around 1950 brought more missionaries into Latin America in the 1960s, and in some cases, local religious leaders broke from their mother churches and abandoned some of the cultural practices that had previously limited their success in gaining converts.
While most observers focused on the historic Protestant congregations with a longer history in the region, the real growth among evangelicals came from the Pentecostals. (13) Pentecostal churches stressed faith healing, charismatic acts, and a millennial message focused on the imminent coming of the "end times." These churches grew most rapidly among Latin America's indigenous groups, as local Pentecostal pastors worked with missionaries to translate the Bible into indigenous languages and to make their services more culturally relevant. Many other non-Catholic groups also had success evangelizing the indigenous, including Seventh-day Adventists, Mormons, and Jehovah's Witnesses.
The distribution of evangelical groups among Latin America's Indians varies widely between and within countries. In the Andes, some entire indigenous communities have become Adventist, while others have joined historic Protestant missions. Still others remain staunchly Catholic. In Central America and Mexico, it is commonly asserted that Pentecostalism is most prevalent among the indigenous, though hard numbers are rarely cited. In the countries considered in Resurgent Voices in Latin America, the percentage of indigenous evangelicals ranges from 10 to 25 percent of the population.
The impact of evangelical groups on indigenous societies has also been mixed. Protestant missionaries have been accused of fomenting local divisions, supporting repressive governments, and destroying indigenous culture, as were Catholic missions at various times. At the same time, Protestant mission organizations have played a critical role in promoting literacy, education, and other services that have translated into political resources among indigenous peoples. As is often the case, the interactions between religion and indigenous politics defy simple characterizations.
To summarize the relationship of indigenous political activism and missionaries, one should note that most of the impact of the missionaries came indirectly. Missionary groups supplied education and evangelization that had been denied Latin America's indigenous groups. In a word, missionaries emphasized the dignity of the person that derived from God's creation and redemption. Contrary to the world in which indigenous peoples lived, all persons and communities of persons had not only rights but a mandate to pursue these rights nonviolently. One should note further that the emergence of indigenous organizing took place during the so-called third wave of democratization, not in a revolutionary era. Samuel Huntington described this "third wave" as occurring mostly in Latin America, identifying religion as one of its principal causes. (14)
To show this indirect but powerful ideological influence, one might look first at the Bolivian and Peruvian altiplano, especially the area around Puno, Peru, near Lake Titicaca. Adventists, mostly from the United States, constructed and operated a series of schools for an almost exclusively Indian clientele. Fernando Stahl, a charismatic Adventist leader, was bent on convincing the indigenous people of the region that to empower themselves through education for professional and advanced roles in society, they must lead the communities toward greater health and education. Adventists are a peace-loving group, but Stahl and followers came to see that peace did not mean passivity, ignorance, or tolerating illness. Similarly, Maryknoll and other missionaries in El Quiche, Guatemala, and elsewhere educated large numbers of Indians for roles in society previously open only to mestizos.
Across from Puno in Bolivia, Indians built thousands of elementary schools after the 1952 revolution. Eventually, pushed by Indians, the Bolivian government furnished education to all its citizens at rates that surpassed those in Brazil. Missionaries supplied a vision that education for Indians would lead to a career and a life made better by literacy, basic education, and, for some, advanced education. Missionaries also supplied low-wattage radio stations as part of large networks of radio schools. Hundreds of these stations have operated for decades, and the effect on Indian empowerment is now evident. They contributed to political movements by valuing Indians as persons with distinct and valuable cultures.
Contemporary Indigenous Organizing
In the main, Latin American countries that have large indigenous populations have seen them become uncommonly active in national politics. The first contemporary target strongly challenged by indigenous groups was the five hundredth anniversary (1992) of the arrival of Columbus to Spanish America. As plans for celebrations were taking shape, Latin America's indigenous groups took the occasion to criticize national leaders for downplaying the harm done to Indian peoples by the conquest.
Much more than dealing with the past was involved. Indigenous groups made clear their demands for contemporary changes in the political and economic structures of their countries. They took aim at the state, making demands for schools and health care and for recognition of their rights, which existed before the state was created.
For the most part, the efforts of indigenous activists were ignored by various governments. This began to change in Mexico when the Zapatistas arose on January 1, 1994. These mostly indigenous activists chose the date on which the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect between Canada, the United States, and Mexico. As Subcomandante Marcos, one of the leaders, told 60 Minutes and many other international media sources, the Zapatista rebellion was aimed at helping indigenous peoples survive in a globalizing world.
Indigenous groups would no longer accept their customary subaltern status. In Guatemala too, and in Peru to a lesser extent, Indians were making demands for recognition of their rights in new ways. Mexican and Guatemalan Mayas, Ecuadoran Quechuas, Bolivian Aymaras, and other Indians in the Americas called for a new vision of autonomy in a world of globalization. (15) Factors for the indigenous resurgence included the growing integration of the world economy, shifts from industrial production to financial capital as the basis for accumulation of wealth, and diminishing resources devoted to subsistence production throughout the world.
In the midst of this social and economic dislocation, governmental and popular support shifted away from the modernization paradigm of assimilating indigenous into the national society. As state-funded projects aimed at indigenous incorporation gave way to policies of structural adjustment, decentralization, and privatization, indigenous groups were increasingly cut off from traditional modes of promoting their interests and from access to state funding.
Adopting elements of the so-called neoliberal discourse (i.e., one based on free-market capitalism with democracy), indigenous groups focused attention on their long-denied individual and civil rights. At the same time, the neoliberal emphasis on me decentralization of the state has led to a devolution of power to more local units, allowing indigenous groups to argue for greater indigenous local autonomy as well. Indigenous organizations are thus armed with a dual strategy for mobilization, calling their governments to task for the failure to guarantee individual rights, while demanding recognition and legal status for their group and ethnic identities.
The 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas also confirmed a shift away from the kind of national-popular revolution that dominated much of twentieth-century Latin American political ideology (as in the examples of Cuba and of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua). In Chiapas and elsewhere, Indians are mobilizing around their distinctively indigenous identity. As Charles Hale notes: "Indigenous peoples now increasingly advance their struggles through a discourse that links Indian identity with rights to territory, autonomy, and peoplehood--rights that run parallel to those of the nation-state itself." (16)
This struggle led to new constitutional provisions for Indian rights in Colombia and Bolivia. As Donna Van Cott has argued, Indian activism has led to constitutional reforms that espouse a more local, participatory, and culturally diverse society in Latin America. (17) Colombia and Bolivia have created multicultural constitutional frameworks that recognize customary law, collective property rights, and bilingual education. In other countries with strong indigenous movements important concessions that redefine the relationship between the state and Indian groups have also been won.
But the fight is far from over, as statutes mean little in practice without further political pressure. Furthermore, substantial legislation with enforcement policies has yet to be created in Mexico and Guatemala, the two countries with almost half the Indians of Latin America. Only a noteworthy start in what will certainly be a long and painful conflict has begun in these countries. In addition to the gains noted that have been made by the indigenous resurgence, some indigenous activism has gone in troublesome directions, threatening the stability of the state. "Indigenous political activists have a lot to learn about politics and political prudence," Juan Bottaso, a Salesian missionary who has had a major influence on Ecuadorian indigenous, observed to the author in private conversation.
In sum, Christian networks and institutions have played a key role in fostering the resurgence of indigenous voices after centuries of silence. Christianity forms a major component of indigenous life and culture, provides resources and motivations for public action, and serves as a transnational link to state and nonstate actors who can advocate for indigenous causes. Christian ideologies provide a groundwork for the framing of issues significant to the movement. Christian institutions enhance the acceptance of positions espoused by the movement, provide social legitimacy, and help ward off repression. Christianity also furnishes narratives for movements, providing a rationale for action and a foundation for collective identities and group solidarity.
(1.) New York Times, "Where the Incas Ruled, Indians Are Hoping for Power," July 17, 2004, p. 3; "Bolivians Support Gas Plan and Give President a Lift," July 19, 2004, p. A6; "Losing Energy and Investors," July 29, 2004, p. W1.
(2.) Edward L. Cleary and Timothy Steigenga, eds., Resurgent Voices in Latin America: Indigenous Peoples, Political Mobilization, and Religious Change (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 2004).
(3.) See especially Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano, De una pastoral indigenista a una pastoral indigena (Bogota: Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano, 1987), and Jose Alsina Franch, comp., Indianismo e indigenismo en America (Madrid: Alianza Editorial/Quinto Cententario, 1990). See also Bishop Julio Cabrera Ovalle, El Quiche, "Desafios de la pastoralindigena en Guatemala," and Bishop Gerard Flores Reyes, "Una experiencia concreta: La Verapaz," Misiones extranjeras 116 (March-April 1990): 122-29 and 152-56, and Giulio Girardi, El derecho indigena a la autodeterminacion politica y religiosa (Quito: Ediciones Abya-Yala, 1997), and his Los excluidos: Constituiran la nueva historia; El movimiento indigena, negro y popular (Quito: Centro Cultural Afroecuatoriano, 1994).
(4.) Drawn from Brazil's Conselho Indigenista Misionario. See Juan Bottasso, ed., Las misiones salesianas en un continente que se transforma (Quito: Centro Regional Salesiano, 1982), p. 195.
(5.) See the series "Faith and Cultures: Contextualizing Gospel and Church," ed. Robert J. Schreiter (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991-).
(6.) See Miguel Alberto Bartolome, Declaration of Barbados (Rooseveltville, N.Y.: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, 1971).
(7.) The conference gained added rhetorical force by its receiving funding from the World Council of Churches. The council had been advised by anthropologist Georg Gruneberg from the University of Berne. This apparently solid front of criticism weakened during the 1970s.
(8.) The second Barbados conference of the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs took place in 1977 and issued a revised declaration signed by Indian representatives and anthropologists.
(9.) Alison Brysk, From Tribal Village to Global Village: Indian Rights and International Relations in Latin America (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press, 2000), pp. 194, 9.
(10.) Luis Jolicoeur, "Teologia y culturas aymaras," Teologia y vida 36 (1995): 226.
(11.) In Resurgent Voices, authors follow the Latin American usage of "evangelical" for describing Protestants.
(12.) Perhaps as many as 160,000 missionaries worked in the region at one time. P. G. Cabra, "Los religiosos y la evangelizacion de America Latina," Iglesia, Pueblo y Culturas 32 (January-March 1994): 125.
(13.) Historical, or mainline, Protestant denominations include Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians. In Latin America, most proselytizing non-Catholic groups are commonly referred to as evangelicals.
(14.) Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1991).
(15.) June C. Nash, Mayan Visions: The Quest for Autonomy in an Age of Globalization (New York: Routledge, 2001).
(16.) Charles R. Hale, "Cultural Politics of Identity in Latin America," Annual Review of Anthropology 26 (1997): 567-90. See also Francesca Polletta and James M. Jasper, "Collective Identity and Social Movements," Annual Review of Sociology 27 (2001): 283-305, and Judith A. Howard, "Social Psychology of Identities," ibid. 26 (2000): 367-93.
(17.) Donna Lee Van Cott, The Friendly Liquidation of the Past: The Politics of Diversity in Latin America (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2000).
Edward L. Cleary, O.P., is Professor of Political Science and Director of Latin American Studies, Providence College, Providence, Rhode Island. He served as a missionary in Bolivia and Peru, 1958-63 and 1968-71.…