Pueblo Mission Churches as Symbols of Permanence and Identity [*]

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ABSTRACT. The three Pueblo mission churches of San Esteban del Rey, Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, and San Jose de Laguna are the most visually striking structures in the western New Mexico pueblos of Acoma, Zuni, and Laguna. Prime examples of "structures of permanence" on the landscape, the churches define local cultural identity. Church permanence and Pueblo identity are expressed in a five-part typology of visible characteristics: natural materials and hand labor, massive exterior form, adjoining cemeteries, syncretism of interior decorations, and structural decay and rebirth. Permanence must, however, be understood as an evolving condition, undergoing new representations as multicultural relationships evolve. Keywords: mission churches, New Mexico, permanence, place identity, Pueblo Indians,

In many cultures, people desire to create something that outlasts them, to leave a mark that says, "We were here." The visually prominent and enduring cultural hallmarks are commonly forged through the built environment, as the New Mexico cultural geographer and landscape historian J. B. Jackson suggested: "All that we ask of our landscape... [is] a monument or two of stone, a series of landmarks to remind us of what we believe and of our origin and identity ... that these landmarks have a permanent, visible character, that they be an integral part of the landscape, part of the cosmic order, and that they have the immediate emotional appeal of a widely recognized archetype" (1984, 107). A construct at once architectural, emotive, and social, the structure of permanence is a material expression grounded in local landscape and integral to cultural identity. Such structures shape place attachment because of what they represent, and they can serve as powerful sources of memory (Hayden 1997). Although permanence i s measured relative to the human life span, it also is one element in an adaptive process over multiple generations.

With notable exceptions, much recent architecture has ceased to symbolize hierarchy, permanence, sacredness, and collective identity (Jackson 1994), yet these characteristics are embedded in New Mexico's Pueblo mission churches (Figure 1). All architecture is contextual; it serves particular purposes, modifies environments, and communicates ideas about relative permanence, change, and time (Saile 1990). In this essay we interpret the development, maintenance, and revival of permanence as a hallmark of cultural identity at three western New Mexico Pueblo mission churches (Figure 2). We offer case studies in how a distinctive architectural landscape takes on specific meanings at the pueblos of Acoma, Zuni, and Laguna. [1] Although existing work has provided detailed interpretations of the architecture and ornamentation of Spanish-era mission churches in New Mexico (Kubler 1940; Dominguez 1956; Kessell 1980; Treib 1993; Wilson 1997), our intent is to explore how cultural identity is manifest through permanence. [2] We first explain our conceptual framework and methods, following that with a discussion of the culture-nature interplay on the Colorado Plateau and the historical context of the Spanish mission system in northern New Spain. Then short historical sketches for each church precede an examination of specific symbols of permanence. Multiculturalism, ties to the land, increasing local control, and adaptations to new values are each found to contribute to a bonding of place, permanence, and identity.


Structures of permanence put down foundations in the psyche of place and become icons of local culture. Like time capsules, these structures reflect the values of a particular era, but interpretations of their form and content change over time (Pollan 1999). And unlike time capsules, structures of permanence are open to constant visitation, modifications, and redefinition. Structures of permanence may have a strong religious component, as do ancient pyramids, the Taj Mahal, and European cathedrals; others, including lighthouses, the Great Wall of China, and the Sydney Opera House, serve transportation, political, or entertainment functions. …