Missionaries and the Indigenous Resurgence in Latin America

By Cleary, Edward L. | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Missionaries and the Indigenous Resurgence in Latin America


Cleary, Edward L., International Bulletin of Missionary Research


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.

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