Los Tontos De la Concepcion: Ramon J. Sender's Reassessment of Spain's Colonial Past

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Padre Francisco Tomas Hermenegildo Garces, born in Morata del Conde in Aragon, Spain, in 1738, began his missionary work in New Spain at the age of twenty-five, inspired by the examples of Fray Junipero Serra in California and Father Eusebio Kino in Arizona (Odens, 7, 16-17). As an historical figure, he is best known for his role as explorer of the northern frontiers of the Spanish empire in North America. He was one of the principal explorers of the reconnaissance expedition of 1774-1776 that went in search of a more practical overland route to California. He was specifically sought out by Juan Bautista de Anza due to his expertise in such ventures. As David J. Weber characterizes him, he was "one of the many Franciscans sent to Sonora to take charge of the former Jesuit missions of Pimeria Alta," and he "had made an extraordinary series of forays alone on horseback from the misision of San Xavier del Bac into the desert country of the Lower Colorado between 1768 and 1771. On the last of these journeys, Garces had traveled within sight of the mountains that separate the Colorado Desert from the California coast and had learned from Indians that white men lived over the mountains. Garces's discoveries, together with reports from Indians, had convinced Anza that the distance from Sonora to Monterey, as he told the viceroy, `can not be so great as formerly has been estimated, or the way so difficult'" (Weber, Spanish Frontier, 251). It has been estimated that Padre Garces's solo travels covered more than two thousand miles, an amazing feat, especially given the level of hostilities found along New Spain's northern frontier (see Weber, New Spain's Northern Frontier, 57). Padre Garces, whose pacific nature and Christian zeal were legendary, was to fall victim to pressures undoubtedly caused by those hostilities, as he and his companions were martyred in 1781 at the Mission of La Concepcion by a band of disgruntled Yuma Indians. The apparent cause of their resentment was the invasion of Yuma cultivated fields by the horses of the military party led by Captain Francisco Rivera y Moncada, without regard for the Indians' food source (Weber, New Spain's Northern Frontier, 228).

Although Garces is mentioned in many histories of Colonial Mexico and of the explorations of the present-day Southwest, the bibliography dedicated specifically to him is relatively sparse.(1) But Padre Garces surely must have piqued the interest of the Spanish writer for many reasons. Sender, like Garces, was Aragonese, and, in fact, he believed that the priest was a distant relative on his mother's side (whose surname was also Garces).(2) Sender too spent many years in the Southwest, as a profesor of literature at the University of New Mexico from the mid 1940s to the mid 1960s, and, as was Garces, he became an avid observer of Southwestern culture and life, whether Indian, Hispanic or (in our times) Anglo American. Sender was at home with Latin American themes, having covered Latin American literature and culture in his capacity as editor of the Madrid newspaper El Sol in the 1920s.(3) Following his exile from Spain and a brief residence in Guatemala and Mexico, he turned to the examination of the relationship between Spain and the Americas as one of the most central themes in his writing, most highly developed in his novels La aventura equinoccial de Lope de Aguirre and Tupac Amaru; the short story collection Novelas ejemplares de Cibola, and his plays Hernan Cortes (later to be revised as Jubileo en el Zocalo) and Donde crece la marihuana.

Likewise, Garces as a missionary priest must have captured Sender's imagination, as he had often delved into the human nature of the man behind the cleric, most notably in his masterpiece, the Mosen Millan of Requiem pot un campesino espanol (1953). Even more relevant to this case is his "El Padre Zozobra" from the Novelas ejemplares de Cibola (1961), published only two years before the work in question, Los tontos de la Concepcion: Cronica misionera (Sandoval, NM: Coronado, 1963). …

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