Critical Issues in American Art: A Book of Readings

By Mary Ann Calo | Go to book overview

8
New Mexican Santos and the Preservation of Religious Traditions

WILLIAM WROTH

John Michael Vlach identifies the santos figures of Hispanic New Mexico as examples of genuine folk art, representing a collective spiritual vision and communal participation in a specific religious tradition. William Wroth examines the role played by these holy figures in the transmission and preservation of core religious values within a unified indigenous culture under increased pressure from the forces of modernization and Americanization. He explains the resistance of Hispanic Catholics in New Mexico to the values imposed upon them first by the Mexican Republic and then by the occupying Anglo-Americans as a concerted effort to prevent the desacralization of their culture.

Many of these modern ideals were in direct conflict with the traditional way of life structured around communal landholding and common religious beliefs. Under constant pressure to adapt to the material and political realities of liberal capitalism, Hispanic New Mexicans sought to preserve the primacy of the Spanish Catholic spiritual values that were at the center of their social and cultural institutions. Finally, Wroth joins Vlach in his concern with the distortion and misunderstanding brought about by recent interest in the unique aesthetic qualities of these objects without attendant understanding of their pivotal role in the traditional culture for which they were made.

To what extent were Hispanic New Mexican cultural institutions influenced and shaped in the 1700s and 1800s by outside factors such as other cultures and the environment? To what extent did New Mexicans in those days adapt their institutions and values to the new circumstances they faced on the rough northern frontier? In the often disputed question of adaptability of New Mexican cultural institutions, it is necessary to distinguish between the material and religious realms. In material life the New Mexican settlers certainly were adaptable and innovative, often dealing creatively with severe conditions and scarce resources on the northern frontier.

In religious life, however, they were not innovative, but rather were preservers of ancient traditions having roots in medieval and Renaissance Spain. The first settlers brought Hispanic Catholicism to New Mexico in the late 1500s, and their descendants continued to practice it with little significant change for more than three hundred years. The main tenets of Catholicism as practiced in Spain and Mexico were well understood by Hispanic New Mexicans and were integrally woven into daily life continually finding expression in signal events such as birth, marriage, and death. They were incorporated into the annual calendar, with the communal celebration of Holy Week, Corpus Christi, Christmas, and the many saints' feast days. The orthodoxy of

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