A Cultural Repercussion: Native Idolatry and the Paradox of Popular Religion in Early Colonial New Spain, 1525-1540
The arrival of the Catholic Church in Central Mexico not only marked the beginning of its religious dominance in the region, the institution’s early inquisitorial activities forced the inadvertent process of a popular religion. The term “popular religion” classifies a binary between two religions. Here it describes the struggle between “official” Catholic doctrine and native “folk” practices which enabled, rather than eliminated, the persistence of indigenous ancestral devotions during the early colonial period. In an effort to contextualize this unintended phenomenon, the present study uses two episcopal inquisition trials from the mid to late1530s: Martín Ocelotl, a Soothsayer from Chinanta, and Cristóbal, a Day Keeper from Ocuytuco. I argue that the inquisition sanctioned and unwittingly supported the activities of native spiritual experts in three ways. First, the doctrinal and institutional recognition of native “idolatry” had cast indigenous metaphysics and materiality as legitimate threats that needed to be suppressed. Second, the pursuit against native hechiceros, or sorcerers, and their alleged activities exposed the limits of Catholicism’s spiritual reach in the new colony. Finally, public judicial punishments known as autos de fé displayed the religious frictions between Catholicism and native folk devotions. Consequently, a new cultural polarity fostered the coexistence of two competing forms of spiritual labor. The implications of these findings open new questions about the study of religion through the colonial era and beyond Central Mexico.