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Jesuit Missionaries, Indian Polities, and Environmental Transformation in the Lagoon March of Northeastern New Spain

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The introduction of European agriculture and livestock transformed the natural and human landscape of the Americas profoundly. In the borderlands of the continent, it was often missionaries who introduced these practices to areas where mobile Indians groups had adapted their cultures to an environment that was irrevocably changed. Transforming a landscape usually doomed a mobile ethnic group to forced adaptation, migration or extinction, but could also prove a catalyst to an ethnogenesis that could not have occurred without the effects the Columbian Exchange brought about by the missionaries. The so-called Lagoon March (Comarca Lagunera) of the northeastern borderlands of New Spain experienced perhaps the most dramatic of these episodes in this story of Colonial North America. This region was home to the Lagunero Indians, the most populous pre-contact group in the borderlands, and as late as the last decade of the sixteenth century it was a lush lagoon environment surrounded by wooded mountains. The Jesuits founded the Parras mission there in 1598, and within two generations, the Laguneros had largely disappeared, and the area was transformed into an archipelago of highly productive oasis surrounded by scrub barely suitable for livestock. Viticulture made the area the richest non-mining region of the entire frontier, and a magnet for population. Tlaxcalan (Nahua) colonist that had lived in the mission and survived the Lagunero extinction became a borderlands community intrinsically attached to viticulture and communal rights to water from the region’s only major spring, giving them a legal status that distinguished them from other Indian groups (including other Tlaxcalans) and underlining a social cohesion that lasted until the Independence period. Thus, the unintended effects of the Jesuit presence transformed the Parras environment and the way Indian identity related to it.

Affiliations: 1: Archivo para la Memoria de la Universidad Iberoamericana Centro Extension Saltillo, E-mail:


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