Monday, January 6, 2014

Missiones, Argentina: The Ruins of the Jesuit Missions

Come with me to the northeastern corner of Argentina to the province of Missiones.  In the northern tip of Missiones is the Argentine side of the great Iguazu falls.  If you don’t know about that great wonder of the natural world, you should search this blog for “Iguaçu” and read Leighton Gage’s wonderful post about it. 

Today, I want to take you to the other end of that province to a 1984 entry into UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, the ruins of the Jesuit Reductions. I visited there in 1990, while driving around Paraguay with David, researching what I thought would be my first novel.  (It turned out to be my second—Invisible Country.)  Missiones was, off and on, a part of Paraguay, but it was finally lost to Argentina in The War of the Triple Alliance, the background setting for my book.

Thanks to a mutual friend, for this leg of our trip, we had the advice and company of a delightful Paraguayan couple—Gladys and Pebe Da Costa.  Without them, we would never have had the know-how and the language skills needed to get our rental car over the newly built bridge of San Roque González de Santa Cruz and into Missiones.  The beautiful span crosses the Parana and connects Encarnacion, Paraguay and Posadas, Argentina.  Contraband issues made it tricky to move a car to Argentina and then take it back to Paraguay.  As it was, we had to exit Argentina by driving onto the bridge, leaving Gladys and Pebe behind.  They secured a certificate saying the car had left Paraguay.  Then they took a bus over the bridge to get Argentine paperwork processed for our return. 

During their absence, David and I sat in the car; he read, and I knitted.  At one point I decided to see what would be playing on the local radio stations, expecting a glimpse into the local musical culture.  As soon as I switched it on, what to my wondering ears did I hear?  Little Richard singing “Good Golly, Miss Molly!”

After about an hour and a half, Gladys and Pebe took the bus back, walked out onto the bridge, and got into the car.  We were off.  Into a land of enchantment.  Where, that day, we were the only tourists.

Magical realism was born in South America.  I understand why.  There are places on that spectacular continent where one feels magic can happen.  Missiones is one of those.

It was there, in the Seventeenth Century, that Jesuit missionaries founded their “reductions.” In a matter of only a few years, they created thirty villages, four of the greatest ones in what is now Missiones.  It was the practice of the Spanish in those days, to gather the indigenous population into towns, to make it easy to Christianize, tax, and govern them.  They Europeanized them into the bargain.  Though the Jesuits converted the Indians under their control, they did not force them to adopt European culture.  Instead, they sought to preserve at least some of their native values and much of their way of life.

In Jesuit mission villages, they protected the Guarani from Portuguese slavers, who had been taking them to staff brutal plantations across the border in Brazil.  Instead, they taught them agriculture and crafts.  The Jesuit missions became financially independent and, to a great extent, autonomous.  It has been said that they became a source of great wealth for the Jesuit order, but recent research show that this was far from the truth—really a part of anti-Jesuit propaganda that had more to do with political and power rivalries in Europe than with on-the-ground realities in South America.

Jesuit missions garnered a great deal of resentment—from those who had profited by stealing the Indians and selling them into slavery and from those who envied the mission villages’ prosperity.  This acrimony certainly contributed to the eventual expulsion of the Jesuits from South America.

In 1759, the anti-Jesuit factions gained ascendency in Europe and all the Jesuit reductions were ordered closed.  In 1767, the priests vacated the continent, leaving behind magnificent structures, so well built that they survived two centuries of neglect and remain as monuments to one of humanity’s stabs at Utopia.

Their buildings were Baroque decorated by indigenous artists.  Today their remains are hauntingly beautiful –towering church walls, free standing in open fields, headless statues carved with draped clothing, their hands holding symbols of apostles and saints.   It is almost twenty-five years since I stood among them, yet I can still smell the spicy vegetation and feel awe for men who came from great European cities and had the skill and the heart to construct such wonders in this remote and wild place.

To complete this picture, I will state that there are those who characterize what the Jesuits did in South America as theocratic terrorism.  But others, including the anti-clerical Rousseau, admired their brief success at creating jungle utopias of plenty, of music, of art and worship.

This history, a bit romanticized, is the tale told in the marvelous 1986 movie, “The Mission.”  Here is a sample of Ennio Morricone’s brilliant film score, performed in Arena di Verona.    Listen and transport yourself.

Annamaria - Monday 


  1. Ah, utopia: the neverending dream of a place where everyone is the same as us, holds the same values, and never change except when we do. It's a good thing utopia is impossible, how boring THAT would be!

  2. E, you won't get any argument from me on the joys of diversity. My favorite brag about my home town is that 105 languages are spoken in the borough of Queens alone, it's not Utopia, but neither is anyone in danger of his life because of his race, creed, color, or religion. We all ride in peace in the same subway car.

  3. And that (riding peacefully together) IS utopia to me, or at least, as close as I expect us to ever get! Kind of like what we have here on MIE... :-)