NMSU, Mexican archdiocese team up to make rare archives available to researchers.
by Mary Benanti
Until now, most of New Mexico’s history has been written based on sources contained in archives in Santa Fe, a national repository in Mexico City and some regional archive repositories. And while historians have built a good skeleton of historical data on the region, gaps remain.
In fact, local historians are quick to point out that much of New Mexico’s history remains unwritten.
But the Durango Microfilm Collection housed in the Branson Library at New Mexico State University may change that. A treasure trove for researchers and historians, the filmed collection contains history written from a different perspective – that of diocesan priests. It’s an ecclesiastical collection, but its importance cannot be underestimated. It contains hundreds of heretofore untold stories of everyday life in colonial New Mexico.
The original documents are housed in the Durango Cathedral in central Mexico. They date back to the 16th century when the Archdiocese of Durango included territories as far north as Santa Fe in the New World. Through a landmark binational collaboration of the archdiocese, Mexico and NMSU, more than a million documents, some four centuries old, have been filmed for the collection at NMSU.
“Most of the history we know of New Mexico … is from Franciscan and civil military collections. That naturally slants the history in a certain way,” says Rick Hendricks, who is cataloguing the collection to make it easier for researchers to use. “History is written by the people who record it. So, for example, the church-state conflict, which is a constant in New Mexico history, is viewed through the eyes of the officials and Franciscans who were writing about it.”
The Durango collection, however, provides a third-party view, that of the diocesan secular clergy. Their perspective is different from that of the civil authorities and the Franciscan missionaries, Hendricks says.
“It comes as close to completing the puzzle – filling in the gaps in New Mexico’s colonial history – as we have ever been,” Hendricks says.
The richness of the collection comes from the fact that diocesan priests had a unique view of the lives of people in New Mexico’s colonial days. Community life in those days revolved around the Catholic Church. Diocesan priests were assigned to a community and reported to the bishop or archbishop in a designated area called a diocese. They differed from the Franciscans who belonged to a monastic religious order, many of whom came to the New World as missionaries.
“A priest likely married your parents, baptized you, married you, baptized your children and buried you,” Hendricks says, adding that diocesan clergy were able to view every aspect of community life. “So what they observed and recorded in those observations to superiors is all that very special information that they were privy to because of their unique position in the community.”
Civil authorities such as the governor also recorded observations. But the stories of the common people – those not in the small circle of educated elites – have remained largely untold.
Many of the documents are marriage investigations that provide detailed information about people who immigrated to Mexico from Spain or elsewhere. Not a lot is known about the continuing immigration patterns in the 18th century in the Southwest. The Durango collection, however, is filled with information about people who came from the different regions of Spain and who sought each other out and formed networks in the New World. After Mexico’s war for independence, increased immigration from northern Europe and elsewhere becomes part of the tapestry of the region’s history.
Hundreds of researchers from around the world already have tapped into the wealth of the collection.
Irene Vasquez, a research scholar in the Center for Regional Studies at the University of New Mexico, calls the collection invaluable.
“It hasn’t been fully mined yet,” says Vasquez, who used it for her dissertation on indigenous people and Spanish encounters in Nueva Viscaya.
“What we know as Northern Mexico has not been as well researched as other areas. It’s really under-studied,” Vasquez says. “(The collection) shows how the indigenous people there behaved in ways similar to the indigenous all over the continent.
“Dozens of genealogists have used the records and have found unique documents that focus on people we don’t hear about – such as the mestizo women,” Vasquez says.
“I was able to pull from the records how important indigenous women were in terms of maintaining traditions and protesting unfair practices. For instance, there was the woman brought up on charges of witchcraft,” Vasquez says. “She had a lot of power and was using traditional remedies and ceremonies in half a dozen native missions. In another instance, an indigenous woman comes up in the will of a wealthy landowner. He writes that the woman insists ‘I am the father of her child.’ He later goes on to admit it.”
Vasquez believes the NMSU collection “is rich in social information, and it will be years before experts can draw all the wealth from the collection.”
The collection also sheds new light on the history of African descendents who lived in Durango, Vasquez notes. The records contain information on slave sales and wills in which slaves were either given their freedom or passed on to heirs.
“A lot of people think the African population had a small impact on the region,” Vasquez says. “Actually, the mulatto population was significantly larger than that of the españoles.”
Hendricks says that Vasquez makes an interesting point. But he cautions researchers that her discovery is “not the wealth of the collection.” Other collections have more information on afrohispanos in Mexico. More reflective of what is richly evident in the collection is research completed by Andres Resendez of the University of California at Davis. Resendez focused on the emergence of Mexican nationalism in what would become the United States, Hendricks says.
The conflict of cultures that occurred when Anglo-American culture collided with Mexican culture on the frontier also is well documented in the collection because of the priests’ unique role in communities at that time, Hendricks says.
For instance, there was a difference in the Hispanic expression of Catholicism and the Anglo and French expression of Catholicism.
“When you start messing with people’s religion, it’s a very personal thing,” Hendricks says. “For example, in the early Hispanic tradition you didn’t sit down in church. Hence there were no pews.”
There also was a difference of opinion on education. Education had always been the role of the church. That clashed with the later notion there should be public schools.
All of this is just a small part of the information historians and researchers can find in the collection.
Filmed in Mexico at the cathedral over a decade, the process was not an easy one.
New Mexico historian Mary Taylor first learned about the archives while doing her own research in the 1970s. She worked tirelessly for years with university representatives and representatives of the archdiocese to get the archives preserved on film.
Despite the fact that the church in Durango was eager to have its archives filmed, there were challenges in the project. At one point, the camera was held at the U.S. – Mexico border until explanations by the archbishop in Durango helped moved the project forward. And because the sessions were filmed in Durango and the film was sent back to NMSU for processing, they occasionally needed to be redone because the film was faulty or damaged.
Recognizing the value of the project, the New Mexico Legislature has appropriated more than $300,000 over the years for the project, augmenting the funding provided by other public and private donors.
With this rich information now available at the university, it only remains for historians to come to mine the wealth in the collection and write the history of the region in full.