Mexico: Missionaries

Linda Nyquist writes:  Missionaries are now very active in the area of San Juan Coatzospan, Mexico, and a number of the Indians are being converted by evangelical groups. Actually, this is true throughout Mexico.
 I have very mixed emotions. As an anthropologist, I am quite opposed to this disruption of indigenous culture. I am also quite offended that foreigners (i.e., North Americans) go into other countries to promote any religion. On the other hand, and this is probably the ONLY benefit I can see, the locals who adopt this new belief system tend to stop drinking, and alcoholism is a most serious problem in the countryside. A secondary effect, which is beneficial, is the one of literacy, as to read the New Testament which many of these groups are doing, they have to learn to read. So it is not a one-sided issue. Still, it just doesn't seem quite right for foreigners to have this role in Mexico, or elsewhere, for that matter. What do you think? 

RH: I think that anthropologists are hopeless romantics, although now they have become more factual and realistic about the horrors of Aztec and Mayan cultures, which foreign missionaries humanized.  We are about to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.  He was a foreigner who converted the Irish and ended the bloodiness of the old pagan order.  Good for him! Unfortunately St Patrick's Day, which should be a day of quiet contemplation, has become a day of noisy, rowdy and even drunken celebration.  Call in the evangelicals!

Tim Brown writes: Two questions for Linda Nyquist:
One:    Can she name one country where missionaries have never been active, be they Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or whatever?
Two:    Can she give us an idea how many anthropologists are guilty of having  intruded into a different culture sufficiently to cause change?
In my own experience, by and large and with occasional exceptions, both missionaries and anthropologists, however well intentioned, in fact act as agents of change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Also in my experience, anthropologists I have known, and sometimes collaborated with, in such places as Thailand, the Philippines, Mexico, Paraguay and Central America, were secularists who rarely recognized that missionaries can be well intentioned. Similarly missionaries In have know in those same places did not consider anthropologists well-intentioned.  I myself suspect that much of what both do is positive, while some of what both do is injurious.

I said anthropologists are hopelessly romantic, at least they were until a few years ago. Our beloved Linda Nyquist, an anthropologist, protests: Hopeless romantic indeed! In a posting some years ago, you referred to me as a leftist. I'm making progress!. Nonetheless, I STILL don't like it that Americans are running around converting the Indians and, in general, disrupting the social order in the country. For one thing, families really FIGHT with each other when there are conversions. Catholics lay in wait and ambush the newly converted, usually after a night of heavy drinking (mezcal, aguardiente, pulque, etc.) and then one must deal with the ensuing wounds, some of which are fatal, thus leaving a bunch of fatherless little children. Frankly, it's a mess. Furthermore, the pastors of these new religions have no formal theological training and tend to interpret the bible in the narrowest and most dogmatic sense. From a female perspective, the women's lives are just one cut above what we see in Iraq. Remember, fellow WAISers, I lived and worked in this area. I know what I'm talking about. It's no picnic to be a woman in these indigenous areas. It is work, work and more work. And then punctuate that with constant childbearing and illness and you have a pretty good idea of the lifecycle. Let's just say, it isn't the Garden of Eden. RG: I apologize for calling Linda a leftist, a loaded word.  Substitute progressive.

Ronald Hilton 2005


last updated: April 12, 2005