Cofradías, lay religious brotherhoods introduced to New Spain by Mendicant friars in the mid-16th century, were optimal vehicles for corporate consciousness. This case study in colonialism, evangelization and ethnic politics centers on avenues and strategies for assessing, accommodating and rejecting cultural elements from “foreign” groups, as well as the freedom to assemble and incorporate, but also marginalize, others.
Focusing on the parish archive and community of Tecamachalco, Puebla, Mexico, this project elucidates the mechanisms that produced lay interactions compliant enough for vice-regal and ecclesiastic authorities, yet amenable to status contests among Popoloca (indigenous), mulattoes and Spaniards. Priests solicited conformity from native and multi-ethnic communities by offering ritual, social, economic, and political boons largely absent from secular spheres, at least for non-Spaniards, non-elites and non-men.
Crafting charters, in Spanish and/or Nahuatl, fifteen groups (1563–1823) attempted to set their own courses for autonomous lay religiosity. Few succeeded in this endeavour but everyone involved received a practical course in ethnic education. Six cofradías de naturales (locals), all with close ties to Popoloca elites, communal lands and barrios (neighborhoods), were joined by five cofradías de españoles (Spaniards) masquerading as umbrella sodalities, a casta group and three sisterhoods.
Cofradías were once invaluable tools in the hands of individuals, families, neighbors, and ethnic groups. A “good death” and public recognition as a viable citizen, gained through mayordomías (fiesta sponsorship) and penitential processions, motivated urban and rural residents to mobilize their own sodalities and choose with whom to share fellowship. When insulated among social intimates, elites told themselves, and their competitors, that they were the true patrons and masters of Tecamachalco.
When examined in conjunction, confraternal records, indigenous histories and petitions, and ecclesiastic edicts reveal self-conscious rhetoric and evolving intercultural dialogue. This project represents the first systematic attempt to reconstruct confraternal membership and political economy, or to contrast ideals (acts of foundation, ordinances and amendments) with actual practices and interactions. Confraternal charters and rituals were instruments of good government and good citizenry , and performances of, as well as challenges to, power. Spaniards' hegemony-driven enterprises were confronted by native, casta and female struggles for dignity, legitimacy and autonomy.