Explore Santa Cruz and the Eastern Lowlands
East of Santa Cruz stretches a vast, sparsely-populated plain covered in scrub and fast-disappearing dry tropical forest, which gradually gives way to swamp as it approaches the border with Brazil. Named Chiquitos by the Spanish (apparently because the original indigenous inhabitants lived in houses with low doorways – chiquito means small), in the eighteenth century this region was the scene of one of the most extraordinary episodes in Spanish colonial history, as a handful of Jesuit priests established flourishing mission towns where the region’s previously hostile indigenous inhabitants converted to Catholicism and settled in their thousands, adopting European agricultural techniques and building some of South America’s most magnificent colonial churches. This theocratic socialist utopia ended in 1767, when the Spanish crown expelled the Jesuits, allowing their indigenous charges to be exploited by settlers from Santa Cruz, who seized the Chiquitanos’ lands and took many of them into forced servitude. Six of the ten Jesuit mission churches still survive, however, and have been restored and declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites – their incongruous splendour in the midst of the wilderness is one of Bolivia’s most remarkable sights.Read More
The utopian kingdom of the Jesuits in Chiquitos
The utopian kingdom of the Jesuits in Chiquitos
When the Spanish first arrived in what is now eastern Bolivia, the vast, forest-covered plains between the Río Grande and the Río Paraguay were densely populated by up to fifty different indigenous groups. To the Spaniards this was a strategically vital region, providing a link between the silver of the Andes, their settlements in Paraguay and the Río de la Plata. However, a century of constant military expeditions failed to subdue the indigenous population – known collectively as the Chiquitanos.
In exasperation, at the end of the seventeenth century the colonial authorities in Santa Cruz turned to the Jesuits to pacify the region and secure the empire’s frontier. By this time the Jesuits had more than a century of experience in South America, and were quick to implement the missionary strategy that had proved successful elsewhere. Small groups of dedicated priests set out to convert the indigenous peoples and persuade them to settle in missions known as reducciones, places where they could be brought together and “reduced” to European “civilization”, which included being converted to Catholicism. Though many missionaries met gruesome deaths at the hands of those they sought to convert, the different tribal groups of Chiquitania quickly flocked to join the new settlements, which offered them many advantages. After a century of war, many had anyway been seeking a peaceful accommodation with the colonial regime, and under the aegis of the Jesuits they were protected from the rapacious slave raids of the Spaniards in Santa Cruz and the Portuguese in Brazil, as well as from their own tribal enemies.
“Civilizing” the Chiquitanos
Ten missions flourished under the Jesuit regime: European livestock and crops were successfully introduced; the Chiquitanos had limited autonomy under their own councils or cabildos, and were taught in their own languages (one of these, Chiquitano, was eventually adopted as the main language in all the missions); indigenous craftsmen were trained in European techniques and built magnificent churches; European musical instruments were introduced and quickly mastered by the Chiquitanos, establishing a musical tradition that survives to this day. The missions were not quite the autonomous socialist utopia Jesuit sympathizers have since tried to make out – many indigenous people were brought in by force, and the political and ideological control exercised by the fathers was pretty much absolute – but in general the missions provided a far more benign regime than anything else on offer under Spanish rule.
In the end, though, for all their self-sufficiency and autonomy, the Jesuit missions were utterly dependent on the Spanish colonial authorities. When in 1767 political developments in far-off Europe led the Spanish king to order the Jesuits out of the Americas, the fathers meekly concurred, and the Chiquitanos were quickly subjected to forced labour and the seizure of their best lands by the settlers of Santa Cruz. Within a few decades the missions were a shadow of their former selves, and this decline has continued pretty much ever since, leaving only the beautiful mission churches, now restored to their full glory with European aid money, to testify to the missions’ former prosperity.
The Chiquitos musical renaissance
The Chiquitos musical renaissance
Of all the European arts and crafts introduced to Chiquitos by the Jesuits in the eighteenth century, the one that gained most rapid acceptance among the indigenous tribes was music. Imported organs, trumpets, violins and other instruments were enthusiastically adopted by the Chiquitanos, who quickly learned to manufacture their own instruments, while the choirs and orchestras of the mission settlements were said by contemporaries to have matched anything in Spanish America at the time. Father Martin Schmidt, the Swiss Jesuit who designed the churches of San Javier, San Raphael and Concepción, was a keen composer who taught music and brought the first church organs to the region, while the missions also benefited from the presence of an Italian named Domenico Zipoli, who had been a well-known composer in Rome before coming to South America.
Like all the cultural accomplishments of the missions, their musical tradition all but disappeared in the centuries following the expulsion of the Jesuits, though its influence remained in the folk music of the Chiquitanos themselves. When the restoration of the mission churches began in the 1970s, however, researchers in Concepción discovered a substantial archive of liturgical and orchestral Renaissance Baroque musical scores, including works by Schmidt and other Jesuit composers. The rediscovery of this lost music inspired a musical revival in Chiquitos, and throughout the mission towns and outlying settlements you’ll come across children and young adults playing violins and other instruments.
In 1996 this revival inspired a group of music lovers to organize the first Chiquitos Missions Music Festival, featuring performances of the music recovered from the lost archives. Since then, the festival has grown into a major biennial event (in even numbered years), attracting dozens of orchestras and musical groups from around the world, and involving performances in all the mission towns of Chiquitos as well as in Santa Cruz. For further information, visit wfestivalesapac.com.
San José’s most unlikely sight is the bizarre spectacle of tall white people with flaxen hair and ruddy cheeks – the men dressed in denim dungarees and straw hats, the women in full-length dresses and headscarves – walking around town or driving horse-drawn buggies. These are the Mennonites, members of a radical Protestant sect founded in the Netherlands by Menno Simmons in the sixteenth century. For the next four centuries the Mennonites found themselves driven from country to country as they attempted to escape religious persecution and conscription, and to find land on which to pursue their dreams of an agrarian utopia. After migrating to Germany, they moved in succession to Russia, the US and Canada, Mexico and Belize, until finally arriving in Bolivia and Paraguay in the twentieth century, attracted by the availability of cheap land and guarantees of religious freedom. Perhaps twenty thousand Mennonites now live in communities across the Eastern Lowlands, farming and raising cattle in self-contained agricultural communities.
The central tenets of the Mennonites are the refusal to take oaths or bear arms (they are exempt from military service in Bolivia); the baptism only of believers (ie only of people who willingly adopt the faith, which excludes infants); simplicity of dress and personal habits; and an unwillingness to marry outside the faith. They also to varying degrees reject most modern technology, including cars and computers, though faced with the difficult agricultural conditions of Chiquitos, many Bolivian Mennonites allow the use of tractors – though not, bizarrely, of rubber tyres, so their wheels are covered with steel spikes. Though some speak Spanish, and a few of the older ones who grew up in North America also have some English, among themselves they speak Plattdeutsch, an archaic German dialect. If you can bridge the language barrier, many Mennonite men are happy to talk about their lives.
However, there seems to be some level of distrust between the Mennonites and the locals, possibly based on the Mennonite buying up of land in the area. The irony is that, two and a half centuries after the Jesuits were expelled, religiously inspired utopian dreams are still being pursued in the plains of Chiquitos, albeit by white Protestants instead of indigenous Catholics. This isn’t, however, an irony that would have been appreciated by the Jesuits themselves – their order was set up precisely to combat Protestant sects like the Mennonites.