In colonial Mexico, Spanish authorities established charitable brotherhoods, or confraternities, as a key pillar of their campaign to convert indigenous populations to Christianity. In her path-breaking first book, Laura Dierksmeier investigates how indigenous peoples of colonial Mexico used these local religious organizations as tools of mutual assistance, charity and health care, and what Dierksmeier describes as 'inclusive social transformation', as they grappled with devastating pandemics and social disruptions that resulted from colonialism.
Dierksmeier investigates the hundreds of these confraternities in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, which were basically the only institutions in which lay people – Iberians, creoles, free and enslaved blacks, and indigenous peoples alike – took on active leadership roles in matters of religion. Within confraternities, marginalized women gained security and status as peers within a local community oriented around moral behavior and mutual aid. In a project taking her to ten archives, Dierksmeier looks at the confraternities and the various efforts by ecclesiastical authorities to limit their authority. She also carefully documents the resistance and agency of indigenous people to steer the confraternities and to develop hybrid forms of worship. Most perceptively, Dierksmeier also explores how indigenous people used networks of hospitals and orphanages associated with the confraternities to provide aid for indigenous poor during pandemics, not just rooted in Spanish values, but based on indigenous practices as well.
This book explores how confraternities became tools to pay off the debts of people imprisoned for their failure to pay their financial obligations. As Dierksmeier shows, confraternities thus not only became tools of communal aid, but also built social connections through ritual performance, corrected moral lapses of the colonial order, and offered health care to the needy. They also became sites of indigenous hybridized adaptations of religion that Dierksmeier describes as Nahua Catholicism, which adapted Aztec religious imagery and symbols into Catholic beliefs and practices. Members of these confraternities worked across ethnic, gender, and racial boundaries to create grass-roots system of mutual aid and religious practice and belief.
As such, Dierksmeier’s Charity for and by the Poor embodies excellence in historical scholarship into the diversity of global Christianity that the Albert C. Outler Prize celebrates.