Hanging Out in the Shadow of the Jesuits

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The question was innocent enough.  At lunch one day, I turned to Mary and asked her: “If you could be a member of any Catholic religious order you wanted, which one would you choose?”  You’ve likely asked similar questions of your partner as well in the past.  However, I soon learned that it isn’t a question that people in general would ponder, nor do they have an answer ready.

As for me, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the Jesuits.  I’m not quite sure why.  Maybe it’s because I grew up near the remnants of some old Jesuit missions.  Maybe it is their insistence on the importance of education and study and the application of reason and not just faith without intelligence (which plagues far too much religious discourse these days, in my view).

That said, I haven’t really hung around Jesuits much.  And when I was questioned further on why I’d choose the Jesuit order (knowing full well they’d never reciprocate), I had to admit that they certainly have their downside.  In fact, I admitted that if I asked a Jesuit and a Franciscan each for advice, and the advice was different, I’d trust the Franciscan.  Wouldn’t you?  The Jesuit would know the answer, sure, but might tell me something different just to gain a strategic advantage.  Whereas the Franciscan, briefly disturbed from listening to the birds sing, would be kind enough to not try to mislead me.

But I’ve been thinking about the Jesuits as well because this area of Argentina was chosen by the Jesuits for evangelizing.  In the early 1600s, they set up a cathedral, a university, a school, and a set of residences in central Córdoba.  In order to support all of this, they built a set of estancias (ranches) in outlying regions, and the profits from these estancias went to pay for the development of the university and the churches in the city.  These days one seldom hears universities talk about increasing their finances by setting up a farm.  Maybe it is an idea that should come back?

The university itself (which still operates, but now as a national public university) was started in 1622, well over 200 years before upstarts like the University of Toronto.  Back then, Samuel de Champlain was still huddling in some buildings in what is now Quebec City, and they already had a university here in Argentina.  We’re just late bloomers in Canada.

The university back then offered a number of courses and degrees, including a PhD.  However, the process of becoming a PhD was more rigorous than when I got mine.  At that time, it took place in a large room, set up a bit like a court room.  The candidate would stand on a raised section near the middle.  On his right were friends and family and other students.  On his left were the learned scholars who would question the poor sod.  The exam itself took three days (of eight hours each day).  All of the examination was in Latin. 

If the candidate was successful, he would be taken outside and set on a donkey.  Then he would be led around the central area of town so that all people could see that there was a new “doctor of philosophy” at the university.  There is something oddly appealing about this latter bit, but I wouldn’t care for doing the exam in Latin.  (As the last of six siblings in my family, I scandalized them all by not taking Latin in High School.  Instead, I opted for Typing, which has helped me far more than knowing how to make up cool mottos for crests and coats of arms.) 

While only men were allowed to attend the university up until more recent times, the examination room itself was decorated by very large paintings of female “guardian angels,” all somewhat hastily dressed and experiencing what has become known in popular culture as “wardrobe malfunctions.”

But let’s get back to the estancias.  Each of them consisted of a very large farm, a set of buildings, a church, and some dwellings.  Towns grew up around these complexes.  The ranches concentrated on agricultural production, textiles and mule breeding.  (Mules, as you may know, are the sterile offspring of a donkey and a horse.  I’m not sure what the symbolism is here, but I’m sure there is some.)  In addition to their spiritual functions, the estancias were highly successful economically.  It all went well for about 150 years, until the Jesuits were kicked out of the continent by King Charles III of Spain (they were becoming rather powerful, and he distrusted how they’d use this power).

The estancias and the Jesuit block in Cordoba were declared a world heritage site in 2000.  We visited three of the five estancias that still exist, as well as the city properties.  They are all beautiful sites.  Majestic stone buildings, set in bucolic surroundings, and surrounded by remnants of all of the engineering necessary to make a successful agricultural enterprise (irrigation canals, mills for grinding grains, etc.).

However, one of the big surprises for me was how few Jesuits were actually here.  And how many slaves there were.  Take the estancia in Jésus Maria (if that town was in NL, I’d guess that it would be called “Jesus, Mary & Joseph”).  The place flourished because they had 150 slaves.  Another example is Alta Gracia, a beautiful site known for a Jesuit estancia and a childhood home of the very revered (throughout Latin America) revolutionary Che Gueverra.  There they had over 300 slaves… and only three Jesuits in residence.  The slaves were highly skilled builders and farmers. 

Really, these places should be called the Slave Estancias. 

In addition, there were a number of local natives who worked on the estancias, and were paid for their services (unlike the slaves).  After all, the Pope had declared that the natives of America were humans back in 1530, so maybe that meant one had to pay them for labour.  On the other hand, Spain had not yet outlawed the use of slavery in its colonies (and did not do so until1811).

On one tour, a person asked “where did the Jesuits go?”  As for me, I wondered “where did the slaves go?”  There were far more of them.  Unfortunately, some were sent to the front to die in the colonial wars, some were sent to Peru as slaves, and some simply mixed in with the local population.

As I walked around the lovely estates, I started to rethink my views of which religious order I would join.  It struck me as very sad that, for all of their book-learning and praying and hours of supplication, the Jesuits still could not figure out that their captive slaves were humans with souls, made in the image of the creator they worshipped.  But we should not single them out as particularly unwise.  After all, what received wisdom of today will we come to realize is deficient in the future?


The music today is a unique style that began in Córdoba, Cuarteto.  It had roots in Italian and Spanish dance ensembles which were four-piece bands, thus the name Cuarteto.  Originally, such music used violin, piano, accordion and bass.  However, the violin has been replaced by other instruments.  Now Cuarteto bands can be quite large ensembles of 10 or 15 people, with brass, lots of percussion, and electronics. 

Cuarteto came into its own in the 1970s, as an alternative to the Buenos Aires based cultural dominance that was being spread through television.   The always lively music is still popular in this region, the radio airwaves are full of Cuarteto music and there are bands playing in Córdoba regularly.  If you think that it sounds similar to the merengue music of the Dominican Republic or Costa Rica, you’d be right.  Good call.

There are some very prolific Cuarteto artists, with dozens of CDs released.  One good example of the genre is La Barra.  Here they are in action: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VkIvfpaXt_E

Finally, here is an interesting site that has a wide variety of Cuarteto bands, as long as you can put up with the annoying pop-ups: http://www.kuarteto.com/musica/



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