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The active señor citizen… or Heaven can wait

28 May 2014

Seems to be my night for catching up on the Catholic Church, and on the Catholic Church trying to catch up.  Only about 450 years after the P’urépecha (Tarascans) of Michoacán came to the decision that Vasco de Quiroga was a true Saint, the Church has finally gotten around to considering, maybe, thinking out making it official.

Born in 1470, Don Vasco had a long and distinguished career as a judge and legal scholar in Spain, when in 1530  he was tapped to assist in setting up a proper legal system in New Spain.  At age 60 — elderly by the standards of the time — Quiroga had already planned his retirement… as a high-level civil servant with a good pension and who had saved for his retirement, Quirga’s plan had been to continue with an “active senior lifestyle” in one of the better “assisted living centers” of 16th century Spain… it just happened to also be a monestery.  Named Oidor de la Audiencia  (Justice of the Appeals Court), Quirgo arrived in Mexico City in 1531, pension in hand.

While “active seniors” who move to Mexico normally expect their pension will last much longer in Mexico than at home,  Quirga managed to go through the savings quite rapidly.  But … as the first in a long line of seniors who, rather than retire, find a new career in Mexico, he spent it quite wisely.  With a shortage of judges in the new colony, he was spending much of his time hearing normal minor criminal cases… petty thefts, brawls, muggings.  He noticed that most of the defendants had two things in common… they were Indians, and they were drunk.  Drunk Indians vastly outnumbering  elderly Spaniards, there was a use for that pension money… setting up the San Cosme y Damiano Hospital, the world’s first alcholism rehab center… and giving Quiroga a teeny footnote in judicial history as the first judge to be be able to offer rehag in lieu of jail or fines.

quiroga_vascoBut he was just getting started on his new career.  From 1533 to 1537, he was also responsible for legal adminstration in the new province of Michoacán, where he learned P’urepecha, and — as the best of active seniors have done since — immersed himself in the local culture.  When he finally did decide to go to a monastery… it wasn’t to retire, but to get himself ordained.  While the State was able to bring in adminstrators, the Church was still struggling just to find clerics who could learn indigenous languages and preach a coherent sermon.  Being a Bishop isn’t all that different from any other kind of administration, so being fluent in P’urepecha, immersed in the local culture and willing to take the job, he became the first Bishop of Michoacán in 1537, at the ripe old age of 67.

And only getting started.  Keeping up with new ideas is something always recommended to keep you young, and it being the Renaissance and all, new ideas were all around… just kind of slow reaching outposts like Michoacán.  But a new best seller by an English author did fall into Quiroga0s hands… Utopia, by Thomas More.

More’s fictional island of Utopia is said to be somewhere in the “New World”, a place where “there is no private property”… a concept common to Quiroga’s P’urepecha neighbors, and a cause of endless friction with (and outragous depredations by) his fellow Spaniards, including those of the clerical persuasion.

As in Utopia, the P’urapechas lived mostly in rural communes, farming for the most part, though practicing trades useful to any peasant society… weaving, carpentry, metalsmithing, building.  With a rather simple life (especially considering their elites had either been eliminated by the Spanish, or had adopted a Spanish lifestyle if they survived) there was an egalitarian simplicity… ripe for the pickings of greedy Spanish conquistadores looking for peasants to work lands they could grab from unarmed, defenseless farmers.

But, to Quroga, what this meant was that the P’urapechas were very close to the ideal Christian community dreamed of by the English writer.  As to defenses, nothing better than a good lawyer… and he knew the best one in Mexico:  himself.  One the one hand, as Bishop of Michoacán, he saw his duty as “christianizing” the P’urepecha… whose lifestyle was already very close to the “ideal” Christian community.  Oh, More said they needed priests (and that’s what Bishops are supposed to provide) and they needed education (that’s what the priests are supposed to be doing anyway… though adding the thoughts of Thomas More, and some practical lessons in Spanish business practice wouldn’t hurt as additions to the usual Bible study wouldn’t be stretching things too much) and they needed good contracts with the Crown.

Since, in the Utopian culture, everyone worked, Quiroga expected he would too.. writing those contracts (many of which have stood up for over four centuries) and organizing the details.  The Utopian world was more than just communal and Christian.  It was a world

… with goods being stored in warehouses and people requesting what they need. There are also no locks on the doors of the houses, which are rotated between the citizens every ten years. Agriculture is the most important job on the island. Every person is taught it and must live in the countryside, farming for two years at a time, with women doing the same work as men. Parallel to this, every citizen must learn at least one of the other essential trades: weaving (mainly done by the women), carpentry, metalsmithing and masonry. There is deliberate simplicity about these trades; for instance, all people wear the same types of simple clothes and there are no dressmakers making fine apparel. All able-bodied citizens must work; thus unemployment is eradicated, and the length of the working day can be minimised: the people only have to work six hours a day (although many willingly work for longer). More does allow scholars in his society to become the ruling officials or priests, people picked during their primary education for their ability to learn. All other citizens are however encouraged to apply themselves to learning in their leisure time.

While implementing some of the program was high-handed (people didn’t want to move every two years, and while they accepted wearing pretty much the same clothes, there are always those with a fashion sense, or a touch of rebellion who want to be slightly different… and fashions change for no reason at all), what made the experiment a success … and one that lasted for centuries… was that the P’urepecha were consulted about what could and couldn’t be done, and how best to do it.

More’s idea of “simple” crafts wouldn’t work in a community that, unlike the mythical Utopia, was not an island separated from the rest of the world, but surrounded by outsiders with money and resources the community lacked. So… the P’urepecha villages were organized to produce export goods… musical instruments in one town, pottery in another, clothing in yet a third and so on. In addition to creating exports and bringing in outside goods, it also meant the community as a whole was mutually dependent and had a cultural cohesion not found in other indigenous communities that were more easily assimilated or marginalized.

Quiroga, too busy to retire, was active up until he died at what was then the incredibly old age of 95… almost literally in the saddle (he was on a pastoral visit to Urupan).   Called “Tata” (father) by the P’urepecha, he has been seen as a saint since… and while one might question the validity of some of the innumerable miracles attributed to him since he died, that he pulled off a few while he was still alive might just make qualify him to be not just the unofficial patron saint of Michoacán, but perhaps the ideal patron saint of expats everywhere.

Sources:

Richard Grabman Gods, Gachupines and Gringos, Editorial Mazatlan (2008).

Thomas More, Utopia, 1516.

Vasco de Quiroga” Biografías y vidas (accessed 27 May 2014)

Rodrigo Vera, “Inician proceso de canonización de Tata Vasco” (Proceso, 1 May 2014).

Wikipedia, “Utopia (Book)” (accessed 27 May 2014).

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. A.C. Doyle permalink
    29 May 2014 7:22 pm

    Loved this! Quite the bio.

  2. M. St-Onge permalink
    3 June 2014 6:00 am

    This is an incredible story. I would agree to Vasco de Quiroga being an expats role model – some very useful food for thought in the eve of my “retirement” to Mexico. Worth being posted on all expats to Mexico boards once every month. It’s about time I discover your incredible site . Sincerely, thank you.

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