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Published: November 23rd 2010
In the weeks before coming to Argentina, Iguazu Falls was a big subject of debate. Eva really wanted to see them; I wasn't sure if I wanted to go out of my way just for falling water. Eva won the debate. Not only that, but as she talked about them, I was surprised to remember that I had heard of them before. Some of you may recall the 1988 historical movie, "The Mission," about a Jesuit mission amongst South American Indians. Do you recall the opening scene in the movie when the priest, strapped to a cross, was sent over a waterfall by unrepentant natives? That scene was set at Iguazu.
Although the movie was fictional, there were in fact several Jesuit reductions, settlements for "educating" the indigenous people, operating near the Iguazu Falls area in the 1600's. The movie actually ends with a statement to the effect that Jesuits continued to help the natives. I don't know how true that was in 1988, but today there seemed to be little Jesuit presence in the area. I was hoping to discover an active reduction, but instead had to settle for the Ruinas de San Ignacio Mini.
We were dumped
out of our bus at the entrance to the small town of San Ignacio. Over the past few hours, our air-conditioned selves had unfeelingly passed from the temperate summer environment of Salta back into sweltering rainforest. Getting out of the bus, I was covered in sweat before my feet even touched the ground. Around us, the hills were covered in thick, green vegetation, and the ground was covered with rich, brick-red earth. The area reminded me a bit of Rurrenabaque (Bolivia) from a month ago. It was a laborious 1 km walk from where our bus dropped us off through the town to our hotel of choice. We rested a little, then went for lunch. We shared a "picadas", a snack plate consisting of cheese, salami, and sausages. I think the platter was meant for at least 4 people, so for the two of us, it wound up being a bit more than a snack. The heat, lack of sleep, and salty food all combined made us feel sick and drowsy. We went through a short walk through the streets, and checked out the entrance to the ruins. We decided that it would be better to pay the ruins a
full visit early tomorrow morning, before the heat sets in, so we went back to our hotel, showered, and went to bed early.
The next morning, we were up by 7 am and was on the grounds of San Ignacio Mini by 8 am. It was a sunny morning, although not yet too bright for pictures. We were sharing the ruins with one Spanish tour group approximately 20 people strong - hardly a crowd on the large reduction grounds. Originally built in 1632, the reduction was in fact a small town, which at one point housed more than 3000 people, and it formed a fairly regular rectangular shape. Low buildings ordered in neat rows on the side were the residences of the local natives, each grouped by their tribes. The chief of each tribe got a particular house at the end of the row. At the front of the mission was the large church - home to the Jesuit priest. The buildings were made of the red limestone found in the area, and the remaining ruins were still very well preserved, although the Jesuits had not been active since 1768. Pillars, ornate door frames, and carvings could still be
seen intact on some of the church walls.
I remember the movie "The Mission" being very positive towards the Jesuits. The reality was a bit more complicated. The priests, of course, were the definite bosses and dictators of the reductions. They had a special platform, still existing, at which they would assemble the tribal chiefs and give them their orders. Sometimes chiefs would rebel, and whole tribes would empty out of the reduction and return to the forest. The priests imposed Catholicism, as well as other cultural norms. Most interestingly, the priests put the natives to work: each of the separate areas within the reduction specialized in a craft, agriculture, or metal working. The items produced were exported and sold, and of course, some of that money was put back into the reductions. The natives may have enjoyed more physical comforts in the reductions than they would have otherwise. Not all aspects of their culture were discouraged, and many still retained much of their language, music, and art. They created new musical and artistic styles by fusing their own traditions with the Europeans. They were safer in the reductions than on their own, as in many of the surrounding
territories, mercenaries would hunt down the natives and sell them as slaves.
We wandered the grounds for about two hours, exploring the church ruins and some of the residential buildings. Though beautiful in their simplicity, the residences were similar enough that after seeing a dozen we felt we'd seen the hundreds left. After our reduction tour was over, we just had enough time to catch our bus to Puerto Iguazú, our home base for exploring the Iguazu falls.
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