From almost the very moment that Spanish Europeans landed in what is today North America, religious leaders pressed their footprints on its soil.
From the entire length of the U.S. east coast, Florida, the Mississippi River (Rio Espíritu Santo), New Mexico, Texas, and on to California’s Pacific Coast, priests helped lead the way.
Although mainstream history books deliberately withhold their key trailblazers’ role, Catholic priests were in fact some of the first European explorers. Padre Kino (1645-1711) was such a person. Truly, he was one of New Spain’s most dedicated and successful missionaries during the 1600s-1700s evangelization era in America.
Born Eusebius Chinus (Chini) in Northern Italy, “Kino” is the Spanish version of his Italian name. While little is known of his early years, a story is recorded that after recovering from a serious illness, he chose to join the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and never faltered from his apostolic duty. He received his religious orders in 1677 and had requested assignment to Asia. However, his superiors assigned him to New Spain.
Sent to Pimería Alta in what is now the contiguous region of Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, his congregation covered a large area. Therein, he operated over 24 missions. Because of his Jesuit black cloak, members of his Native American flock fondly called him “Sotana Negra.”
Unfortunately, conventional U.S. history ignores Spanish Mexican human interface stories. Dwelling far too much on the initial Spanish-Native American hostile confrontation itself, the predictable storyline takes two forms. One, Spanish explorers focused only on their search for gold. Two, missionaries were committed to converting indigenous people at all costs. In that respect, Father Kino doesn’t fit the mold.
Father Kino was a self-fulfilled soul who did three things especially well during his assignment in the Southwest:
(l) He was a missionary first, but at the same time took on the role of chief advocate for Native Americans. He often admonished Spanish government officials if their policies violated natives’ human rights.
(2), he vigorously opposed the use of indigenous people in the silver mines, and
(3) A gifted mediator, he facilitated a peaceful end to long-standing native-on-native violence.
For that reason, he was highly sought after by clan chiefs and elders who used his effective communication skills to justly resolve simmering intra-tribal disputes, as well as long standing disagreements with other tribes. He quickly mastered the dialects of over sixteen diverse tribes.
Father Kino’s favorite sermons dealt with how the Spanish people themselves at one time had been nonbelievers. In that aspect, he explained to his Native American audiences that ancient Spanish people had much in common with Native Americans. He often cited Saint James the Apostle and his travelling to Spain to give religious instruction to native Iberians, just as he was now doing in America. It is said that this particular approach was the reason he was warmly accepted to the Tucson region by the Sobaipuri (Pima) tribes.
Altogether, Father Kino set up nearly 30 missions, including nearly seventy-five stand-alone chapels, and baptized nearly 50,000 native converts. One of the missions is San Xavier del Bac in the Tohono O’odham territory, established by Father Kino in 1692. He is the first to record the name Tucson in Spanish in 1699, a Papago word, meaning “at the foot of the black mountain” (Sentinel Peak).
Father Kino was a first-rate explorer as well. Yet very often, 16th and 17th century Spanish spiritual figures don’t receive equal credit for their exploratory prowess and impact in different fields of study. For instance, Father Kino and his companion, Father Salvatierra, interviewed members of the Pima people as part of their anthropological studies. By studying sea shells the natives had received as trade with tribes living further west, he determined that they were seashells from the Pacific Ocean. Through this analysis, Father Kino reached the conclusion that California was a peninsula, rather than an island, as had previously been thought.
In addition to being a successful missionary and explorer, Padre Kino was also an accomplished cartographer and astronomer. Relying on his map-making skills, he sketched accurate maps of Arizona that are still admired today.
Father Kino’s astronomy interests were extraordinary, as well. For example, while waiting to depart to America in Cádiz, Spain, his fascination with the stars contributed to that field of study.
The year 1680 marks the first time that a comet was observed by telescope. While the comet was eventually named for Gottfried Kirch, a German astronomer, Father Kino is the one who meticulously charted the comet’s movements across the sky. His detailed observations motivated Father Kino to publish his findings in a book he entitled “Exposición Astronómica de el Cometa.” It is recognized as one of the first technical publications printed in America. The book was stimulating enough to inspire New Spain’s Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz to write a sonnet honoring the cosmic event.
Additionally, Father Kino was an adept writer, mathematician, and miner. The fact remains that America’s Christianity roots are much more multifaceted than mainstream history books lead us to believe. Here in Texas, several intrepid padres have equally earned their place in early exploration history. They include Fathers Margil, Morfi, Francisco Hidalgo, Olivares, and so many more.
Before ending this article, I must offer a sense of perspective. Padre Kino’s story carries enormous emotional weight for Mestizo people. Clearly, the momentous clash between the Spanish Europeans and Native Americans was hostile. Justly, our full-blooded Native American brethren have every right to never forget the deracinating impact on their heritage.
Yet, neither can U.S. citizens of Spanish Mexican/Native American-descent forget that this historic meeting was a true melting pot, blending the two cultures from opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean into one people. Said another way, it gave birth to our Mestizo family tree, whose fruit (descendants) in the U.S. are well beyond thirty million strong and growing.
In summary, Sotana Negra, his fellow missionary brothers, and religious sisters helped engrave New Spain’s lasting influence in what is now the U.S. Southwest and its people. The result?
This part of Old Mexico — California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, southern Utah, Colorado, and Texas shares dual Spanish European and Native American traits. In short, the brown skin we inherited from our Native American ancestors represents the barro (clay) of the Southwest, forever tying us to the land.
In that respect, the words of historian H.E. Bolton are most fitting: “In short, the Southwest is as Spanish Mexican in color and historical background as New England is Puritan, as New York is Dutch, or as New Orleans is French.” Truer words have rarely been spoken.