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Fray Toribio de Benavente "Motolinía"

The First Franciscan in Mexico

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Fray Toribio de Benavente

The conquest of America, as painted by Diego Rivera in the Cortes Palace in Cuernavaca.

Diego Rivera

Fray Toribio de Benavente, more commonly known by his nickname, Motolinía, was one of the first 12 Franciscan priests to arrive in 1524 in the newly-conquered lands of Mexico. Born Toribio Paredes in Benavente, Spain (year unknown, probably around 1490), he changed his name to reflect the city of his birth, a common practice among Franciscans.

Once Hernán Cortés finished the bloody conquest of the Aztecs, he asked for religious men to be sent to him in the ruins of Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City. He did not fully trust the church not to despoil him of his new Aztec gold, however, and asked for Franciscans, who had taken vows of poverty. 12 young Franciscans were sent, and among them young Toribio soon distinguished himself for his rapport with the natives and his sharp intellect. He got his nickname from the defeated Aztecs, who referred to him as “Motolinía,” or “poor one.”

Motolinía quickly learned Nahuatl, the native tongue, and was well-liked by the natives. He traveled frequently, establishing churches and monasteries in Mexico and Guatemala. He was known in particular as a tireless evangelizer: be believed that any soul not baptized would go to hell. It was this belief that led him to begin administering mass baptisms of the natives. He would round up all of the natives in a certain place and baptize all of them at once in a public area. He claimed to have baptized 400,000 people in this fashion.

At a time when many people thought the natives to be stupid and lazy, Motolinía disagreed: “...these native Indians (have) great ability and ingenuity to learn the sciences, arts and skills that have been taught to them, because they have learned in a short time skills that take many years to master in Castille. Here, merely by observing such things done, many have become masters. They have a lively, sharp, humble understanding, and are not distracted or proud like in other nations.” (History of the Indians of New Spain, Book 3, chapter 12)

Motolinía was an early defender of native rights. He met a kindred spirit in Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Dominican who also was an avowed defender of the Indians, and for a time the two worked together, but eventually they had a falling out. Las Casas saw Motolinía’s mass baptisms as a lazy shortcut of sorts, and believed that true conversion could only truly take place on a personal level. It sounds like a small detail, but the issue drove the two men apart, to such a degree that by 1555 Motolinía wrote a letter to the Spanish crown in which he said the best thing would be to lock Las Casas in a monastery for the rest of his life.

Motolinía wrote A History of the Indians of New Spain, but it wasn’t published until many years after his death. Little is known of his later years, after 1555 or so, including the date of his death, which was sometime between 1566 and 1569 in Mexico City.

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