For Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas in 1492 represented an incredible opportunity to cement their legacy. If they could colonize this previously unknown part of the world – rich with natural resources and inhabited by indigenous peoples – they could create an empire the likes of which the world had never seen.
But to lay claim to these lands, the monarchs had to abide an edict from the ruling Pope Alexander VI, who, in a papal bull issued in 1493, granted Spain permission to colonize the Americas and rule the people living there, so long as they “instruct the aforesaid inhabitants and residents in the Catholic faith and train them in good morals.”
It’s with this mission in mind that the explorer Hernan Cortés set out to infiltrate and conquer the Aztecs in the region now known as Mexico in 1493.
Slowly, their traditional culture and customs were replaced with saintly statues, ornate churches, and a canon that turned their spirituality into a sin. And by requiring natives to convert to Catholicism or risk certain death at the hands of their Spanish colonizers, Cortes weaponized his religion to legitimize Spanish dominance.
The violent plan worked: By some estimates, just 35 years after Cortés took the empire, there were hundreds of thousands of Aztecs practicing the Catholic faith.
The endurance of Catholicism in modern Latin America is just one of many holdovers from this cruel colonial era, along with ongoing labor exploitation in the hands of the West, minimal economic mobility and racism. In Mexico alone, 81% of the population identifies as Catholic, according to a Pew report, compared to just 60% in Spain.
It’s a reality Mexican photographer Tonatiuh Cabello Móran is all too familiar with, having been raised in a devoutly Catholic family with indigenous roots.
In “Evangelizacion,” a series depicting scenes from pilgrimages and religious ceremonies in the outskirts of Mexico City, he exposes the paradox of Catholic devotion within indigenous populations. In his work, convention is met with subversion; safety is overridden by crime; good is prayed for, but evil prevails.
“I was interested in how Catholic fanaticism took hold despite the presence of an indigenous history,” Móran said in a phone interview. “As I went deeper into this realm, I started discovering more and more contradictions within the practice of the religion itself.”
Those incongruities are showcased in street-style images, lightly staged as is customary to Móran’s photographic practice. (The artist says he tends to “break the rules” of documentary photography, an approach that fits squarely with the theme of this series). In one image, a gay couple embraces at the foot of an expansive lagoon; in another, altars designed to ward off crime are stripped bare, robbed of their icons by the thieves and drug dealers that have adopted the altars as their new meeting places.
In one of the series’ most powerful images, a gigantic baby Jesus is paraded in Iztapalapa, the city’s most dangerous borough, in a futile effort to bring peace to the area.
“What ends up emerging (in my photos) is the absence of faith, which is the part of the phenomenon that I find so fascinating,” Móran said.
Móran’s images ultimately draw awareness to Catholicism’s role in the subordination of scores of indigenous populations in Mexico and beyond, and how, historically, the Church has supplanted traditional icons and traditions, and forcibly replaced them with symbols of a white European religion.
“I don’t think religion has eliminated indigenous culture, but I do believe it has repressed it,” says Móran. “It’s used to control our communities. And while this series is certainly very personal to me, I think it starts a universal conversation about the practice.”
“Evangelizacion” by Tonatiuh Cabello Moran is on view at the Latin American Foto Festival, presented by the Bronx Documentary Center in New York, until July 21, 2019.