Mexico was a complex web of indigenous civilisations when the Spanish arrive in the 16th Century. On the back of the success of the Reconquista of Spain, it was decided to extend this ‘reconquista’ to the non-Catholic peoples of the new colonies. The absorption of the Aztec empire and then the Mayan empire into the territories of New Spain lead to a sprawling country that encompassed California and Texas as well as modern day Mexico. The Jesuits were veritable Spiritual Conquistadores, primarily establishing colleges in the grand colonial towns of New Spain. But these colleges were only to be stepping stones between Old Spain and the real missionary frontiers of impenetrable forests and the mountains that were often clothed in mist and jungle.
The great achievements of the Jesuits were due to men such as Gonzalo de Tapia. Many of the indigenous were exploiting the new highways build to connect colonial towns to resources such as mines or plantations. The tribes, indignant of these invaders were terrorizing these highways, carrying out guerilla raids on convoys and settlement, often with a ruthless bravery with savage consequences. Men like de Tapia were able to transform these bands of nomadic warriors into sedentary farmers and villages, pacifying them. Fr General Acquaviva had realized that it was common for large scale lapses of faith to occur among roaming peoples without access to constant guidance. It was pastorally important therefore to gathering dispersed groups into stable and permanent settlements, hence the reducciones were born.
These reducciones became, further south in Brazil, the great cities of Sao Paolo (named after the Jesuit College) and Rio de Janiero. However perhaps it was Paraguay that saw the most impressive flourishing of the reductions. What was impressive about Mexico was the rainbow of Jesuits from different countries who worked creatively together. Somehow bypassing the expectation in Madrid that only Spanish priests would work in New Spain – there were Jesuits from Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, Holland, Denmark, England, Ireland etc working on the same mission. An internationalism that reflected the early companions who gathered around Ignatius in Paris.