Women as icons of war & peace in early America

Juliana Barr, an Associate Professor at Duke University, gives a talk on 18th century Spanish-Indian borderland history in Konover Auditorium on Nov. 28, 2016. (Jason Jiang/The Daily Campus)

UConn students learned about the changing symbolism of women and the Virgin Mary during the early Spanish conquest of the American southwest as part of UConn’s Gender and History public lecture series.

Juliana Barr, associate professor of history from Duke University, is a leading scholar in the study of early American history, according to UConn’s own history professor Nancy Shoemaker.

Shoemaker introduced the scholar’s lecture titled “War Came in the Form of a Woman” along with Barr’s award-winning book similarly titled “Peace Came in the Form of a Woman,” published in 2007.

The contrasting titles illuminate the point of her lecture, which focused on how her previous findings showed the peace symbolized by the Virgin Mary and Spanish settlers in the 18th century was likely preceded by centuries of fear and slavery under the same icon.

“In a meta way, it’s exciting to hear scholars revise their ideas,” fourth-year history PhD student Margaret Stack said.

Barr started by describing the two versions of Mary seen in the Spanish conquest of America: the first being the Virgin Mary or more distinctly Maria de Remedios, and la Malinche, a woman symbolically bridging between the indigenous pueblo Indian community and the Spaniards.

The icons of the mother as well as the cross were important symbols during the conquest because they not only marked territories but were used to identify each of the warring sides, according to Barr.

Due to the abundance of indigenous languages, these visual symbols were very important and represented supernatural powers of healing, strength and violence to both sides.

Barr presented an entire slideshow of pueblo Indian depictions of the Spaniards riding horses and bearing crosses with their swords, along with flying banners of the mother Mary.

Barr progressed to the conclusion that the difference between intent and interpretation is unclear but the areas marked using crosses after the entradas, or crusades, and stories told of the men under the Virgin Mary were those of pillaging, slavery and plight.

Some Indians wore crosses themselves, sometimes amulets taken from bodies of their enemies, sometimes prayer-sticks from their own religion and also sometimes just as a symbol of supernatural power, though it’s unclear whether the idea was taken directly from the Christian beliefs, Barr said.

But over time the Spanish tried to turn the mother Mary into more than a war flag, when they created “La Conquistadora” and then brought in male saints and figures from the Spanish-Moorish conflicts.

Barr said there isn’t a clear way to see whether the Indians were using crosses and transformed Mary figures to plead for mercy using another people’s icons or if there was an integration into their own religion but the later archaeological findings show the beginning of a new, simultaneous but separate following of both Christianity and pueblo Indian religion.

“She is bringing light to the weird synchronicity of symbols between converging cultures,” Stack said, regarding the historical side of Barr’s presentation.

“It’s interesting to see how something so religious and symbolic [the Virgin Mary] transforms throughout history,” first-semester pre-kinesiology student Marco Rivera said.       

Stack also commented it would have been intriguing to hear Barr’s perspective on the current situation in North Dakota and the mobilization of indigenous cultures and religions around Standing Rock.    

Barr was the 50th scholar to be featured in the lecture series and will be speaking again on Tuesday, Nov. 29 in the Wood Hall Basement Lounge from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., to discuss her work-in-progress “La Dama Azul (the Woman in Blue): An Origin Story for Colonial America, as Told from an Indian Perspective.”

Barr graduated with her PhD from University of Wisconsin in 1999 and then continued her research via fellowships across the country including at the University of Florida, the Huntington Library in California, the Newberry library in Chicago and the Clements Center of Southwest Studies before moving to Duke.