If you are familiar with the missions that extend from Baja California all the way up to San Francisco, you might very well know the name of Friar Junípero Serra. But his mission story did not begin in the Californias. It began in a forgotten but beautiful corner of central Mexico.

The Sierra Gorda region covers the northern half of the state of Querétaro with bits in the neighboring states of Guanajuato and Hidalgo. Now, as then, the area has been the gateway from Mesoamerica to what is called Aridoamerica (northern Mexico into the United States).

Heading north from the state capital, the region and declared biosphere begins in a municipality called Peñamiller. It is filled with microclimates, ranging from the intensely hot and dry to the pine and holm oak forests that dominate to a tiny area that is rainforest.

The towns and villages that existed before the biosphere declaration still exist and continue with their traditional ways of life. Among these towns are five small Baroque churches that look not too different from rural parish churches in central Mexico. They have highly ornate facades, with spiraling columns, profuse vegetal decoration, saints, angels and other Catholic iconography.

But there are important differences in themes and coloring that give testament to a major shift in how evangelizing monks did their work as they pushed north in the mid-18th century.

In the early colonial period, the Spanish government and Catholic Church simply took over existing Mesoamerican social structures and modified them to their liking. Mesoamerican communities were already “civilized” in the sense that they were accustomed to a rigidly hierarchical, sedentary society where religion and government were intertwined, each justifying the other.

In Aridoamerica, nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples dominated. What few large cities that existed in this region had disappeared long before the Conquest. The colonial Spanish had no qualms about using brute force, but prior experiences (especially in Michoacán) had shown that such force could actually backfire.

Without an empire system to co-opt, Junípero Serra and the Franciscans decided to introduce the idea of “sedentary civilization” by creating mission churches as centers of the new order. The first five were constructed in the Sierra Gorda, in what are now the communities of Concá, Jalpan, Tancoyol, Agua de Landa and Tilaco.

These five mission churches look much like their counterparts farther south because Baroque architecture was still in fashion and because mining provided money for more ornate structures. As the Spanish headed north, mission churches would be progressively simpler, including the California mission style that is highly popular in the western United States today.

Full story at Mexico News Daily.