Posadas, Argentina (1704): Traveling through the Misiones province of Argentina, a visitor might notice statues of a young girl dressed in white scattered throughout the towns and provincial settlements of the locality. Upon first inspection, they look to be funerary monuments, the majority of them broken and moss eaten with age. They sit abandoned among the wild grass and swallowtails that spring from the earth. Ask a resident why there are so many identical markers dedicated to children in the area and they will gaze at you with expressionless eyes and say they do not know. For most, the history of these statues has been forgotten, and this amnesia has more to do with Latin American politics than with the general passage of time.
Dating from the early eighteenth century, these statues once demarcated a string of New World Jesuit settlements in the Americas. Following the European conquest, Jesuit missions established themselves in Brazil and Argentina to preach the gospel among the indigenous Guarani people. In 1773, the order was temporarily expelled from colonial America, and its influence was further diminished during the nineteenth century through the anti-clerical policies of Latin American governments. As a result, many Jesuit settlements, like the impressive San Ignacio Miní, were deserted and fell into ruin.
The Jesuits began constructing religious schools in Misiones during the mid-seventeenth century with the intention of Christianizing the area. Connected to the local churches, they were attended by a small number of indigenous children and held up as models of Spanish proselytism. Despite praise for such missionary efforts, however, relations with the native Guarani remained fraught with tension. In 1703, Father Bartolomé Xavier de Valencia recorded a series of disruptions within one of the local girls schools recently placed under his jurisdiction. In his report, Valencia interpreted the disruptions as a sign of growing disorder among the Guarani people, noting shouting and flagrant disobedience on the part of female students. Corresponding records give a more detailed picture of the events. Father Fermín Padilla reported an instance in which girls rose from their chairs and proceeded to walk out of the school building in the middle of a lesson. In another incident, a girl precipitously shot up from her desk and shouted “ego veniam ad te,” despite having no knowledge of Latin. In each instance, religious authorities reported students speaking in broken Latin and walking into the jungle as though sleepwalking.
These events culminated in January of 1704 when Father Hidalgo Lasuén entered his classroom to find every female student standing at attention. Lasuén ordered his students to take their seats. None obeyed and instead gave the reply “ego veniam ad te,” intoning it as if in a deep trance. Running to fetch Father Valencia, Lasuén returned to find the classroom empty. Gazing into the distance, he glimpsed his students walking single-file into the brush. The students never returned and search parties failed to turn up any traces of the girls. Similar incidences occurred over the next week throughout the religious schools run by the Jesuits in Misiones. In each case, students disobeyed instructors, abandoned their classrooms and walked into the wilderness.
None of the so-called abandonadas were ever found. Overall, it is estimated that 300 girls disappeared over the course of two weeks. In some instances, entire villages were vacated and never repopulated. Jesuit historians interpreted the event as a religious omen, claiming that the abandonadas were heeding the call of God as they vanished into the jungle. The following year, Father Valencia erected statues in every village to commemorate this peculiar “miracle,” choosing the image of a young girl kneeling in prayer to symbolize God’s salvation and the enduring efforts of the Jesuit missions. Today the remains of these statues can be found across Misiones province, strewn among the debris of Jesuit reducciones testifying to Spain’s once formidable colonial presence in South America.