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Pioneers

in Every Land

“That They May Know the Covenants of the Lord”

Olivas Aoy and the Book of Mormon

Matthew McBride

Olivas Vila Aoy1 arrived in Salt Lake City in March 1884.2 A well-educated, 61-year-old3 native of Spain, his presence on the streets of Utah’s capital was peculiar—most of the state’s predominantly Mormon population was of British or northern European ancestry, and few spoke Spanish. It was Aoy’s first visit to the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and he expected to stay two or three weeks. Four years earlier, he had joined the Church in New Mexico, where for over a decade he had edited newspapers in a constellation of small mining towns along what became known as the Turquoise Trail.4

While in Salt Lake City, he visited the art studio of George M. Ottinger, famous in Utah for his paintings of Mexico and of Aztec culture. As a young man, Ottinger had traveled throughout Mexico, fascinated by the cultures of its native peoples.5 In Aoy, he found a kindred spirit.

Wanderer

Aoy’s own interest in America’s indigenous peoples had begun about 25 years earlier, when he too traveled to Mexico. The trip came at a turning point in his life. Prior to the journey, he was training to become a Franciscan priest in Havana, Cuba. After a heated disagreement with the vicar general over the necessity of priestly celibacy, Aoy was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.6 With no other ties in Cuba, Aoy set out for Mexico by boat. He landed on the Yucatán Peninsula and lived there among the Maya for a few years, where, according to one tradition, he “adopted their mode of life, their clothing and their customs.”7

During his time among the Maya, he developed an abiding concern for this people’s future. The once vast Maya civilization, now drastically reduced in numbers, chafed under Spanish-Mexican rule. Relegated to the bottom of a caste system that privileged their European conquerors, some Maya even took up arms to fight for independence.8 Aoy may have become aware of the plight of the Maya while in Havana, where he very likely encountered Mayan rebels who had been sold into indentured servitude to work on Cuban plantations.9

Though Aoy remained in the Yucatán for only a few years, his experience there left a lasting impression. The mistreatment of America’s native peoples by his fellow Europeans became distasteful to him.10 Already attuned to the needs of the downtrodden, perhaps by temperament or by his training to become a Franciscan, he left the Yucatán with a renewed zeal to defend the oppressed and underprivileged wherever he found them.

Editor

Aoy moved to New Orleans in the 1860s, where he served during the U. S. Civil War as a reading and writing teacher for four Union regiments composed largely of freed black slaves.11 After a brief stop in St. Louis, where he again worked as a teacher, he moved to the small town of Las Vegas, New Mexico. Seeking a way to improve the lives of those around him, he became active in politics, taught himself the printer’s trade, and published newspapers devoted to the cause of scientific advancement and a better life for the laboring classes.

He started with “no more skill as a printer than might have been expected from an office devil,” or apprentice, and “with no more type and material than might have been packed off on a man’s back.”12 But despite his inexperience, he quickly earned the respect of those around him as well as a modest living from the newspapers. The miners in the small New Mexican towns and camps that his papers served often called him “Padre Aoy,” referring to his Franciscan past.13

Aoy’s newspapers, sometimes published in both Spanish and English, were outspoken in their support of what were called progressive ideas, including “the elevation of the sober and industrious class of society without distinction of sex, color, nationality, etc., through the means of organized action and mental culture.”14 Education, in Aoy’s view, was a key to unlock human potential and improve one’s circumstances. In addition to running his newspapers, Aoy also taught Spanish to interested pupils.

Latter-day Saint

It was in New Mexico in 1879 that Aoy met Lawrence M. Peterson, a Spanish-speaking Latter-day Saint elder from Manassa, Colorado.15 Peterson gave him copies of Church literature, including issues of La Voz del Desierto, an early Mormon newspaper published in Mexico.16 These publications introduced Aoy to the Book of Mormon’s promise of an important place for America’s native peoples in the unfolding of God’s work. This message, together with the cooperation and idealism he found in Mormon communities, resonated with Aoy, and he was soon baptized.

Aoy began thinking of ways to use his skill and experience on behalf of his new faith. He wrote to Peterson, insisting that northern New Mexico was a “locality destined by God to plant a new Stake of Zion inaugurated from the beginning with a good permanent school and the publication of a paper.”17 He was particularly interested in teaching and helping the large populations of Mexicans and native Pueblo Indians in that region.

Translator

During that first visit to Salt Lake City in 1884, Aoy examined George Ottinger’s paintings of Aztec Mexico. These two men, with their shared passion for Mexico’s indigenous cultures, must have had a lively conversation. Then, whether from Ottinger or from someone else in Salt Lake City, Aoy learned of an important project then underway.

Prior to his conversion, only portions of the Book of Mormon had been translated into Spanish. Trozos Selectos del Libro de Mormon (Selected Passages from the Book of Mormon) was published in 1875. At the time of Aoy’s visit to Salt Lake City, Meliton Gonzalez Trejo—another Spanish convert and the chief translator of Trozos Selectos—had just begun work on a complete Spanish translation with James Zebulon Stewart, a former missionary to Mexico.18

Rather than returning to New Mexico, Aoy remained in Utah and joined the translation team. Moses Thatcher, the Apostle charged with supervising the effort, was living in Logan, Utah, as were Trejo and Stewart.19 Aoy also moved there, and for over two years he assisted in the work of translating and publishing the Book of Mormon in Spanish. While there, he was endowed in the Logan Temple.20

At the time he joined the team, a first draft of the translation was nearly complete, but it needed revising. Aoy, fluent in both English and Spanish, made hundreds of small but important changes to the text during this process.21 For example, the word millions of Spanish-speaking Church members use today to refer to the Book of Mormon plates—planchas—was suggested by Aoy.22

When the time came to publish the book, his printer’s experience was a boon to the project. Under James Z. Stewart’s direction, Aoy served as proofreader and, for a time, as typesetter.23 A native Spanish speaker, he could accomplish this detailed work more quickly and accurately than the English-speaking pressmen at the Deseret News office.24

The completed translation, published in 1886, was an important milestone. Church leaders and missionaries viewed it as essential to reaching “more of that people for whom the Book of Mormon is specially intended—the American Indians—than any other translation would.”25 Though Trejo and Stewart were credited on the title page as the book’s primary translators, Aoy played a critical role. Elder Thatcher wrote to President John Taylor, “I hardly know how we can get along with the printing without the assistance of Brother Aoy.”26

Missionary

Stewart later wrote that while translating the Book of Mormon, Aoy “felt very much exercised over the Indians of Yucatán.”27 After all, part of the book’s stated purpose was to remind the Latter-day descendants of the people it describes “what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever.”28 A restless Aoy felt impelled to do something more. It was not enough that the Book of Mormon had been translated into Spanish. He felt obligated to take the book to the Maya, whom he viewed as the descendants of Book of Mormon peoples.

Together with Emil Buchmüller, an acquaintance in Logan, Aoy drafted a proposal to establish a mission among the Maya “for the benefit of the aborigines of this Occidental Land of Promise.”29 They hoped to do more than just preach: they planned to establish schools supported by cotton farms and even to marry Mayan women.30 Aoy and his fellow prospective missionaries were “anxious to devote the rest of their lives to the cause of education in general, and to the improvement of the Lamanites in particular.”31

Aoy sent the plan to President Taylor, who gave them his blessing and ensured that Aoy was compensated for his work in publishing the Book of Mormon.32 Aoy then embarked once again for Mexico.33 His route took him through El Paso, Texas, where he stopped to await his luggage. While there, he became aware of another group who needed his help.

Schoolmaster

When Aoy arrived in El Paso in 1887, Spanish-speaking children there were unable to participate in the English-only public schools. Forgotten in the calculations of the Anglo community, these children would struggle to fully integrate into El Paso society without a school that could teach them English. Aoy “found a touching eagerness among the poorer Mexicans for such a school, but no money to provide for it.”34 As a compassionate Christian, inveterate teacher, and educated Spanish speaker, Aoy must have felt called to be there in that moment. He decided to postpone his mission to Mexico.

Aoy met with the concerned parents and formed an association to start a school. He used his own savings—including the money he was paid for the translation—to rent a classroom and buy basic supplies.35 “He saw that he must expect no remuneration other than the gratitude of parents and children and the satisfaction of helping in a good work.”36

For seven months, he taught his class of 30 to 40 students, wishing he had the means to accommodate more. Then his money began to run short, threatening the future of the school. His personal sacrifices for the well-being of the children in his classes began to threaten his own health and well-being. Fortunately, through the efforts of sympathetic acquaintances, his efforts came at last to the attention of the school board, who resolved to fund a “Mexican Preparatory School.”37

Epilogue

Aoy never did leave Texas. Because there were no branches of the Church in El Paso at the time, he lived as a Latter-day Saint in isolation, devoting himself to his school and his students. He died eight years later, in 1895, revered in Hispanic El Paso as an education pioneer. The school he started and which now bears his name is the oldest operating school in the city. His vision of “welding the two classes of [the] population” through bilingual education became his legacy.38

Though he did not go on a mission to the Yucatán, Aoy never gave up on the idea. He often spoke to friends in El Paso “of returning to spend the rest of his life” among the Maya, but his health and advancing age made such an adventure increasingly unlikely.39 Perhaps elevating the lives of Spanish-speaking children of El Paso was where God wanted him to be all along.

 

The author acknowledges the research of Conrey Bryson, Mark Cioc-Ortega, Bill Baxter, Nicholas Corona, Christy Best, and Michael Landon and the insights of James Goldberg and Matthew Geilman. The interpretation of the sources is solely the responsibility of the author.

 

Footnotes

[1] There is some uncertainty as to Aoy’s real name. Some sources, including Logan Temple records, suggest he was born Jaime Vila. See Conrey Bryson, “A Man Named Aoy,” Password (a journal of the El Paso Historical Society), vol. 35, no. 2 (Summer 1990), 97; “Professor Aoy’s Funeral,” El Paso Daily Herald, Apr. 29, 1895, 1.

[2] “Personal Points,” Salt Lake Herald, Mar. 11, 1884.

[3] Aoy was between 57 and 62. Records of his age and birth date conflict. I have used the date Aoy provided when he was endowed in the Logan Temple in November 1884, as cited in Bryson, “A Man Named Aoy,” 97.

[4] For overviews of Aoy’s life and travels, see G. W. Hare, “Life and Character of Olivas Villanueva Aoy,” ¿Quien Sabe?, El Paso High School yearbook (1900), 24–29; Bryson, “A Man Named Aoy,” 95–99.

[5] “A Salt Lake Artist’s New and Old Pictures of the San Juan,” Deseret Evening News, Apr. 15, 1905, 26.

[6] Olivas V. Aoy letter to L. M. Peterson, Feb. 27, 1880, John Taylor Presidential Papers, 1877–1887, Church History Library, Salt Lake City. Aoy felt that celibacy was “a rebellion against God’s command in His first and greatest law of ‘Grow and multiply’” (spelling modernized). He refers here to the injunction in Genesis 1:28 to “multiply, and replenish the earth.” Sources do not make it entirely clear whether Aoy was excommunicated prior to his departure from Spain or in Cuba.

[7] Hare, “Life and Character,” 26.

[8] See Nelson A. Reed, The Caste War of Yucatán, rev. ed. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001).

[9] Yucatán governor Miguel Barbachano sold Mayan rebels to Cuban planters. See Michele Reid-Vazquez, The Year of the Lash: Free People of Color in Cuba and the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011), 155–159.

[10] Aoy later decried the way the Maya “have suffered from the uncontrolled Greed for Gold on the part of those of our own race, better known as Christian White men.” Emil Buchmüller and Olivas V. Aoy letter to John Taylor, Oct. 15, 1886, John Taylor Presidential Papers, 1877–1887, Church History Library, Salt Lake City. See also Hare, “Life and Character,” 25–26.

[11] Olivas V. Aoy letter to L. M. Peterson, Feb. 27, 1880. Aoy was chaplain for the 75th United States Colored Regiment, one of four regiments composed of freed slaves and free men of color that were organized by the U.S. Army in Louisiana following the capture of New Orleans in 1862. Aoy evidently taught the members of all four of these regiments. The units held several designations between 1862 and 1865, but were finally named the 73rd, 74th, 75th, and 76th Colored Regiments in 1864.

[12] Daily New Mexican, Oct. 15, 1874, 1.

[13] Pioneer Surveyor, Frontier Lawyer: The Personal Narrative of O. W. Williams, 1877–1902, ed. S. D. Myres (El Paso, TX: Western College Press, 1966), 92–93.

[14] Articles of the New Mexico Co-Operative Union quoted in the Daily New Mexican, July 11, 1876, 1. Another editor described Aoy’s intent as “the wiping out of ancient prejudices, passions and bigotries, the learning of the masses of our people, their rights and duties as freemen and their general elevation in the scale of American progress and civilization” (Daily New Mexican, June 4, 1875, 1). Aoy’s papers included the Las Vegas (NM) Advertiser, the Cerrillos Prospector, and the Wallace Watchman.

[15] Peterson was a Spanish-speaking Danish convert living in Manassa, Colorado. For more on Peterson, see Erastus Snow, “Correspondence: A Romantic History—Baptisms and Emigration,” Deseret News, May 23, 1877.

[16] Olivas V. Aoy letter to L. M. Peterson, Feb. 27, 1880. La Voz del Desierto was the first Spanish-language Mormon periodical. Copies of this paper are available in Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. See also Jared Tamez, “La Voz del Desierto: An Indigenous and ‘Uncorrelated’ Mormon Publication in Mexico, 1879,” unpublished paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association of Mormon Letters, Orem, Utah, Feb. 27, 2010.

[17] Olivas V. Aoy letter to L. M. Peterson, Feb. 27, 1880.

[18] Apostle Moses Thatcher was charged with completing the full translation in the fall of 1883. For more on Trejo and Stewart, see Eduardo Balderas, “How the Scriptures Came to Be Translated into Spanish,” Ensign, Sept. 1972, 29–29; Matthew G. Geilman, “Taking the Gospel to Mexico: Meliton Gonzalez Trejo: Translator, Missionary, Colonizer,” history.lds.org; “James Z. Stewart,” in Andrew Jenson, Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia, 4 vols. (Salt Lake City: Andrew Jenson Historical Company, 1901–1936), 1:416–418.

[19] August Heinrich Friedrich Wilcken, recently released as president of the Mexican Mission, also assisted with the translation and proofreading. See Moses Thatcher letter to John Taylor, Apr. 5, 1886, John Taylor Presidential Papers, 1877–1887, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

[20] Bryson, “A Man Named Aoy,” 97.

[21] It is impossible to assess the extent of Aoy’s revisions because the original manuscript of the translation is no longer extant. It was likely destroyed along with Meliton Trejo’s other personal papers when his house was burned during the Mexican Revolution (Trejo family interview: Salt Lake City, Utah, 1973 February 8, 1–2, Church History Library, Salt Lake City). What we know of Aoy’s changes comes from a letter Moses Thatcher wrote to John Taylor describing Aoy’s work: Moses Thatcher letter to John Taylor, July 15, 1884, John Taylor Presidential Papers, 1877–1887, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

[22] George Q. Cannon letter to James Z. Stewart, Jan. 19, 1885, quoted in Bryson, “A Man Named Aoy,” 98. Trejo had suggested placas in his original translation.

[23] Millennial Star, Feb. 21, 1887, 121–122; “Local Briefs,” Salt Lake Herald, Jan. 15, 1885, 8.

[24] The News had purchased Spanish type with its accents and diacritics, but the regular typesetters could not reliably set the proper type of the Spanish words. See Moses Thatcher letter to John Taylor, Apr. 5, 1886, John Taylor Presidential Papers, 1877–1887, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

[25] Millennial Star, Feb. 21, 1887, 122. See also “Utah News,” Millennial Star, May 12, 1884, 303; Matthew G. Geilman, “Taking the Gospel to the Lamanites: Doctrinal Foundations for Establishing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mexico” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 2001).

[26] Moses Thatcher letter to John Taylor, July 15, 1884. Thatcher misspells Aoy’s name “Oay.”

[27] James Z. Stewart letter to John Taylor, Oct. 27, 1886, John Taylor Presidential Papers, 1877–1887, Church History Library, Salt Lake City; spelling modernized.

[28] Title page of the Book of Mormon. Aoy cites this passage along with several others in support of his plan for schools and a mission in southeast Mexico.

[29] Olivas V. Aoy and Emil Buchmüller letter to John Taylor, Oct. 15, 1886. Aoy and Buchmüller drafted formal articles describing the purpose of the mission and the requirements for missionaries and teachers. The name they gave the mission was “Industrial and Scholastic Association of the Delightsome Occidentia.” Their use of words such as “delightsome” and “land of promise” echoed Book of Mormon language.

[30] Aoy was still unmarried, as was Buchmüller. President Taylor authorized the missionaries to marry in Mexico, but only monogamously. L. John Nuttall, Nov. 20, 1886, In the President’s Office: The Diaries of L. John Nuttall, 1879–1892, ed. Jedediah S. Rogers (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2007), 174.

[31] Olivas V. Aoy and Emil Buchmüller letter to John Taylor, Oct. 15, 1886.

[32] Nuttall, In the President’s Office, 174.

[33] Aoy departed between December 1886 and April 1887. Buchmüller does not appear to have accompanied him.

[34] “A Noble Work,” El Paso Times, June 23, 1887, 4.

[35] In addition to the $225 Aoy had been paid for his work on the translation, he may also have had income from the sale of property he owned in St. David, Arizona. He also received a few scant donations from parents and supporters in El Paso. Efforts to raise funds through putting on a ball were unsuccessful. See “A Noble Work,” 4; Olivas V. Aoy and Emil Buchmüller letter to John Taylor, Oct. 15, 1886.

[36] “A Noble Work,” 4.

[37] “The School Board,” El Paso Times, Jan. 5, 1888, 5. This funding later included a small salary that Aoy shared liberally with students in need.

[38] “A Noble Work,” 4. For more on the significance of Aoy’s school to education in El Paso, see Mario T. García, Desert Immigrants: The Mexicans of El Paso, 1880–1920 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981), 110–112.

[39] Hare, “Life and Character,” 26.