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Reviewed by:
  • Hall of Mirrors: Power, Witchcraft and Caste in Colonial Mexico by Laura A. Lewis
  • Elizabeth Emma Ferry
Hall of Mirrors: Power, Witchcraft and Caste in Colonial Mexico. By Laura A. Lewis. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

In Hall of Mirrors, Laura A. Lewis has given us a richly textured account of social differentiation and power in colonial Mexico. By looking at the ways in which social categories were interpreted and debated in the context of judicial accusations of witchcraft and other transgressions, she has shown how the Spanish administration attempted to fix coherent social categories and to assign to those categories standards of legitimate (in her words, “sanctioned”) spaces and activities. She also suggests ways in which individual actors negotiated their own positions within these categories in imaginative and sometimes quite effective ways.

Dr. Lewis uncovers the details of colonial judicial proceedings with particular focus on the politics of colonial power and the system of social categorization known as casta. She defines “casta” as similar to the term “raza,” also used at the time, in that it “linked social qualities to blood or ancestry” (p. 24), but without raza’s negative connotations of Jewish- or Moorishness and unlike raza, linked to a sense of inclusion based on kinship and other sorts of claims. At the same time, each caste — including Spaniards, Indians, blacks and the interstitial mulatos and mestizos — had its own positively or negatively charged attributes and these attributes were understood as inherent, at least to some degree.

Lewis begins her argument by asserting that:

the politics of caste involved two trajectories of power, which mirrored each other and were inextricably intertwined. The first set of patterns…privilege[s] Spaniards and Spanishness while subordinating Indians and Indianness, and [turns] blacks, mulattoes and mestizos into mediators who extended Spanish authority….The second set of patterns indexes the world of witchcraft, a term which described state-censured sets of moral violations…including trysts and pacts with the devil…[and] popular forms of sorcery and “black magic”


Lewis refers to these two sets of patterns as “sanctioned” and “unsanctioned” domains of political and social action and devotes the rest of her account to tracing the ways they are linked and separated in the accounts of judicial proceedings. By foregrounding the spatiality of difference in colonial Mexico, Lewis provides a new perspective on the ways the Spanish state managed conceptual categories of difference and the subjects seen to belong to and transgress these categories.

As in Europe and colonial North America, the theme of witchcraft in colonial Mexico was deeply interconnected with the politics of gender. Lewis shows that in Mexico it was simultaneously tied to the politics of caste, for instance in the discursive practices that feminized Indians and their witchy behaviors (pp. 57–63). In the cases she examines, accusations of witchcraft very often become an index of unsanctioned behaviors and the flouting of colonial authority, particularly by women and by Indians in collusion with those from other castes. This fact appears to be equally well accepted by judges, claimants and defendants (though used by them in very different ways).

By approaching historical information with an ethnographer’s eye, Lewis deepens our understanding of how casta was negotiated in the courts of New Spain. She makes knowledgeable suppositions about how these categories were enacted in everyday life during the period, without ever succumbing to a facile trust in the accounts given in court. She further shows how the politics of caste intersected with that those of gender, occupation and other forms of social differentiation and how these politics were enacted spatially in terms of sanctioned and unsanctioned domains that were seen as simultaneously metaphysical and geographic.

The book is divided into two parts, the first treating the “sanctioned” domain and the second the “unsanctioned,” though Lewis also readily acknowledges the interrelatedness of the two. After considering the relationship between casta and raza in the colonial context, she goes on to address the relations between Spaniards and Indians (Chapter 2) and of mestizos, mulatos and blacks (Chapter 3) within the sanctioned domain of work, domesticity, markets, and so on. Chapter 4, a pivotal point in the argument, addresses...

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