restricted access Imperial Subjects: Race and Identity in Colonial Latin America (review)
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Imperial Subjects: Race and Identity in Colonial Latin America. Andrew B. Fisher and Matthew D O'Hara (eds.). Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. xiv + 303 pages, bibliog., index. $23.95 paperback (ISBN: 978-0-8223-4420-9).

This is a pioneering study of the constructions of socio-cultural identities in colonial Latin America. The volume struggles to extricate and elucidate one of the most fascinating cultural complexities in colonial Latin American history: that of the subtle significance of race in the formation of changing social identities. How, when distinctive cultures confront each other, and begin to demographically interact, do people differentially define themselves as individuals and collectivities, and how do the dominant cultures, in this case Iberian, establish a range of descriptive terms for identifying subpopulations based on an alleged, and most importantly legally codifed, racial hierarchy? The analyst thus has two perspectives from which to seek out data: first, the evidence of how persons self-identified, be it via their language/dialect, clothing, footwear, weaponry, associations, residence, origin, occupation, class or lineage. Second, how did the authorities, from the local to the imperial, cope with identifying and recording the ever-increasing mixtures of such persons? If defining a recently-arrived Spaniard or resident kuraka in the year 1500 posed relatively few problems (even though one has to remember that so-called "Spaniards" were as regionally and culturally varied as their pre-Hispanic counterparts), it is evident that with each year that passed, and here we are dealing with evidence from the entire colonial period, some 300 years of interaction, the problems of defining identity increased exponentially with the addition of African slaves and the progeny of tri-racial mixing, the castas. And not only is the problem one of the sequencing of the evolution of identity terminology and meanings in time, apparently location was equally significant since from macro-regions to localities lexical variations are abundantly evident. [End Page 189]

Fortunately, the editors offer the reader a most insightful overview of the theoretical and methodological issues in their cogent introduction. This alone is worthy of a full seminar discussion. Together with the thought-provoking foreword by Irene Silverblatt and the methodological issues related to categorization and the conceptualization of race outlined by María Díaz (in particular her notion of "quilting"), that could usefully have been placed first in the chapter order, we are forewarned of the intricacies and problematics of this exploration of racialized identities.

The nine essays that follow provide small but significant windows into the colonial worlds, allowing one to view, albeit through the often opaque lens of the official documentation of the varied organs of church and state, the situations of a relatively small sample of real people in distinctive historical contexts undergoing continual processes of cultural change.

The story begins with institutional conflicts in sixteenth-century Peru where hereditary Wanka "lords" of Jauja vied with the new encomenderos for prestige and power, and reflected the imperial and native views of difference. The legal strategies and offers of bribes of these natural lords allowed them temporarily to be awarded coats of arms, ride horses, bear royal titles—be called "don", a privilege denied many of the invading Spaniards. As one might predict, the latter group demanded to know-- who did these mere Indians think they were? The next essay moves to the Potosí context to illustrate the relationship between identity, gender and occupation. The gateras' (indigenous female market-women; market in Quechua kjato) domination of the urban trading providing clear evidence of the possibility of ethnicity being subsumed by economic enterprise, especially since these women rapidly evolved into the assertive regatonas. Their traditional dress becomes not only their identity label but one to be emulated by the emerging mestizas who soon became known as "mestizas en hábito de india". Again, the question raised on behalf of the state was, who was whom? Not in any personal manner, but rather because classification equaled legal rights, and taxable income. When dress becomes disguise identity is questionable.

In the next chapter we move to seventeenth-century New Spain where three bigamy cases investigated by the Inquisition provide superior examples of attempts...


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