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Ambivalent Identities: Catholicism, the Arts, and Religious Foundations in Spanish America

From: Latin American Research Review
Volume 48, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 191-204 | 10.1353/lar.2013.0010

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Ambivalent Identities
Catholicism, the Arts, and Religious Foundations in Spanish America
Untold Sisters: Hispanic Nuns in Their Own Works. Edited by Electa Arenal and Stacey Schlau. Revised ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2010. Pp. xvii + 460. $35.00 paper. ISBN: 9780826347381.
Indigenous Writings from the Convent: Negotiating Ethnic Autonomy in Colonial Mexico. By Mónica Díaz. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2010. Pp. xii + 229. $50.00 cloth. ISBN: 9780816528530.
Maya Christians and Their Churches in Sixteenth-Century Belize. By Elizabeth Graham. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011. Pp. xviii + 434. $79.95 cloth. ISBN: 9780813036663.
Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World. Edited by Ilona Katzew. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art; New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011. Pp. 320. $70.00 cloth. ISBN: 9780300176643.
The Very Nature of God: Baroque Catholicism and Religious Reform in Bourbon Mexico City. By Brian R. Larkin. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2010. Pp. xiii + 312. $27.95 paper. ISBN: 9780826348340.
Building Colonial Cities of God: Mendicant Orders and Urban Culture in New Spain. By Karen Melvin. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012. Pp. 384. $65.00 cloth. ISBN: 9780804774864. [End Page 191]
Framing the Sacred: The Indian Churches of Early Colonial Mexico. By Eleanor Wake. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010. Pp. xxi + 338. $65.00 cloth. ISBN: 9780806140339.

English-language studies of colonial Latin American religious and artistic culture have undergone a sea change in the past two decades. Departing from the binary model of a society cleft into monolithic Euro-American and Amerindian moieties, they acknowledge considerable cultural and ethnic diversity on both sides of the divide, as well as the ensuing complexities of self-identity and belief. We now recognize that aboriginal groups, particularly elites, embraced aspects of colonialism to advance lineage claims and that these pedigrees were more localized than had been assumed—less Aztec or Inca than Purépecha, Chichimec, or Chachapoya. In participating in outward expressions of colonial harmony such as the entrada (investiture) processions of viceroys or the Corpus Christi festivities of Cuzco, these aboriginal groups forged a Machiavellian alliance with Creole society (people of European ancestry born in America) that simultaneously proclaimed Spanish and Christian triumph and advertised the legitimacy and cultural pride of indigenous peoples. We are also learning more about social divisions within ethnicities. Communities including Amerindians were further riven by class or what was then called calidad, a term that embraces bloodlines and occupation and invalidates our nineteenth- and twentieth-century use of the concept of race as an interpretive tool. Most notable is a growing abandonment of the notion that Native American Christianity (at least after the contact period) was a half-understood veneer over indigenous beliefs—the “idols behind altars” theory. Instead, scholars are revealing an ambivalent, constantly shifting interaction between different brands of Christianity (repressive or utopian, Franciscan or Jesuit) and a spectrum of diverse, locally based faiths that were not pure survivals from an idealized pre-Hispanic past but instead living, adapting entities.

These developments, which follow recent scholarship from Latin America, partly reflect a shift from studies of the contact period—an era of cataclysmic change and drama for which binary concepts of conflict and convergence were easier to argue—to others of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In this later period, social groups settled into an imperfect yet reciprocal and usually peaceful working relationship, particularly in cities. The variety of ethnicities also multiplied with an increasing influx of Africans, Filipinos, and other Asians, and a significant growth of mixed-race castas, famously and obsessively documented in painted taxonomies. This does not make for as exciting a story because it does not fit the traditional idea of a heroic battle between the familiar and the “other,” an idea again popularized in the mid-nineteenth century by the conquest histories of William Prescott (1796–1859). Thanks in part to Prescott, a disinclination to study the compromises of later viceregal culture has particularly affected English-language writers.

The eighteenth century is challenging—and fascinating—precisely because it provides no easy solutions to issues of ethnicity, gender, and faith. A groundswell of new studies about Bourbon...