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Religion, Culture, and Society in Colombia: Medellin and Antioquia, 1850-1930 (review)
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Hispanic American Historical Review 84.2 (2004) 368-369

Religion, Culture, and Society in Colombia: Medellín and Antioquia, 1850-1930. By Patricia Londoño-Vega. Oxford Historical Monographs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002. Maps. Tables. Appendixes. Bibliography. Index. viii, 402 pp. Cloth, $85.00.

Patricia Londoño-Vega's dogged archival truffling has uncovered a lush world of Catholic and secular voluntary associations in Antioquia, Colombia, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The boom in Catholic charitable organizations, religious vocations, teaching orders, and lay religious fervor convincingly challenges the timeworn portrayal of the late nineteenth century as an era of increased secularization; this finding alone should inspire a tectonic shift in the historiography and a redoubling of efforts to create a larger geography of piety in late-nineteenth-century Latin America. Moreover, Londoño-Vega's relentless cataloguing of voluntary organizations reveals a Habermasian bent, yet her interpretation of this data is decidedly unorthodox. Her theme is neither the flowering of democratic practices within these groups, nor the development of an independent and critical political sphere outside of a weak and fragmentary state. Rather, she claims that Antioquia's dense web of sociability bound rich to poor and provided a balm on the already minimal class frictions in this region of rough frontier equality. Through these organizations, she maintains, men and women of all classes came to share the ideals of self-discipline, hard work, moral rectitude, thrift, and solidarity. Front and center in the inculcation of these modern values stood the Catholic Church. Her argument is plausible, although her veritable fortress of evidence for this point should prove far more assailable than her debunking of the secularization thesis. And her assailants will no doubt abound, as Bourdeauians, Foucauldians, and Marxists will find little succor here and much to parry with—a strength of this book that promises to win its author numerous interlocutors.

The author documents the efflorescence of Catholic charities and hospitals, religious orders imported from Europe, and thriving parishes with bulletins promoting the latest modern farming techniques and fertilizers. Prodigious archival research allows for numerous helpful and concise tables detailing this rising tide of religious organizations; as well, the foundation and activities of the Jesuits, the Presentation Sisters, the Marian Congregation of the Immaculate Conception, and many others receive detailed description. Unfortunately, her only organizational scheme seems to be inclusiveness; readers who revel in a crisp narrative or the single judiciously chosen example may begin to despair. Although she has several fine examples of the well heeled and the downtrodden mingling happily, much of the information fails to further her central thesis. One wishes she had simply contained these organizations to the tables and provided a lengthier discussion of precisely how one or two groups built bridges between social classes. Luckily, however, Londoño-Vega provides relief from this barrage of information in the form of literary evidence. Contemporary novelists, diarists, and chroniclers lavishly limned the populations' shared religious sensibilities—the wearing of scapulars, death rites, the saints as crucial intermediaries with God—and this evidence goes a long way to support her thesis of religion as social binder.

Her slant on the region's mushrooming numbers of associations for the promotion of science, manners, literature, libraries, public instruction, temperance, cultivated music, and moral improvement should prove more controversial. During the nineteenth century, the region's elite and poor shared common recreations, dress, religion, and domestic routines. All of this changed in the early twentieth century, as Medellín's new barons of industry and middling sorts branded rural aesthetic sensibilities and customs as cursi, as in poor taste. A plethora of pamphlets and societies now advised urbanites on everything from cutlery to hygiene. The quick migration of these efforts to outlying towns, however, insured that the new European-imported manners and morals served to mitigate class tensions rather than to reinforce social distinctions. Thus, the line between civilization and barbarism was drawn not between rich and poor in Antioquia, according to Londoño-Vega, but between the core regions of the state and its swarthier denizens on the periphery—a fascinating prelude to Mary Roldán's conclusion that much of the region's...



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