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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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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 America has risen to the occasion, investigating the impact of the invasive reforms of monarchs such as Charles III (1759–1788). Intense colonial resistance to Spain’s campaign to modernize the viceregal church and subject it to the authority of the crown highlights a reality that makes some scholars uncomfortable: indigenous groups had embraced the Habsburg-era colonial church as an essential part of their self-identity. As the Peruvian scholar Scarlett O’Phelan famously noted,1 even the rebel leader Tupac Amaru II (1742–1781) was sympathetic to Catholicism, and he and other protagonists in the Andean rebellions of the 1780s peppered their proclamations with biblical quotations, allied themselves with priests, and fought under the patronage of saints. For aboriginals, the least popular reforms were the expulsion of the Society of Jesus in 1767, with which they had forged a close relationship, and especially the curtailing of confraternities. Both were seen as a draconian restriction of Amerindian forms of devotion. The confraternity was a critical manifestation of Native American identity through its patronage of processions and works of art. Pioneering English-language studies such as Kenneth Mills’s Idolatry and Its Enemies (1997) and Sergei Serulnikov’s Subverting Colonial Authority (2003) have tried to make sense of this seeming paradox, and it is a major concern of several of the books under review here.2

These new studies...

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