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Identity, Ritual, and Power in Colonial Puebla by Frances L. Ramos (review)

From: The Americas
Volume 70, Number 1, July 2013
pp. 132-133 | 10.1353/tam.2013.0071

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Scholarship on religion in Mexico has evolved since the days of the early studies on conversion. Historians of religion have branched out into many areas and have integrated a multidisciplinary approach that has led to many interesting works on topics such as processions, blasphemy, and cultural encounters. Increasingly, the research on colonial religion is uncovering how complex religious institutions and practices were and how many facets of religion need to be explored in order to gain a more global understanding of the colonial religious experience. Frances Ramos's book represents the result of this scholarly evolution. Her monograph examines how religion was conceived within one community, how people in that setting thought about religion, and how they lived it on a day-to-day basis. It is a study in which various levels of inquiry are meshed to provide a multidimensional vision of religion. Another particular strength of this study is the way the author integrates politics and religion and shows how these two categories were interconnected in daily practice.

Ramos's choice of Puebla as the focus of her study is an interesting one. Within Mexico, this city has a reputation for intense religiosity. Its inhabitants are believed to be devout, and its religious architecture is ever-present and particularly stunning. The research for this book was painstaking, and the author provides an extremely detailed account of the interactions between political and religious leaders. Her work builds on the fine studies of ritual previously published by Linda Curcio-Nagy and Alejandro Cañeque. While these earlier works focused on ritual, Ramos uses ritual as part of her analysis but expands her attention to show how ceremonies worked to create a kind of religious branding. She describes a "ceremonial habitus," that is to say, a way that ritual blended into the everyday and created a particularly Poblano identity that had religion at its core.

The book begins with an exploration of ritual. Ramos shows how formalities such as juras del rey (ceremonial oath-taking) built an understanding among the populace of the political order. These events, along with the royal funerals in which a catafalque was honored on a platform in lieu of the king's cadaver, made a distant royalty present in this faraway subject city. The king was very much present through the public display of portraits, royal standards, and other symbols of royalty such as crowns and thrones. All these formalities were important to connect the populace with distant rulers and convince them of the legitimacy of their leaders.

The book's core focuses on the way that Puebla developed its own type of local religion, and this is the most fascinating part of the study. Ramos probes into the workings of the cabildo and how its members promoted religious values to shore up their own power. It has become a truism that religion and power worked hand in hand in colonial Mexico but rarely has it been so clearly demonstrated as in this book. Ramos shows how it served the cabildo's purpose to promote the religious ceremonial because these events also helped Puebla forge its own identity. She reveals the connection between civic identity and religion and thus goes a long way toward explaining not only how Poblanos became so devout in practice but also how religion was blended into their sense of being Poblano. Council members took on the role of intercessor between the town residents and religious figures, and as such their political roles seeped into religious ones. Ramos describes a type of religious branding in which particular saints were designated as favorites and the cabildo helped create a geography of sacred spaces that was reinforced through religious practice.

This is an excellent study, based on meticulous and exhaustive research and clearly and cogently presented. Ramos breaks new ground in the study of religion in Mexico, and this book is a must for anyone interested in the topic.

Copyright © 2013 Academy of American Franciscan History
Project MUSE® - View Citation
Sonya Lipsett-Rivera. "Identity, Ritual, and Power in Colonial Puebla by Frances L. Ramos (review)." The Americas 70.1 (2013): 132-133. Project MUSE. Web. 24 Jun. 2013. <http://muse...

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