restricted access The Maya World: Yucatec Culture and Society, 1550-1850 (review)
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The Maya World: Yucatec Culture and Society, 1550–1850. By Matthew Restall (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1997) 441 pp. $55.00

Native-language documentation has swept away any lingering notion that Spanish rule completely shattered the indigenous societies of Mesoamerica. In this fascinating and well-written study based on Maya-language documents, Restall makes the case for Yucatec Mayas. His focus is at once regional and comparative: He integrates indigenous-language research on other Mesoamerican groups, especially the Nahuas of central Mexico and the Ñudzahui (Mixtec) of southern Mexico, with familiarity and ease.

Restall touches on nearly every aspect of post-conquest Maya society. His task is made manageable by the centrality of the cah, the principal sociopolitical unit of Maya society. (Roughly, a cah was constituted by a people, subject to a dynastic ruler, and associated with a particular territory; after the conquest, it became the basis of Spanish civil and ecclesiastical jurisdictions.) Restall explores the world of the cah in twenty-three chapters. He follows its faultlines of chibal (patronym group) and class, arguing that Maya society was simultaneously “hierarchical” and “representational.” Heredity, wealth, gender, and political office together determined social status, but every cah member also found representation at multiple levels—household, chibal, and cah. Written by local notaries, Maya-language documents expressed both group and individual interests; Restall considers their production, genres, and language. Land matters figure prominently in these documents and provide the basis for an extensive discussion of settlement patterns and the tenure, use, and exchange of land.

Restall effectively joins diverse methods and sources. He relies on such mundane notarial documents as testaments, petitions, election records, and land-sale records, as well as on what he calls “quasi-notarial documents,” that is, unofficial documents like the “titles” used to assert the interests of a specific cah or chibal. He moves easily between methodologies drawn from social history (career patterns of officeholders), cultural anthropology (construction of identity), linguistics (language analysis), and literary criticism (textual production and genres).

Above all, Restall portrays colonialism in Yucatan as a process by which local societies “Mayanized” introduced practices: naming patterns, documentary genres, town government, and religion, among others. (Sensitive to cah variations, Restall even calls the process “localization.”) Such an argument lends itself to a comparative context, and Restall takes full advantage. Yucatec Mayas shared many traits with other Mesoamerican peoples in both the pre-conquest and colonial periods, including cah-like sociopolitical units, class divisions, and complex patterns of landholding. But Mayas also had distinct features that affected how they negotiated Spanish rule. The cah had no internal subdivisions—they were pervasive elsewhere in Mesoamerica—with the chibal holding the intermediary position between household and cah. The absence of sub-units meant that the cah, in sharp contrast to its parallel unit [End Page 362] among the Nahuas, did not fragment over time. The emphasis on the chibal meant that Mayas retained indigenous patronyms, whereas Nahuas—who had no named lineages—developed a complex naming system that drew on Spanish elements but marked indigenous distinctions of rank.

The endurance of the cah throughout the colonial period reflects not only indigenous organization but also the slow tempo of change in Yucatan, at least relative to central Mexico, where Spanish influence came earlier and with greater strength. This tempo is implicit in the book’s organization; each chapter, though brief, sweeps across the expanse of the colonial period. It also leads Restall in his conclusion to advance across the divide of independence, where he finds in Maya-language documents hints of “the postcolonial assault on the integrity of the cah” (306).

Rebecca Horn
University of Utah
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