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Reviewed by:
  • Power, Witchcraft, and Caste in Colonial Mexico
  • Asunción Lavrin
Power, Witchcraft, and Caste in Colonial Mexico. By Laura A. Lewis. (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press. 2003. Pp. xvi, 262. $79.95 clothbound; $22.95 paperback.)

Anthropologist Laura Lewis anchors her analysis of race and caste in colonial Mexico on Inquisition records, which she uses to explore the ways in which people of different races perceived each other. Thus, she reiterates the multiplicity of uses to which these records can be put to use to tease meaning from the past. Since caste, rather than race, was used more extensively in New Spain to identify people, Lewis begins by analyzing the meaning of caste and lineage in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Caste was transmutable because it partook of the concept of kinship, buttressed on genealogical ties and social connectedness. In other words, people could claim cultural and social affiliation to individuals of two races. Lewis argues that in the conceptualization of race it was lineage that added fluidity to a system in which Spanishness was at the top of the pyramid. Indianness was associated with the masses of commoners, and the interstitial spaces were populated by various admixtures.

Her analysis of the nature of testimony and the reliability of Inquisitorial procedure is enlightening and defines her analytical tool for the reader, reaffirming the validity of the texts when placed within their own complex context. Some of the most interesting chapters in this book deal with the ascription of Spanishness by individuals of mixed race who stressed lineage and the redemptive quality of Spanish blood. Caste was not necessarily a biological fact but a political venue that could be manipulated in many ways by all concerned. However, if the claimant did not adhere to standard concepts of good behavior expected [End Page 367] of the claimed ethnic group, he or she joined the ranks of the socially marginal. Class also remained a factor to be considered alongside caste to define one's rank and social position. Thus, class could separate Indian chiefs from commoners, or Indians from mestizos. Common expectations about races and admixtures formed part of the popular imaginary, an area that Lewis explores by analyzing the language of Inquisitorial texts.

One of her most intriguing interpretations is about the ambiguous and almost contradictory relationship between Spaniards and Indians: "while Spaniards exploited Indians, they also leapt to their defense"; thus defiance to laws protecting Indians compelled the Spanish judiciary to step in to ameliorate its own abuses (p. 91). This kind of problematization of the multiplicity of meanings in a racially and culturally complex society makes of this work a refreshing and challenging re-reading of colonial race and social relations.

Other interpretations will evoke responses from historians engaged in the discussion of race, gender, and colonialism. Lewis argues that the feminization of the Indian subject placed women and Indians at the center of preoccupation over sexual control, metaphorically as well as factually. An incursion into the realm of witchcraft reviews the concept of the devil as black, and ties Indians, Africans, mulattoes, and Spaniards in a "hall of mirrors" that reflects transgression at all levels and the use of unsanctioned power borrowed from each other. Ultimately, the essence of caste is regarded as one of shifting identities depending very much from a relative angle of perception, and definitely taking shape in the sixteenth century. Throughout time, both class and race, she argues, took increasing importance and obliged people in the nineteenth and twentieth century to resort to the same manipulations once used by their ancestors. Lewis has written a book that by shaking the foundations of the concepts of authority, proposing the multiplicity of foci of domination, and the malleability of the process of colonization will reopen the debate on those themes.

Asunción Lavrin
Arizona State University


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pp. 367-368
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