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  • Cultural Politics in Colonial Tehuantepec: Community and the State among the Isthmus Zapotec, 1500–1750
  • Francie Chassen-López
Cultural Politics in Colonial Tehuantepec: Community and the State among the Isthmus Zapotec, 1500–1750. By Judith Francis Zeitlin. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005. Pp. xix, 323. Illustrations. Maps. Tables. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $60.00 cloth.

The Isthmus of Tehuantepec holds a special fascination for Mexicans and foreign visitors, thanks to its unique culture. People go about their business speaking Zapotec, women dress in colorful huipiles (blouses), Zapotec art and poetry are vibrant, and political protests are frequent. Perhaps the strongest indigenous culture in Mexico today, it has managed not only to survive but also to flourish over the last five centuries. Now, thanks to this new volume by Judith Francis Zeitlin, we have a clearer picture of the origins of this enduring culture. Through a painstaking examination of multiple sources, primary and secondary historical writings, and linguistic and archaeological sources, Zeitlin applies her impressive analytic skills to explaining the economic, political, social and cultural development of Zapotec society on the Isthmus. Her re-reading of these sources leads her to challenge a number of established beliefs, for example, the commonly accepted genealogy of Zapotec kings.

Threatened by the Mixtec advance in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca, the Zapotec nobility relocated to the Isthmus, conquering the previous inhabitants. The ensuing [End Page 663] reorganization resulted in a "remarkably adaptable" and "fluid" society (p. 4), characteristics which would be invaluable soon after, under Spanish colonialism. The author divides her study of the cultural confrontations between the Isthmus Zapotecs and the colonial state into three phases: the initial period of adjustment, to 1563, when the province was removed from the Marquesado of Cortés; the next 100 years, to 1660, with full engagement with the colonial enterprise; and mature engagement, centered on the struggle of communities to "maintain cultural and political identity" (pp. xiv-xv).

The story of Don Juan Cortés, the last Zapotec ruler, his widow, and their descendants, serves as a major thread to unify this analysis. A somewhat tragic figure, Don Juan navigates between two cultures, trying to placate the Spanish while protecting his people and their customs. Not always sympathetic, his greed colors his decisions and his struggle to retain his authority in the face of colonial domination. In 1562, he gets caught "en flagrante, attired in white robes and feathered headdress of the highest priest" (p. 115) officiating at an idolatrous ceremony. The following year, punished with the loss of his village tribute, offices, and rents, he suffers a fatal stroke. His young widow, Magdalena de Cortés, goes to court to reestablish control of his patrimonial estates and the salt beds on behalf of her children. Through the litigation of the cacique's descendants over the next two centuries, the author provides a lucid analysis of changing power relations on the Isthmus and the ongoing importance of the idea of royal blood/descendance for Zapotec historical memory.

Although she refers to the "powerless" people (p. 192), Zeitlin mostly depicts the Zapotecs as adept negotiators. She shows how the pre-hispanic barrio organization is transformed during colonial rule into a force for indigenous cohesiveness and local control. Yet, when exploitation by Spanish officials and their meddling in community politics exhausted their patience, Zapotecs, supported by neighboring Huave and Zoque indigenous groups, could lead a violent multiethnic resistance. In 1660, the alcalde mayor, Juan de Avellán, was stoned to death by a crowd enraged by his repartimiento demands. In 1715, the abuses of the "rapacious" Nicolás González de Madrid, and the indigenous cabildo officers who had served him, had the people of Tehuantepec in a "riotous state." Zeitlin's comparison of these rebellions emphasizes their reformist objectives, their intent "to make the existing colonial system of governance more responsive to their native needs" (p. 219), not the revolutionary tradition that Zapotec historical memory favors. Although the volume's title refers to cultural politics, the author does not employ methods of cultural studies, but rather a more traditional, yet careful and imaginative, rethinking of the written and archaeological sources. Although dense and...


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