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Reviewed by:
  • Death and the Idea of Mexico
  • Jeffrey M. Pilcher
Death and the Idea of Mexico. By Claudio Lomnitz (New York, Zone Books, 2005) 581 pp. $34.00

From the sacrificial cults of the Aztec Empire to the tourist extravaganza of the contemporary Day of the Dead, Mexicans have had an enduring fascination with death. In this brilliant and bewildering book, Lomnitz argues that death was a central force in the creation of the Mexican state.

The work is, first and foremost, an important and original history of the Day of the Dead. Anthropologists and cultural critics have long speculated on possible connections between pre-Hispanic celebrations and present-day practices. Lomnitz documents the historical development of Todos Santos, combining the social history of colonial mortuary practices with the cultural history of the festival's subsequent commercialization. During the conquest, Spanish evangelists extirpated the rituals of human sacrifice and home burial but allowed indigenous theatrical practices of festive mourning. By restricting Corpus Christi and other public celebrations, eighteenth-century reform Catholicism encouraged the Day of the Dead to expand into plazas and marketplaces. Commercialization continued apace until mid-twentieth-century intellectuals began to condemn the "Americanization" of the holiday. Ironically, the festival benefited from European and North American tourists seeking a more "authentic" alternative to the clinical isolation of dying. Although its evidentiary base is limited to familiar colonial chronicles and, for the modern period, Mexico City archives, this book makes an invaluable contribution to Mexican cultural history.

Yet Lomnitz seems curiously uninterested in this accomplishment and aspires to write a more ambitious political history of death—a genealogy layering colonial mentalités with an anthropology of nationalism—which places the grim reaper at the center of Mexican state formation. As he observes, the viceregal government of New Spain was born of an unprecedented demographic collapse, as Old World diseases ravaged the New World. Moreover, the indoctrination of Catholic beliefs in purgatory, as well as European individual inheritance practices, were vital to colonial taxation and to the spread of capitalism. But since virtually all colonial regimes have been founded on such physical and spiritual violence, this fact does not explain the centrality of death in Mexican culture.

In a similar fashion, although Day of the Dead imagery provides fascinating [End Page 323] insights about Mexican politics, the attempt to deploy it as a political history leads along a well-trodden path from the funeral of Antonio López de Santa Anna's leg to the murder of revolutionary leaders Emiliano Zapata and Francisco "Pancho" Villa. Lost amidst the tombstones is the promise, made in the introduction, to show how "Mexican death totemism reflects structural differences between nation formation in strong and weak states" (28). The book lacks even a conclusion to draw these diverse threads together. It ends, instead, with an epilogue describing yet another death figure popular among contemporary narcotraficantes. Lomnitz proposes a bold program for interdisciplinary history, but, unfortunately, the brilliant parts never fit together as a whole.

Jeffrey M. Pilcher
University of Minnesota


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pp. 323-324
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