- Dangerous Speech: A Social History of Blasphemy in Colonial Mexico by Javier Villa-Flores
Dangerous Speech: A Social History of Blasphemy in Colonial Mexico offers a concise and colorful assessment of the social meanings of blasphemy in colonial Mexico. Javier Villa-Flores focuses his gaze on the two centuries from 1520 to 1700, utilizing cases brought before the Holy Office of the Inquisition to engage with the recent scholarship on linguistics, piety, gender, race, and class while making a case for blasphemy’s many layers of meaning in colonial Mexico. Villa-Flores chooses to look at blasphemy in part because of its prevalence in the post-conquest period, when close to seventy percent of all cases brought before the tribunal centered on blasphemy. Though Villa-Flores does not offer much in the way of statistics for the later colonial era, he demonstrates how in this early period people believed that blasphemy threatened collective salvation. It endangered not only the speaker but also the community, which risked God’s fury in the form of natural disasters and pestilence.
While Villa-Flores cites cases from as far north as Chihuahua, the vast majority originate in Mexico City, Puebla, and Oaxaca. The composition of both the accusers and the accused, however, represents many strata and branches of Mexican colonial society, including conquistadors, male religious, free women, and enslaved men and women. Villa-Flores organizes his text thematically, showing in succeeding chapters how each of these different social groups employed blasphemy. In one chapter, for example, he tackles blasphemy as a symbol of masculinity that flew in the face of moralists’ feeble efforts to portray blasphemers as “gutless little women.” (41) In fact, as Villa-Flores deftly observes in describing a 1610 engraving by Sebastián de Covarrubias, “Although the motto urges the reader to control his ‘wandering’ tongue, promising ‘a thousand benefits,’ the quasi-phallic engraving of the erect tongue suggests a more tangible reward of enhanced virility and sexual performance.” (44) This remarkable image is just one of many that Villa-Flores includes to illustrate contemporary understanding of language in general and blasphemy in particular. Compelling and original as this glimpse at colonial masculinity is, Villa-Flores does not address a question implicit in each accusation he cites: If some men understood blasphemy as a potent vehicle for verbal authority that proved or enhanced their virility, what impelled others to stray from this agreed-upon narrative and denounce blasphemers?
Though in some cases he mentions the relationship of the accuser to the accused, the exhaustive research Villa-Flores undertook would seem to lend itself to reaching some conclusions or making some generalizations about the accusers. While this story may well be tangential to the one Villa-Flores seeks to tell, it would undoubtedly interest many readers, and may in fact shed light on his topic as well. In some cases, for example, several months passed between a blasphemous incident and a denunciation. What does Villa-Flores make of these lapses? Would careful examination of the geographic, economic, and social connections between accuser and accused be suggestive of larger trends and meanings in colonial society?
Though in terms of sheer numbers of cases Villa-Flores has the most to choose from in his consideration of masculinity, he does an admirable job ferreting out cases of blasphemy to address the practice as a form of resistance among subaltern groups in subsequent chapters. Based on his study, it is clear that people from across racial, ethnic, class and gender lines embraced the power of language to resist or assert authority. Whereas for Spanish men, however, blasphemy signified their power, virility and fearlessness, for subaltern groups blasphemy represented a means of resisting or even usurping power. Slaves, for example, quickly learned that the Inquisition offered them not only an opportunity to denounce their masters by publicly painting a vivid picture of the abuses they suffered at cruel hands, but also the best chance at being placed into a new situation under a different master. Villa-Flores observes: “When a slave...