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  • The Art of Being In-Between: Native Intermediaries, Indian Identity, and Local Rule in Colonial Oaxaca
  • Andrew B. Fisher
The Art of Being In-Between: Native Intermediaries, Indian Identity, and Local Rule in Colonial Oaxaca. By Yanna Yannakakis. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008).

Historians have long been intrigued by the opportunities and hazards that colonialism presented to the myriad indigenous intermediaries and cultural brokers who confronted and negotiated Spanish rule across a vast trans-Atlantic empire. As Yanna Yannakakis notes in her study of the Villa Alta district of northern Oaxaca, scholars have often reduced the complexity of these critical historical actors to that of self-interested opportunists or much reduced junior partners. In contrast, Yannakakis renders a more fully rendered profile of this group, whose members helped to create, alongside their Spanish counterparts, a “late-flowering colonial society characterized by a growing interpenetration of colonial institutions” and a parallel sphere the author coins the native “shadow system” (29). While Yannakakis offers convincing evidence for the bilateral nature of this relationship, her book ultimately supports the position of earlier studies that posited the decline in stature of indigenous intermediaries by the late colonial period.

The book adopts a multidisciplinary approach to its subject. Relying largely on the exceptional strength of Oaxaca’s judicial archive, Yannakakis reconstructs the lives and career trajectories of a sampling of so-called indios ladinos who were active in the rugged Villa Alta district from the time of the well-known Tehuantepec Rebellion of 1660 to the final decades of Spanish rule. In a region where Indian acculturation was checked by the miniscule size of a geographically circumscribed Hispanic population, bilingual and bicultural go-betweens were an essential bridge connecting colonial officials and clergy to the peasantry. Yet Spaniards were loathe to acknowledge their importance and harbored deep distrust of a privileged group within the colonized population that were better able to navigate both worlds than the colonizers themselves. While some gaps in the record naturally cannot be filled, Yannakakis ably reconstructs a series of case studies illustrating the multiple roles intermediaries played (e.g., legal representatives, pueblo governors, religious leaders, interpreters, merchants, etc.). Most noteworthy is Yannakakis’s focus on the discursive elements imbedded in her sources. The author turns to Michel de Certeau’s notion of tactics for insight into how intermediaries drew from colonial discourse about the nature of the Indian to employ rhetoric and craft performances that enhanced their position and interests, and by extension those of the clientele they supported. Significantly, these acts often offered distinct messages for both Spanish and native audiences, powerfully underscoring the adroit and artful manner by which these men – and due largely to documentary limitations we learn only of men – mediated cultural and linguistic boundaries.

The book’s three parts explore the repertoire of tactics employed by the region’s indigenous intermediaries as they responded to the gradual contraction of their interstitial space over the second half of the colonial period. Part One surveys the forty years separating the Tehuantepec Rebellion from the Cajonos Rebellion of 1700. Native power brokers used the courts and their consummate political skills to mobilize an ethnically disparate population to resist secular and religious campaigns to reduce native autonomy, while protecting their own interests in the cochineal trade, a commercial activity that remained in the hands of indigenous producers throughout the colonial era. In the aftermath of the Cajonos Rebellion, Indian and Spanish intermediaries debated how to explain the presumed murder of the two Indian church assistants at the center of the uprising. The former attributed the deaths to rather ordinary political infighting between two rival cliques, but the latter prevailed with their image of unrepentant idolatrous natives in need of stricter supervision. Part Two details the political and cultural consequences of this outcome. Believing the Dominicans had been too lax in their duties; the local bishop expanded the number of secular priests and parishes in the area, while state magistrates tightened their hold on the cochineal trade and intensified the exploitation of the peasantry through the colonial repartimiento (involving the coerced consumption and production of certain key commodities). Intermediaries rallied to check this curtailment of local autonomy in...

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