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  • Imperial Subjects: Race and Identity in Colonial Latin America
  • Deborah Kanter
Imperial Subjects: Race and Identity in Colonial Latin America. Edited by Andrew B. Fisher and Matthew D. O'Hara. Foreword by Irene Silverblatt. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. Pp. xiv, 262. Bibliography. Index. $84.95 cloth; $23.95 paper.

This collection features nine essays based on original research that share an interest in colonial notions and realities of race and identity in distinct regions of Latin America. The [End Page 589] essays represent recent trends in colonial social and cultural history, in which identity is central but multivalent. As Cynthia Radding puts it, "[r]ace and ethnicity do not constitute fixed categories or absolute values but develop as 'markers of difference' by diverse historical actors in different times and places" (p. 103). The volume slants toward history from below, yet the authors (eight historians and one anthropologist) understand that history from above is crucial in understanding identity within an imperial setting. The complex processes of self-definition, group definition, and labeling by others unfolded within the framework of the Crown's understanding of conquest, subjugation, and privilege.

The contributors all seek to reevaluate terms such as identity and race. Yet beyond the editors' introduction, the authors devote few pages to theoretical or historiographical debates. Most essays delve directly to the historical actors and their concerns. Beginning with early Peru, Jeremy Mumford brings to life the three-way struggle between kurakas, encomenderos, and the Crown to gain or retain power. Both kurakas and encomenderos sought to claim "lordship," while the Crown maneuvered to establish more direct control over the colonies.

The emergence of people of mixed ancestry challenged imperial dichotomous conceits of Iberian and Indian, slave and free. Core essays explore the stories and strategies of individuals who shaped their own identities. The definition of race that emerged in the nineteenth century, as biological or as blood, should be put aside. In these colonial stories race was rather a matter of culture: crianza, calidad, language, and community membership often defined an individual more than progenitors' race label (recorded in baptismal records). Thus, Jane Mangan describes the mestizas en hábito de india who opted to follow the indigenous lifeways of their maternal line. Examining the actions of free black individuals and collectives in Minas Gerais, Mariana Dantas posits that "race became one more marker of identity they chose at times to ignore and at others to embrace" (p. 136). This understanding fits well with David Tavárez's consideration of mestizos/Indians who came before the Mexican Inquisition. While we might expect these individuals to seek passing or Hispanization, these essays highlight much variety in action and strategy.

Ann Twinam focuses on race mixture, specifically on purchasing whiteness based upon careful reading of gracias a sacar cases, in which well-to-do people with some African ancestry sought status as white. Elites, officials, and petitioners agreed upon the alterability of race and whitening, relying mostly on older Spanish concepts of limpieza and naturaleza. A new stress on color emerged, especially from late colonial Venezuela where local elites reacted harshly to Afrovenezolanos' aspirations for whiteness. Twinam pays commendable attention to language and rhetoric. Yet this essay could reveal more if it considered the daily realities of most African-descent people, such as those explored in the essays by Dantas and María Elena Díaz (on Cuba).

As colonial rule waned, two rather contradictory patterns emerged. Sergei Serulnikov considers how, in the wake of the Túpac Amaru uprising, townspeople in Charcas lay aside ethnic differences and asserted a less racialized, creole identity based upon belonging to the vecindario. Likewise, the liberal thrust to abolish racial distinction emerged in the [End Page 590] 1810s and impacted government reforms in newly independent nations. Karen Caplan explores how this played out in two Mexican states. Some citizens resisted the movement to remove ethnic identities and held on to older colonial notions of Indianness.

The collection's title, "Imperial Subjects," is almost ironic. The Cuban slaves, Pima villagers, and Andean kurakas often did not posit themselves as subjects submissive to the Crown. Rather we see them questioning their presumed status, creating new...


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