The Americas 59.3 (2003) 414-415
[Access article in PDF]
Kevin Terraciano's massive book constitutes a rich contribution to the ethnohistory of Mesoamerica. His careful research in the extent corpus of Mixtec language documents, judiciously complemented in places by Spanish language records, provides an authoritative look at one of the most important and unusual ethnic groups in the Spanish Empire. The author's objectives are twofold. First, he seeks to use Mixtec language sources to present a picture of Mixtec culture and society on its own terms. Second, he uses these same sources to gauge the changes introduced by the Conquest and Spanish colonial rule.
Heavily influenced by James Lockhart and others who have used indigenous language documents to probe Mesoamerica's colonial society, Terraciano centers his analysis not around a discrete geographic area or political jurisdiction but instead around the Mixtec language itself. For this reason, the first two substantive chapters explain the evolution of Mixtec writing and the language itself. In the first of these chapters Terraciano covers pre-Conquest writing, the introduction of alphabetic writing, and literacy. He describes the different kinds of Mixtec language documents preserved in the archives and notes those that have been rarely preserved, especially letters. Terraciano also explains how these documents served discrete purposes for natives and Spaniards. At the end Terraciano briefly discusses how native language writing was eventually replaced by Spanish language writing. The chapter on the language itself is centered on the premise that linguistic change reflects cultural change, especially through the introduction of loan words. In many ways changes in the Mixtec language parallel those observed by scholars of Nahuatl language colonial documents, although Terraciano points out that linguistic change was neither as rapid nor as uniform in the Mixteca.
The following chapters examine a variety of themes in social and cultural history, including community, social relations, government, the economy, religion, and ethnicity. Space precludes any comprehensive summary here, but a few observations are in order. Generally, Mixtecan society as revealed in indigenous language documents shares quite recognizable features with other colonial Mesoamerican societies. Little of the information provided on community, land tenure, social relations, [End Page 414] or the economy will surprise ethnohistorians. Terraciano handles this material well, explaining it very clearly, and carefully pointing out similarities and differences with the findings of other ethnohistorians, especially those who have worked on central Mexico.
Two areas bear more substantive treatment here, one because in it Mixtec culture differs substantially from better-known native cultures, and one because Terraciano analyzes it particularly well. The first of these is gender. As Terraciano explains, gender relations in the Mixtec culture area were substantially more equal than those in most of Mesoamerica. Before the Conquest noble women had significant political authority, and this difference was reflected in patterns of inheritance and succession. Native women also played a prominent economic role after the Conquest, although the introduction of Spanish forms of municipal government eventually limited their political role. As Terraciano points out, gender relations in the Mixtec area look more like those of the Andes than those of the rest of Mesoamerica.
Terraciano's chapter on religion is his best. He uses the sensitive analysis of a variety of pre-Conquest and post-Conquest sources to explore Mixtec religion and how it changed after the arrival of the Spanish. His portrait of the early years of evangelization is particularly good, combining a strong analytical framework with an eye for the dramatic ways in which change played out in conflicts both between missionaries and Mixtecs and within Mixtec society. Notably, this is the chapter where Terraciano makes the most extensive use of Spanish language sources, especially Inquisition records. Yet, it is clear that he could not have used these records as effectively without the knowledge derived from his command of indigenous language sources.
Terraciano's conclusion sets his finding in comparative context and summarizes...