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  • Performing Conquest: Five Centuries of Theater, History, and Identity in Tlaxcala, Mexico
  • Lara D. Nielsen (bio)
Performing Conquest: Five Centuries of Theater, History, and Identity in Tlaxcala, Mexico. By Patricia A. Ybarra. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009; 288 pp.; illustrations. $65.00 cloth.

With Performing Conquest, Patricia Ybarra's commanding research demonstrates "performance is an epistemology of conquest" (60) and hence a historiographical practice that is negotiated by colonizers and 'colonized' alike. The figure of the complicitous examplar is at the heart of Ybarra's analysis of Tlaxcala, Mexico, whose tactics appear to gesture the role of indigenous sovereign and accomplice with the same stroke. Ybarra studies performances that frame and deploy Tlaxcalan historiography, probing their efficacy in the context of Mexican national narratives about colonization and independence, and into the contemporary era. Like Ybarra, Mexican scholars such as Jaime Cuadrillo are interested in the pertinence and persistence of the "cultural identity which we shall call Tlaxcaltequidad" (Cuadrillo 2004:25). Ybarra's research illuminates Tlaxcaltequidad as an "exemplary site of preservation of indigenous culture" (121), whose logics (and prophecies) have been flexible enough to facilitate multiple pedagogies of foreign occupation. [End Page 171]

As the title suggests, Ybarra culls from a variety of sources, including "'texts' that perform despite themselves" (25) (newspaper articles, civic records, and the testimonial witness of personal memory) as well as 16th-century missionary chronicles and conversion festivals; 18th-century plays; 19th-century paintings and dramas; 20th-century political events, public performances, campaigns, murals, and novels. Ybarra includes in her survey attention to the legacies of Mexican and US national scholarship about Tlaxcala; including the late Desiderio Hernández Xochitiotzin (official historian of Tlaxcala City), to whom Ybarra dedicates the book. As Ybarra moves across time and place in pursuit of her analysis, a strategic reading calls for attention to detail as well as a broader overview of the theoretical discourses that the work obtains. For readers who are new to Mexican history, the book demands quick adjustment to an indigenously named (or translated) Mexico and its disputed histories. For the experts, Performing Conquest demonstrates complex engagement with Tlaxcalan cultural identity and its living archives, as well as strategies for theorizing performance historiography.

Ybarra's introduction observes a highly choreographed 1997 state visit to Tlaxcala by Bill and Hillary Clinton, in which Tlaxcala City's public ceremony frames the Presidential pair as performing "conquest in the present" (2). Ybarra recounts the event in order to demonstrate "how Tlaxcalans, and those who staged them, performed conquest while playing by the rules" (3). In chapter 1, Ybarra sorts through the ways that key 16th-century writings by Franciscan missionary Toribio de Benavente (better known as Motolinía, 1482-1568) used and narrated festival performances to establish Tlaxcala as a well-ordered colonial city. (Cuadrillo [2004] notes that Hernán Cortés compared Tlaxcala to the well-governed city of Venice.) Ybarra keenly points out that Motolinía produces rather than records missionary success, an important point of departure for any examination of Mexican performance and/as historiography (54). Refreshingly, she also inscribes herself within the repetitions of narrative pattern, noting, "as critical as I had been of [Motolinía's] observant awe in print, I embodied it the moment I stepped into Tlaxcala City" (35).

Chapter 2 traces reformulations of Tlaxcalan identity ("Postcolonial Mexico Emplots the Tlaxcaltecan Hero"). In a Mexico where indigenous identity is converted into nationalist promise (Vasconcelos 1997) it is no surprise that "playing indian" still invokes the ethos of good Mexican citizenship. Indigenous Tlaxcalan figureheads deliver on this cosmic promise in a variety of ways: if Xicoténcal the elder was the first Tlaxcalan to be baptized, and maneuvered the allegiance with Cortés, Xicoténcal the younger is sometimes the preferred Tlaxcala representative, given his later resistance against Cortés (69). Yet Ybarra notes that in the maquila context (year 2000), "Xicoténcal [the younger] is being emulated in everyday acts against forces more clever in their duplicity than a nineteenth century [emplotment of] Cortés" (103). Throughout the book, Ybarra's accounts challenge typical appeals to "Grand Narrative" versions of social change that can make Latin American Studies...


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pp. 171-174
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