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  • A Flock Divided: Race, Religion, and Politics in Mexico, 1749-1857
  • Sonya Lipsett-Rivera
A Flock Divided: Race, Religion, and Politics in Mexico, 1749-1857. By Matthew D. O'Hara (Durham, Duke University Press, 2010) 316 pp. $84.95 cloth $23.95 paper

Spanish colonialism brought about numerous transformations, but the implementation of Catholicism and the establishment of parishes might have been the most influential of all these changes. Within Mexican history, many scholars have examined different aspects of the process of conversion and belief, as well as the policing of faith in its various forms. The Catholic Church in Mexico, as elsewhere, provides numerous points of entry for investigation, but O'Hara proves the capaciousness of Church history by taking a new path. Eschewing the divide between the indigenous and European faithful, he looks at parishioners in their relationship with the Church authorities. Parishioners have already been the focus of many books but not necessarily as a community; rather, historians have scrutinized parishioners' values and culture but not strictly their cohesion and their belief systems.

This highly innovative approach makes this book a welcome addition to the literature. O'Hara uses a chronological framework spanning the late eighteenth century well into the nineteenth century—often called the middle period within Latin American history. This framework allows for an exploration of the conditions that occurred as a result of independence and parishioners' change from the status of mere subjects to that of citizens. The use of this middle-period chronology is not in itself an innovation; many other historians have employed it, though usually on the basis a long series of documents, such as land claims or criminal cases, that provides for temporal continuity. The challenge for O'Hara was that since he did not have such a long series, he had to find different types of sources to flesh out his arguments. His analysis thus follows the parishes of Mexico City as well as nearby communities for a period of a little more than 100 years using ecclesiastical and secular documentation. The drawback, at times, is a lack of continuity in the types of evidence.

By documenting the small struggles between parishioners and Church authorities, O'Hara demonstrates how the faithful had invested emotionally in their ecclesiastical buildings. Church authorities asserted their rights to redefine parish boundaries and reassign churches in the belief that these were simply practicalities to organize their personnel and their property. The local objections, however, reveal that the flock were psychologically attached to those structures and rejected any change. The parishioners believed that the objects within churches belonged [End Page 486] to them; they resisted any attempt to transform their churchgoing experience. O'Hara shows how these feelings of ownership fostered a sense of political community within a setting that is not necessarily associated with political processes.

O'Hara uses an interesting combination of analytical tools from anthropology and art history. While paying attention to the symbolism of objects and structures, he also deploys a political analysis. Thus, he combines the disciplinary approaches of several areas to offer an inventive view of religious and political history. His book continues the trend of historians examining the unique relationship between Mexicans and the Catholic Church. It should be useful for students of religion and politics, as well as for those of Mexican history.

Sonya Lipsett-Rivera
Carleton University


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