- A Flock Divided: Race, Religion, and Politics in Mexico, 1749-1857
This ambitious, dissertation-based monograph by Matthew O'Hara comes hot on the heels of his coedited volume on rethinking race and identity in Colonial Latin America (Imperial Subjects: race and identity in colonial Latin America, 2009, likewise published by Duke University Press). Winner of the Rocky Mountain Council for Latin American Studies' Thomas McGann Award for best book of the year, A Flock Divided also tackles issues of race and identity, obliging us to look differently at Mexico's complex transition from late colony to early republic.
O'Hara's argument is that late-colonial folk Catholicism served as the basis for popular politics in the decades surrounding Independence. Put that simply, it does not sound like an especially new conclusion. But O'Hara puts it in far more sophisticated terms. He details in lively prose, with an impressive depth of archival evidence, how social categories were shaped by religion in ways that were often contradictory. The church was a uniting force, promoting radical notions of equality; and yet at the same time it continued to try to divide and rule, to perpetuate socioracial categories and hierarchies. [End Page 1153]
The book is structured around six chapters, grouped in three "parts," sequenced both chronologically and thematically. The four chapters of "Part I: Institutions and Ideas" and "Part II: Reform and Reaction" focus on the late-eighteenth century debates and struggles over Mexico City's indigenous parishes. O'Hara does a nice job of teasing out one of the ironies that historians are beginning to see as inherent to Spanish American colonialism, namely that colonial practice was often more the work of non-Spaniards. In the background to O'Hara's case study, Spaniards established "Indian" parishes under Franciscan (and later Augustinian and Dominican) control in the sixteenth century, as a way to segregate the city's native population from non-Indians. Two centuries later (primarily in 1749 and 1772), they sought to secularize those parishes, to effectively de-segregate what had become a complex mixed-race urban populace, and to replace public festivals and other traditional displays of piety with an austere new Catholicism. In response, native leaders resisted, saving something of the original corporate, ethnic identity and autonomy of the parishes. Spanish officials tried to realign "the formal spiritual geography of Mexico City" (12), but indigenous communities fought back, often successfully "asserting the religious rights accorded to owners of religious resources" (155).
The pair of chapters that constitute "Part III: Piety and Politics" pursue this complex struggle into the first half of the nineteenth century, allowing O'Hara to cross the boundary between colonial and republican periods. The crossing of that boundary is not the rare and radical act that it once was, and the strength and core of the book is arguably O'Hara's use of ecclesiastical records to analyze Mexico City's parishes in the late eighteenth century (chapters 2-4). That said, his discussion in Part III of the nature of political and religious rhetoric in the decades surrounding Independence adds much to the overall study. Particularly fascinating is the exploration of the interplay between the old racial, religious category of "miserable" and new nonracial, civil one of "citizen." O'Hara's assertion that "the contradictions and synergies between these two terms would help shape local politics in many Mexican communities through much of the nineteenth century" (184) is one to be considered carefully by future scholars. Likewise the argument that the category of "Indian" not only persisted, but did so through the efforts of indigenous community leaders—with the twist that the indigenous identity of some of these leaders and their community members was increasingly contrived and constructed. "Indian difference continued to be an axis around which Mexican society revolved" (201), concludes O'Hara, in part because "many Mexicans continued to claim and defend spiritual capital often with reference to the social category of Indian" (221).