- Performing Conquest: Five Centuries of Theater, History, and Identity in Tlaxcala, Mexico
In Performing Conquest, Patricia Ybarra examines the complex relationship between cultural identity and historical narratives, both of which are shaped by modes of performance. Her particular focus—the politics and performances (and, above all, political performances) of Mexico’s smallest state, Tlaxcala—is born out of “Tlaxcala’s reliance on performance as a privileged site of identity construction and historiographical reimagining” (10). In exploring the region’s continuous focus on identity (re)definition, Ybarra uses Tlaxcalan identity/history as a model for how performance can emphasize “changing paradigms of ethnic belonging and exclusion” in local, regional, and national contexts (25).
Performing Conquest makes an important contribution to recent scholarship about history, performance, and identity, expanding a field that includes Diana Taylor’s The Archive and the Repertoire, Joseph Roach’s Cities of the Dead, and Adam Versényi’s Theatre in Latin America. In it, Ybarra takes Tlaxcala as a case study, tracing the various strategies by which prescribed social roles have been performed throughout its history, tracking changes from 1524 to the present. For Ybarra, performance is considered broadly to include a variety of public interactions, [End Page 460] such as religious ceremonies, state-produced pageants, political events, and historical plays. Through such public performances, she maintains, Tlaxaltecans have constructed an identity that fluidly adapts to the historical narratives of conquest and concession to which they have been subject.
To introduce how local, regional, and national identities are both performative and political, Ybarra assesses Bill and Hillary Clinton’s 1997 visit to Tlaxcala, which was represented as “authentic” Mexico. She maintains that such a visit is emblematic of how politicians use performance, and how performance has political effects, enlarging her analytical purview to consider this dynamic from the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors to the NAFTA-era Clintons. The scope of Ybarra’s study is how performances of Tlaxcalan history, from the colonial period to the present, highlight the political negotiations between shifting popular grass-roots identities and top-down governmental identities.
Beginning with the moment of the Spanish conquest of Tlaxcala in chapter 1, “Motolinía’s Site of Complicity,” Ybarra considers the missionary account and conversion practices of Franciscan friar Toribio de Benavente, known as Motolinía, upon his arrival in Tlaxcala in 1524. For Ybarra, Motolinía’s account positions Tlaxcaltecans as “traitors” to their Indian heritage, easily conquered through the baptisms he performed as seen in the speed with which Tlaxcaltecans were presumed to adopt Christian beliefs. For Motolinía, public conversion festivals transformed the indigenous populations into Christians insofar as he believed that “acting like a Christian in religious plays is the same as being a Christian” (45). As Ybarra discusses, Motolinía’s Historia serves as an apt introduction to the complexity of Tlaxcalan identity, since on the one hand it suggests that Tlaxcaltecans performed in a way that capitulated to the Spanish, but on the other provided Tlaxcalan writers and artists with a central text by which to performatively enact or disrupt their identities as Tlaxcaltecans and/or Mexicans.
Chapter 2, “Playing Indian in Tlaxcala,” considers how Mexico, during its postcolonial construction of a republic, from 1812 to the 1940s co-opted an indigenous Tlaxcalan identity in its mythmaking. The historical narrative of Xicoténcatl the younger, a Tlaxcaltecan who sided with the Spanish before fighting against Cortés, epitomizes the Tlaxcalan tension between “rebel and traitor, uncompromising and compromised” (70). As Mexico developed its national identity, however, Xicoténcatl was transformed into an Indian hero to become a central figure in the political pageant of Mexican history. Ybarra argues that as postcolonial Mexico rewrote this heroic narrative, the Tlaxcaltecans rewrote their own “traitor” narrative, revealing how historical identities can be variously constructed to perform different political functions. Expanding her focus from individual to communal identities, she discusses how these Xicoténcatl narratives also reveal the importance of the concept of patria chica (little homeland), explaining that “loyalty to one...