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Reviewed by:
  • Distance and Documents at the Spanish Empire’s Periphery by Sylvia Sellers-García
  • Ricardo Padrón
Distance and Documents at the Spanish Empire’s Periphery. Sylvia Sellers-García. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014. 257 pages, US$ 60.00 hardback. ISBN: 978-0-8047-8705-5.

In this, her first book, Sylvia Sellers-García makes the case that “spatial history matters to the social history of knowledge” (19). The mention of “distance” and “documents” in the title points to the well-known fact that Spain’s effort to govern a vast transatlantic empire involved facing the many challenges posed by distance, and that it attempted to meet those challenges by constructing a bureaucracy that trafficked in paper. Sellers-García turns to colonial Guatemala, itself a peripheral location in Spain’s empire, but also a center with regard to other peripheries, like Costa Rica, in order to understand just what distance meant to it, how documents were used to overcome it, and, more importantly, how the experience of distances structured the very production of knowledge.

The book is divided into an introduction, three parts of two chapters each, and an epilogue. The first part deals most directly with the question of how space and distance were perceived in colonial Guatemala. This reader was pleasantly surprised to find that the eighteenth century secular and ecclesiastical officials represented by the documents the author examines here imagined space in the same way as their sixteenth century counterparts: they depended upon routes of travel to organize places into hierarchical networks. This way of imagining space responded to their experience of travel from colonial centers (relative ones) to peripheries, and informed both the ways they described space and the ways they constructed knowledge of all kinds. Descriptions in relaciones geográficas tended to take the form of narrative tours. Administrative documents of all sorts, in turn, were constructed compositely along routes of travel, with each official along the route adding his own marginalia and/or seal. In the language of these documents, to be “distant” was to be peripheral, hard to get-to, and perhaps beyond the reach of colonial authority. Such distances were considered “dangerous” by those interested in projecting colonial authority, like Archbishop Pedro Cortés y Larraz, but they presented a source of amusement for a European traveler like Antonio José de Irisarri, and an opportunity for indigenous communities eager to avoid the impositions of church and state. Sellers-García examines all three of these examples, insofar as her documents allow, and paints a nuanced picture of the production of space in Guatemala by the powerful, the disempowered, and the disinterested.

While the first section looks at how space was imagined, and how it structured knowledge, the second looks at how knowledge actually travelled by exploring the development [End Page 209] of the Guatemalan mail system. The section has little to say about the poorly documented period before the Bourbon reforms, when mail was carried by special couriers, but provides a wealth of fascinating detail regarding the system that emerged during the eighteenth century and was then transformed by independence. Once again, routes matter, and we are made to appreciate the enormous difficulty of establishing regular communication between centers of authority and “distant” locations. This time, however, the emphasis falls primarily upon the mail carrier as an interested agent, a person who must make a living from the dangerous and poorly remunerated business of delivering documents, even if it means operating outside the law. This very colorful material yields to a discussion of the way the mail system changed in the late colonial and early national period, as the network of routes became denser and delivery more frequent, and as emerging national boundaries began to mark its limits. While routes continued to function as a way of organizing space, this established spatiality, “necessarily contended with the conception of the new Central American states as bounded spaces” a conception that places “a new emphasis on demarcating space beyond that occupied by important roads and towns” (128). With this change in Guatemalan spatiality came a change in the format of the typical official document. The old composite document...