- Death by Effigy: A Case from the Mexican Inquisition by Luis R. Corteguera
In January 1569, King Philip II decreed the establishment of a tribunal of the Inquisition in New Spain to “eradicate” from non-Indian society all heresy, heterodoxy, and offenses against the Christian God. Still on unsure footing in the viceroy-alty, the Mexican Inquisition soon became involved in quarrels with both ecclesiastical and royal authorities over matters of jurisdiction and privileges over both temporal and spiritual spheres. Inquisitors were sensitive to matters of etiquette, and the breach of protocol by both ecclesiastic and secular authorities in Masses, meetings, and rituals of public punishment often triggered heated disagreements that easily escalated into serious confrontations. Eager to establish its authority, the newly established institution became particularly sensitive about the unauthorized use of the Holy Office’s name and symbols to promote personal interests.
In Death by Effigy, Luis R. Corteguera offers a probing discussion of the challenges faced by the Holy Office to establish its authority in New Spain, through a careful and nuanced analysis of a scandalous case of misappropriation of the Inquisition’s symbols in a colonial setting. Corteguera’s book revolves around an apparently insignificant incident that took place on July 21, 1578, in the small town of Temachalco that is located in the present-day state of Puebla. On that day, a Franciscan friar found a two-faced effigy hanging from the town church’s door over a pile of wood. Adorned with black feathers and a sambenito (the Inquisition’s penitential garment), the doll had a tongue sewn into each one of its mouths (one with a forked end, the other with a gag); two additional sambenitos were affixed to the building’s facade, and three signs in gothic letters slandered a prominent town dweller by labeling him a Jew and warned others against removing these signs of infamy.
Hernando Rubio Naranjo, the victim of the anonymous slander, was a thirty-five-year-old unmarried man who made a fortune by trading between Tecamachalco [End Page 689] and Oaxaca. Although he had no Jewish ancestry, the merchant was widely known as a “Jewish scoundrel” because of his widespread reputation as a “usurer.” The antisemitic accusation was compounded by Rubio’s deeds as a deslenguado (“loose-tongued”); a hated man who had no problem defaming neighbors who considered him a friend, spreading false rumors on several reputable women, and cuckolding a fellow trader. Because of his exploits, he was once severely beaten and his face was slashed with a knife. This time, however, his enemies decided to teach him a lesson by slandering his “good name” with an effigy. The Inquisition considered the scandal a “grave offense” not because of the false accusations against the victim, but because the conspirators had appropriated the Holy Office’s symbols to carry out the slander. During the next four years, the tribunal conducted nine different trials and interrogated dozens of suspects and witnesses to find the culprits, accumulating in the process almost seven hundred pages of detailed information. The difficulty of resolving the case resulted in unusually harsh punishments against the leaders of the conspiracy, Juan de Molina and Francisco Yanez. On July 22, 1582, the tribunal sentenced them to 200 lashes and five years as galley slaves without pay; their co-conspirators, Ana de Figueroa and Juan de Lopez, would each receive 100 lashes and banishment for five years from the Diocese of Tlaxcala. As for Rubio Naranjo, he apparently decided to leave Tecamachalco for Tlaxcala around 1581, perhaps realizing he had become a persona non grata in the small town.
Drawing from inquisitorial documents in the Huntington Library and the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico City, Corteguera weaves a fascinating tale of deception, revenge, and rumor politics in early colonial Mexico. By reducing the scale of analysis in time and space, Corteguera not only unravels the twists and turns of an intricate conspiracy but...