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  • A Blurred Genealogy of Colonial Mexican Culture
  • Pablo Miguel Sierra Silva (bio)
Colin M. MacLachlan. Imperialism and the Origins of Mexican Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015. 352pp. Maps, notes, bibliography and index. $35.00.

Colin MacLachlan’s most recent study explains how a Mexican Mestizo culture was formed from two unlikely parents: a medieval Castilian kingdom on the verge of embracing the Renaissance and an unstable tributary network led by the Mexica (Aztecs). Politically and economically, “Indo-Mexico” was defeated by “Euro-Spain,” eventually becoming absorbed into Western Civilization. Culturally, however, a hybrid space was created, one that retained remnants of indigenous religious practices by masking them under the mantle of folk Catholicism. MacLachlan refers to this cultural arena as “Mestizo Mexico.” His interest in the origins of Mexican culture can be found in two previous works: the 1980 textbook The Forging of the Cosmic Race: A Reinterpretation of Colonial Mexico (co-authored with Jaime Rodríguez O.) and a 1988 monograph, Spain’s Empire in the New World: The Role of Ideas in Institutional and Social Change. While there are similarities between the three projects, Imperialism and the Origins of Mexican Culture represents a far more ambitious study in that it searches for the cultural, intellectual, and philosophical roots of early sixteenth-century Castile in order to explain the transformation of central Mexico in the first decades of the Spanish conquest. Overall, the study offers a useful introduction into the political and institutional dilemmas posed by the arrival of the conquistadors but comes up short in explaining the origins of Mexican culture.

Imperialism draws on the historiography on colonial Mexico (the viceroyalty of New Spain) during the sixteenth century and on the daunting literature of Celtic, Roman, Visigoth, Muslim, and Christian Iberia. Charles Gibson’s The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule (1964), for instance, looms large throughout the text. Unlike Gibson, however, MacLachlan does not offer an analysis based on untapped primary sources. This is largely a project based on his understanding of a vast secondary literature. In this respect, the book is comparable to Matthew Restall’s Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (2003). Imperialism is divided into a short autobiographical prologue, a lengthy introduction, four [End Page 19] chapters of varying length, and a brief conclusion. The extensive footnotes are appreciated, as is the bibliography.

Chapter one, “Mesoamerican Civilization,” sketches the religious, political, and economic development of the indigenous polities that the Iberians would encounter from 1519 to 1521. The author’s driving argument is that, at the moment of contact, the Mexica held an unstable but lucrative tributary network that reached both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The Mexica’s reliance on war, intimidation, and onerous tribute obligations, however, hindered the development of voluntary trade throughout the region. MacLachlan suggests that “Mesoamerica in the late fifteenth century verged on a commercial revolution along the lines of medieval Europe in 1000–1300” (p. 89). This process was obviously interrupted by the Spanish, but had been previously disrupted by the military expansion of the Mexica. The author demonstrates that the late fifteenth century was a period of increasing social stratification and political unrest. The semi-deification of the political elite coincided with their growing investment in the affairs of the pochteca merchant class. These well-researched discussions clash with other tangential sections on “whether Indo-Mexico consumed human flesh out of necessity” (p. 92). A dated discussion on cannibalism and calorie intake speaks to an ethnological literature produced in the 1970s with little relevance to the book’s larger goals.

Chapter two tackles “The Formation of Euro-Spanish Culture,” a broad synthesis of Iberian history from Celtic and Roman times up to 1492. The objective of this section is to trace the transition from polytheism to monotheism in the territory that would eventually become Castile, a process that would repeat itself in post-conquest Mexico. Here MacLachlan reaches too far back. Rehashing the Roman campaigns against Jerusalem in 70 B.C.E. and the victories of Scipio Africanus over Carthage (p. 117) ends up distracting the reader from the central argument of the book. In this reviewer’s opinion, the lengthy discussion on Roman Spain is unnecessary...


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