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  • Imperialism and the Origins of Mexican Culture by Colin M. MacLachlan
  • Elizabeth Kuznesof
Imperialism and the Origins of Mexican Culture. By Colin M. MacLachlan (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2015) 318 pp. $35.00

This far-ranging book traces the origins of Mestizo culture in colonial Mexico. MacLachlan follows the parallel trajectories of the two imperial civilizations of Meso-America and Spain from their tribal beginnings to their establishment as dominant regional powers. He examines the early migrations and political and economic developments of each civilization, and also looks closely at religion as a determinant of culture. The Spanish invasion disrupted Meso-American culture and set the course for the emergence of Mestizo culture.

In this synthetic, interpretive work, culture and religion are the most prominent players. MacLachlan argues that the imposition of language was the “key transformative violence associated with imperialism” and that religion and language “express a unique consciousness [End Page 253] that governs all else” (7). In addition, MacLachlan explicitly states that race was not a determinative factor in the course of history. According to him, Mexico eventually became a “unifying culture, not a racial one . . . . Purity of blood was secondary to belief and culture” (249). In fact, the book does not include a strong argument for why Europeans became dominant over time, or why the new Mestizo culture in Mexico had overwhelmingly Christian features. The chapter about the conquest contains suggestions that the Europeans possessed superior technology, but MacLachlan does not claim that this superiority accounted for European success. He credits Hernán Cortés with several astute decisions as a diplomat and a soldier, but also with mistakes. At several points, MacLachlan infers that a slightly different decision on the part of the Aztecs could have ended the Spanish threat in Mexico.

MacLachlan describes the political economy of the Aztecs as exploitive, averring that it did not foster economic development. The Aztecs extracted tribute from subject tribes without returning services of any kind. Their empire was unsustainable. By comparison, MacLachlan argues, the early sixteenth-century economy under Spanish control provided attractive economic opportunities to indigenous peoples. These new opportunities may well have been profitable enough to make revolt unlikely, even though the native population numbered 25 million and the Spaniards only a few hundred thousand.

According to MacLachlan, the most problematical policy area was the Spaniards’ insistence that the natives convert to Christianity. At the same time, the Crown disallowed natives to become part of the priest-hood, leaving the indigenous peoples—who were intrinsically religious—essentially orphaned. In cultural terms, MacLachlan sees the handling of religion as a fatal mistake, the result of which was the survival of many prehispanic beliefs and cultural traits within a hybrid Mestizo culture. Yet, the charge that the imposition of Catholicism on Meso-America was mishandled seems contradictory since MacLachlan later points out the religious parallels between the two civilizations: “The religious similarities, disconnected from an understanding of the underlying theology, made confusion inevitable but facilitated amalgamation” (251). The priest-hood aside, this complementary aspect of the two cultures would seem to provide a more positive narrative for the emergence of the Mestizo culture.

MacLachlan suggests that the success of Spanish dominance owed much to the demographic decline in the mid-sixteenth century from disease. However, a contrary view, persuasively argued by Kellogg, claims that neither disease nor force can account for the Spanish level of dominance so much as cultural hegemony, which she demonstrates to have occurred in the areas of law and domestic life.1 [End Page 254]

This book takes a disinterested view in the historical events leading to the conquest. It posits neither civilization as intrinsically correct or superior. Instead, MacLachlan looks at the historical events and cultural developments in terms of how each civilization pursued its own interests to achieve a stronger and more efficient state—a healthy perspective for students who wish to understand the emergence of Mestizo Mexico.

Elizabeth Kuznesof
University of Kansas


1. Susan Kellogg, “Hegemony Out of Conquest: The First Two Centuries of Spanish Rule in Central Mexico,” Radical History Review, LIII (1992), 27–46.


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pp. 253-255
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