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  • The Franciscans in Colonial Mexico ed. by Thomas M. Cohen, Jay T. Harrison, and David Rex Galindo
  • Jason Dyck (bio)
The Franciscans in Colonial Mexico. Edited by Thomas M. Cohen, Jay T. Harrison, and David Rex Galindo. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press and the Academy of American Franciscan History, 2022. Pp. 344. $65.00 hardcover)

The "Twelve" Franciscans who arrived in New Spain in 1524 are memorialized in their monastery in Huejotzingo, Puebla. A fresco of them kneeling before a cross in the sala de profundis offers a stunning yet limited view of their actions in the Spanish Empire. Franciscans operated outside of the central valley of Mexico, their influence stretched well beyond the 1500s, and they were not the only members of the observant branch of their order. The Franciscans in Colonial Mexico breaks free of traditional and monolithic views of Franciscan labor in New Spain. Honoring the work of scholar Francisco Morales Valerio, this edited volume—born out of a 2017 conference in Washington, D.C.—brings together a sampling of new research by thirteen scholars on themes like mysticism, education, the Holy Land, presidios, language, games, bells, and martyrdom.

The editors, Thomas M. Cohen, Jay T. Harrison, and David Rex Galindo, introduce the volume with a brief historiographical survey of Franciscans in New Spain. Morales is next with a reflection on his intellectual and spiritual journeys as a friar and historian. He reminds the reader of the competing visions within his order and that Franciscans themselves—despite some of the optimistic rhetoric in their chronicles—believed that their enterprise was far from perfect. Twelve chapters follow, which cover various regions of New Spain: central Mexico, the Yucatán peninsula, northwestern and northeastern New Spain, and transatlantic contexts. The geographic scope of The Franciscans in Colonial Mexico is impressive, but the Franciscan presence in La Florida is surprisingly absent.

Earlier scholars of the so-called spiritual conquest placed most of their emphasis on Franciscan activities, thus transforming [End Page 53] Indigenous peoples into pawns in the missionary theatre. The Franciscans in Colonial Mexico avoids this narrative even if several chapters place the spotlight on individual friars. Verónica Murillo Gallegos uses Juan Bautista de Viseo's life as a case study to analyze the trilingual nature of Catholic evangelism in New Spain, moving beyond the school of New Philology. Franciscans spoke and wrote in Latin, Spanish, and Nahuatl for evangelizing purposes even if they used each language with different audiences in mind. In his chapter on Diego de Landa, Matthew Restall breaks free of restricting labels for Franciscans that decontextualize their missionary work. Scholars, artists, and novelists have depicted Landa as both a destroyer of codices (medieval) and as a proto-ethnographer (modern), but Restall suggests he was a typical sixteenth-century friar guided by a millennial fervor. A heavy focus on notable Franciscans—especially only certain episodes in their life—fosters deceptive distortions of colonial encounters.

In other chapters of the volume, Indigenous peoples emerge as important actors in mission contexts. Hilaire Kalendorf focuses on the rhetorical role they play in Toribio de Benavente Motolinía's Memoriales. Mesoamericans hyperbolically appear in the text as virtuous instruments of conversion, a stark contrast to the uncharitable Spaniards whose consciences need a nudging to join friars in defending their neophytes. John F. Chuchiak demonstrates that Maya nobles formed their own libraries and served as translators, informants, assistants, and even local schoolmasters in the Franciscan drive to spread alphabetic literacy in the Yucatan. Chapters dedicated to northern New Spain, where primary source materials are not as extensive as they are for central Mexico, feature Indigenous peoples resisting Franciscan attempts to alter their traditional ways of life.

Much like in the scholarship of Morales, intercultural dialogue is an important theme in The Franciscans in Colonial Mexico. Jonathan Truitt suggests that less formal games (not sports) are an overlooked "mode of cultural contact" between Spaniards and Mesoamericans (p. 84). In Mexico City, Franciscans introduced new games and sought to change pre-Hispanic ones; they categorized games, condemned vices associated with them, and preached against the role of chance. Games brought people together in cultural exchanges, but so too did bells...