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The Great Festivals of Colonial Mexico City: Performing Power and Identity.

The Great Festivals of Colonial Mexico City: Performing Power and Identity. By Linda A. Curcio-Nagy (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2004. xiv + 363 pp.).

Reflecting growing scholarly interest in the civic and religious rituals that bolstered colonial rule in the Americas, this book examines five major festivals celebrated in Mexico City during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Linda Curcio-Nagy focuses on the city's most prominent events: the civic viceregal entrance, ceremony of allegiance to the king, the Royal Banner ceremony, and the religious festivals of Corpus Christi and the Virgin of Remedies. These festivals, she argues, represented through performance the ideal principles of good government in the colony; but they also revealed political disagreements over such principles over time.

Curcio-Nagy provides wonderful details of these spectacles: the Native Americans dressed "as ancient warriors" who "positioned their canoes along the cause-ways and bowed in deference to the new governor;" Afro-Mexican women dancing in accompaniment to a presentation of paintings portraying the viceroy as a phoenix rising to rule over them; a triumphal arch constructed by the silversmiths' guild covered in 102 silver panels illuminated by 400 votive candles placed on 40 chandeliers. She also examines counter discourses within and surrounding the festivals, directly (in the case of satirical floats created by university students) and indirectly (in the various meanings Native Americans in particular may have attached to their participation).

The real contribution of Curcio-Nagy's book, however, is to ask how the celebration of each of these particular festivals changed over time and to what ends, from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. Insisting that spectacles were necessary to integrate and control the Crown's colonial subject within the proper social hierarchy, city officials subsidized the participation of large sectors of the urban population in Hapsburg festivals. Officials in the Hapsburg era also favored festivals like the viceregal entry that celebrated the figure of the King's servant, while the King remained an idealized and distant ruler. The eighteenth-century Bourbons, by contrast, favored festivals that furthered royal authority directly, such as the ceremony of allegiance to the king and the Royal Banner ceremony. They also halted subsidies of plebeian participation and relied on donations from an increasingly small sector of wealthy citizens to fund private parties and entertainments. Under the Bourbons, Curcio-Nagy argues, the ideal prince became the King himself; the ideal vassal, an efficient, educated, and increasingly elite and Spanish-born citizen. The ritual function of festivals became less politically integrative in the eighteenth century, and Curcio-Nagy provocatively suggests that in Mexico City, conflicts over the rituals of rule had already targeted the King as the father of Bourbon tyranny rather than a messianic monarch who will save his abused people. Through a cultural and social history of festivals, then, Curcio-Nagy lucidly charts the major political trends in Spanish colonialism, from Hapsburg to Bourbon rule on the eve of Independence.

Curcio-Nagy's marriage of cultural and social history is welcome. She discusses what Mexico City's major festivals meant to different sectors in colonial urban society, using not only poetry, satire, sermons, and other publications created for the events, but also spending records from local guilds, records of city council meetings, Inquisitorial reviews, and Native American petitions to the Crown. When dealing with the admittedly complex and elusive role of Native Americans and Afro-Mexicans in these festivals, Curcio-Nagy seems the most tentative. For instance, she writes that most Native historical memory had been lost and political frameworks fragmented in the sixteenth century (47), necessitating new multiethnic rituals that could replace the old; yet a few pages later, she argues that urban festivals allowed traditional Native ethnic rivalries to be played out against a backdrop of "substantial knowledge of history and past rituals of their communities" (52). One hopes that Curcio-Nagy's study will inspire others to address the roles of these groups in Mexico City's festival life from a more specifically plebeian and/or Native viewpoint. The book also suggests productive questions for historians interested in the use of civic and religious ceremony in rural Mexican society, especially during the later colonial years and also for the Independence era (treated less comprehensively by Curcio-Nagy than the Bourbon period proper).

While some may wish for more explicit discussions of the relation of theater to power, or the "integrative and hegemonic" use of spectacle, Curcio-Nagy generally treats theory with a light touch. She has clearly, however, thought about the theoretical issues, and this tightly-argued book deserves to be read by student and scholar alike.

Laura Matthew

University of Miami
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Author:Matthew, Laura
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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