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The Mixtecs of Colonial Oaxaca: Nudzahui History, Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries.

The Mixtecs of Colonial Oaxaca: Nudzahui History, Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries. By Kevin Terraciano (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001. xiv plus 514 pp.).

Scholars of pre-conquest and colonial Spanish America have long worked with native codices, inscriptions, the early sixteenth-century chronicles produced by native writers, and other sorts of indigenous texts, to reconstruct the realities of native life during the transition from pre-Hispanic times to colonial rule. It is only in the last twenty-five years or so, however, that North American scholars in particular have made massive use of post-conquest-era native-language texts written in the European alphabet. Kevin Terraciano's award-winning book (Bolton-Johnson Prize honorable mention, 2001) on the Nudzahui (or the Mixtecs as they came to be known) of the southeastern Mexican state of Oaxaca is a stellar example of this native-language-based scholarship. This is a work of high seriousness, impeccable, even awesome scholarship in arcane sources, powerful analytic drive, and straightforward, comprehensible exposition. Touching on most documented aspects of the lives of colonial Mixtec people, it is nearly encyclopedic, ranging from colonial political structures and the adaptations these required of indigenous ruling groups, to household organization, from spiritual beliefs and practices to gender relations, and from landholding patterns to forms of group identity. The solidity and comprehensiveness of Terraciano's account of colonial Mixtec Indians, and the absence of florid speculations about collective mental states that might have filled in for empirical evidence, are all the more remarkable when one learns that the known corpus of dated written documents in the Nudzahui language totals only about 400 items, including testaments, petitions to the colonial state, elite genealogies, and so forth. Historical ethnography of a very high order, the book stands as a monument to the sort of meticulous and ultimately rather conservative scholarship characteristic of the "new philology," as this and other works of the same genre have been dubbed collectively, which as yet embraces almost exclusively Mesoamerica, including Mexico and adjacent areas of Maya speech.

The book ostensibly covers the period 1550-1750, although it is clear that the author's heart is really with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so that the eighteenth century comprises a sort of coda in most of the chapters. The seven substantive chapters cover language phenomena (Chapters 2-3), community organization and forms of local rule (Chapters 4 and 6), social and economic relations (Chapters 5 and 7), the sacral realm (Chapter 8), and the construction of ethnic difference and Mixtec self-identity (Chapter 9). Although Terraciano writes that the chapters may be read independently of each other, so that a dynamic over time is described rather than an argument deployed, the patient reader will find that the author finally produces something like a total history of the Mixtec culture area. The study emphasizes cultural hybridity, chiefly through the explication of change in native language usage under the impact of Spanish rule. Where European and native practices converged, as with the forms of property-holding reflected in testaments and in some degree the inheritance system, for instance, there the process of native acculturation was faster and easier, although in general it proceeded more slowly than in the Nahua lands, where the presence of Spaniards was much greater and acculturative pressures concomitantly stronger. As with the Nahua-speaking Aztecs of central Mexico during the same era, a three-stage scheme of language change seems to fit the Mixtec case. The first period (ca. 1520-1550) saw little change in the Mixtec language itself but lots of native adaptations to express European concepts and name European objects; the second period (ca. 1550-1650) saw the borrowing of a multitude of Spanish nouns, the spread of alphabetic writing in Mixtec, and increasingly noticeable change in native naming practices (the adoption of Spanish forms); and the later colonial period saw native language patterns themselves changing, but the wide survival of Mixtec use in the region. Virtually everything in colonial Mixtec native life is approached through this linguistic framework, which makes sense when one remembers that the entire history of these people is mediated through inscribed language, but which also can become somewhat relentless. Chapter 4, for example, which deals with communities over time--that is, with the local Indian polities (villages and towns)--is really more about Mixtec terminology for communities and their subordinate units than about local political life on the ground.

Kevin Terraciano's findings are quite fascinating, for the most part, even those confirmatory of the similarities between Mixtec and Nahua cultures. He treats in detail the role of women in most spheres of native life, including political rule, property relations, and religious practice. This means, for example, that the progressive introduction of Spanish forms of rulership masculinized political life, producing a sort of retrogression from native practices. His chapter on religious life outlines in fascinating detail the survival and adaptation of native beliefs and practices, the untranslatability of many Christian concepts into native language and belief systems, and the Mixtecs' ambivalent acceptance of the "God from Castile." Other scholars before him have pointed to the relatively slow spread of the Spanish landed estate, the hacienda, in the area, but Terraciano is able to connect this convincingly to native retention of land and other resources within the forms of community, property, and inheritance bridging Mixtec and Spanish practices. The book's running comparisons between Mixtec and Nahua practices, and the way both regions adapted to Spanish rule, is extremely thoughtful and informative. And there is much else to recommend the book on an empirical level.

The language- and text-centered approach of the study accounts for some of its less strong points, as well. For example, it is to be expected that the limited corpus of documents, and the general restriction of literacy to notables and no-taries during the colonial period as a whole, inevitably tilts the book strongly toward elite groups, so that common Mixtec Indians are left in the shadows to a large degree, a methodological problem that the author himself admits. Then, too, there is some tendency for the study to jump back and forth promiscuously between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (as in Chapter 5, on social relations) because the author is presumably more interested in looking at the slower moving, synchronic (although far from static) dimension of cultural change through the lens of language, than at a strict diachronic account highlighting political or other sorts of chronologies. In the end, however, these problems are far outweighed by the detailed portrait Terraciano has offered of Mixtec cultural change and continuity, and the by ways in which his findings can be compared to other native culture areas.

Eric Van Young

University of California, San Diego
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Author:Van Young, Eric
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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