Laura A. Lewis. Hall of Mirrors: Power, Witchcraft, and Caste in Colonial Mexico. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003. xiv + 262 pp. $79.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8223-3111-7; $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-3147-6.
Reviewed by Caterina Pizzigoni (Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London)
Published on H-LatAm (May, 2006)
The Multiple Knots of Ethnic Relations
The broad topic of this engaging book is the story, or better put, the stories of ethnic relations in central Mexico, for relations are analyzed from different angles and from the point of view of the various ethnic groups, although the main focus is on blacks, mulattoes, and mestizos.
Relations are considered first in what the author defines as sanctioned domain, the legal, formal one, where society was organized according to a pyramid with the Spaniards in a privileged position and the Indians as subordinate. Within this configuration, blacks, mulattoes, and mestizos functioned as mediators between the two groups. Then the analysis turns to the unsanctioned domain, the realm of illegal acts, moral violations, and especially witchcraft, where the hierarchy was turned upside down and the Indians occupied a privileged position, while the middle groups cooperated with them, in the author's view, to undermine Spanish power. The book is actually structured along these two lines, with two chapters each for the sanctioned and unsanctioned domain, linked through the transitional chapter 4, as well as an introductory chapter and the conclusion. The research is based on a large number of sources, mainly lawsuits, coming from the central repositories in Mexico City (principally the Archivo General de la Nacion, the branch Inquisicion, but other branches as well), covering a period from 1537 to 1695.
A fascinating aspect of the book is the study of the intermediary sectors. That is, blacks, mulattoes, and mestizos are examined from the point of view of their roles in colonization and their relations with the other ethnic groups. This provides a useful corrective to the simplistic way these groups are sometimes treated in which their space is compressed into the dichotomy of Indians and Spaniards.
As Lewis reminds us, blacks had a complex position since, on the one hand, Spanish authorities tried to protect Indians from them, under the assumption that they would abuse them, but also fearing that they would stimulate the indigenous peoples to rebel; on the other hand, Spanish settlers, officials, and clergy used the blacks to control the Indians in the hacienda system as well as in market places. The analysis highlights the fact that very little still is known about the role played by black people, above all women, in the market economy. Along the same lines, the author says Spaniards tried to separate the Indians from the mulattoes and the mestizos, but at the same time the latter were employed as local officeholders for positions normally held by Indians to control life in the indigenous communities.
The picture so far shows a degree of duality on the part of the Spaniards, but ethnic relations are even more complicated, as Lewis tells us. It was not simply a matter of the Spanish trying to keep the Indians separate from the other groups and at the same time putting them in contact with the intermediaries who helped control the natives. Indians developed their own relations with these middle groups in quite the opposite way of what the Spaniards would approve. For instance, they at times hid runaway slaves, or quarreled with mestizo officeholders to defend the interests of their communities; in fact, the Indian nobility also tried to use mulatto and mestizo officeholders to achieve their ends, differentiating themselves from indigenous commoners. Thus ethnic relations are based on a spectrum of combinations and variables in which controversy about power, class, and local affiliation play a key part.
Lewis introduces another important element in the analysis of Spanish-Indian relations when she says that there can be a cultural explanation for the fact that the Indians so often addressed the judiciary. Since Spanish authority was the source of many problems for the Indians, they could expect that redress would come from the Spanish. Thus they used Spanish courts not only because they were the only ones available but precisely because they were Spanish, and in virtue of it they had the power to remedy the abuses committed by Spaniards.
A further set of challenging arguments emerges through the author's analysis of the unsanctioned domain, which concentrates mainly on witchcraft. Various aspects of it have been treated by other scholars as well, while Lewis herself has already developed the interesting aspect of the association of Indians with women through their supposed weakness in an article published some years ago. Hence I will not concentrate on these topics but rather on some features that have not received much attention before. For instance, the book makes the valuable contribution of emphasizing that the Indians were paid for their magical knowledge, and it seems that many found in it a source of revenue; this economic aspect of witchcraft is often dismissed.
Another feature involves the complexity of ethnic relations behind witchcraft. Spaniards are characterized once again by a dual behavior, being ready to punish witchcraft but at the same time sending their black or mulatto servants to purchase remedies from the Indians. But often it was precisely the intermediaries or other Indians who had bewitched them, or their servants were turning them over to the Inquisition for seeking help from non-Christian remedies. So, by using the middle groups to try to control the Indians, Spaniards created the circumstances for these groups to take back to the Spaniards the Indians' magical knowledge. Witchcraft appears as another sphere where contentions of power and class tension among the various ethnic groups, as well as gender conflicts, emerged in a poignant way. In this Lewis challenges the position of other colonial historians by maintaining that battles over race, class, and gender were there since the early colonial time, and that class did not really undermine race in the later colonial period, but both went on shaping social relations.
Although witchcraft was a realm where contention was expressed, the analysis may be stretched a bit too far by statements such as the following: "witchcraft might be seen as a consequence of the Indian unwillingness to do sanctioned work and therefore as both a challenge to and a confirmation of the state's organization of Indian labor" (p. 64). Probably more than a few times witchcraft was a matter of tension between individuals, a private question, or a normal service to provide in exchange of payment, rather than a group or ethnic statement of resistance.
A few considerations expressed by the author on ethnohistorians and the use of sources in Nahuatl also cause some perplexity. Lewis says that "because Kellogg does the same thing with Spanish-language texts containing Indian testimony (1995), the evidence does not seem to support Lockhart's position that Nahuatl texts tell us about one world while Spanish texts tell us about another" (p. 208, n. 207). I think that Kellogg actually uses also Nahuatl documents in her book. More than that, though, I find that Lockhart and his school do not dismiss the importance of Spanish sources and do not maintain that they could give information only about Spaniards; rather, they acknowledge that both kinds of sources speak of indigenous societies in a different and complementary way, at the same time underlining the relevance of Nahuatl sources to reveal more inner details of indigenous lives, and concepts that do not normally reach the Spanish realm. Moreover, documents in Nahuatl were not produced only by "Indian nobles," but reflect a much broader social and cultural spectrum.
To conclude, the book's strength lies in the attention paid to the intermediary groups--people whom Spaniards in colonial Mexico often considered more "other" than the Indians. Even more significant is the author's analysis of the alliances that blacks, mulattoes, and mestizos forged with Indians in the unsanctioned domain and with Spaniards in the sanctioned one, passing some of the characteristics of each group, and of themselves, on to the other. Colonial central Mexico is materialized in the mind of the reader as a vibrant world of mobilities and cultural crossing. In this process, though, everybody ultimately is colonized; but that colonialism created new ways of thinking about and acting in the world. It is a compelling book that fully deserves to be read and reflected upon.
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Caterina Pizzigoni. Review of Lewis, Laura A., Hall of Mirrors: Power, Witchcraft, and Caste in Colonial Mexico.
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