A Flock Divided: Race, Religion, and Politics in Mexico, 1749-1857

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Catholicism, as it developed in colonial Mexico, helped to create a broad and remarkably inclusive community of Christian subjects, while it also divided that community into countless smaller flocks. Taking this contradiction as a starting point, Matthew D. O’Hara describes how religious thought and practice shaped Mexico’s popular politics. As he shows, religion facilitated the emergence of new social categories and modes of belonging in which individuals—initially subjects of the Spanish crown, but later citizens and other residents of republican Mexico—found both significant opportunities for improving their place in society and major constraints on their ways of thinking and behaving.

O’Hara focuses on interactions between church authorities and parishioners from the late-colonial era into the early-national period, first in Mexico City and later in the surrounding countryside. Paying particular attention to disputes regarding caste status, the category of “Indian,” and the ownership of property, he demonstrates that religious collectivities from neighborhood parishes to informal devotions served as complex but effective means of political organization for plebeians and peasants. At the same time, longstanding religious practices and ideas made colonial social identities linger into the decades following independence, well after republican leaders formally abolished the caste system that classified individuals according to racial and ethnic criteria. These institutional and cultural legacies would be profound, since they raised fundamental questions about political inclusion and exclusion precisely when Mexico was trying to envision and realize new forms of political community. The modes of belonging and organizing created by colonialism provided openings for popular mobilization, but they were always stalked by their origins as tools of hierarchy and marginalization.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
A Flock Divided is an elegantly written and insightful work that casts new light on religious practice in the Americas. O’Hara has revitalised the study of race, religion, and politics in Latin America setting a new standard for historians interested in these themes.” - Alexander Hidalgo, Itinerario

A Flock Divided is a well-researched and well-written book that makes several important contributions to the discipline. . . . O’Hara also adds significantly to our understanding of cultural, social, and political developments in this transitional period of Mexican history.” - Jim Norris, Western Historical Quarterly

A Flock Divided is based on careful archival research and offers new insights into the often hidden practices of local Catholicism and the role of religion in identity formation. . . . [T]his is an impressive work that merits careful attention.” - Brian Larkin, Hispanic American Historical Review

A Flock Divided is true to its title. It is a rich, revisionist history that confounds old notions of indigenous passivity and obsolescence by bringing to light a trove of new sources and interpretations that furnish great insight into what being Indian was about over the longue durée. It is a welcome contribution to the history of early Mexico.” - Susan Schroeder, Journal of Latin American Studies

“[T]his is a brilliant and readable book that helps to elucidate the divisiveness of the parish system in Mexico during periods when the official government
(vice-regal or republican) was trying to get rid of caste boundaries in the Catholic Church. O’Hara does an incredible job of showing how parishioners and priests alike were frustrated by some government edicts and how they manipulated other edicts to their own benefit. . . . O’Hara should be commended for a job well done.”
- Jonathan Truitt, Bulletin of Latin American Research

“Carefully researched, engagingly written, and strongly argued, A Flock Divided will be mandatory reading for scholars and students of colonial and nineteenth-century Spanish America for many years to come.”
- Matthew Restall, Journal of Social History

A Flock Divided is a pioneering work that contributes to a new understanding of Mexican history. It sheds light on many topics, including the intricacies of colonial and republican politics, the limitations of reform projects imposed by the church and by the state, the often difficult relationship between priests and parishioners, and the religious bases of civil society. This brilliant book also shows how much church documents reveal about popular culture and politics, from the persistence of ethnicity and race in shaping urban identities to the continuing importance of the parish and religious devotions as the locus of sociability.”—Silvia Marina Arrom, author of Containing the Poor: The Mexico City Poor House, 1774–1871

“Based almost entirely on extensive new archival research, primarily in ecclesiastical records, A Flock Divided is an original, thought-provoking, and compelling contribution to scholarship on late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century Mexico. Through subtle analysis and graceful writing, Matthew D. O’Hara illuminates the multiple intersections among race, religion, and politics.”—Margaret Chowning, author of Rebellious Nuns: The Troubled History of a Mexican Convent, 1752–1863

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822346272
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 11/23/2009
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Matthew D. O’Hara is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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Read an Excerpt


By Matthew D. O'Hara


Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4639-5

Chapter One


* * *

In 1753 Damaso García died in Candelaria, a neighborhood of eastern Mexico City. As he was a man of little wealth and modest social standing, his passing drew little attention. Like most residents of the capital, he received a simple burial by the local parish priest. But García's body had not reached its final resting place. It became the subject of a legal battle initiated by the priest of a neighboring parish, who demanded that the body be exhumed, transferred to his parish, and reburied. Why did the priests care who performed García's funeral and burial? The dead body represented income. Priests received fees for the performance of sacraments, and only García's parish priest had the right to bury him. But the financial interests of these priests were only the superficial cause of García's wandering corpse. This simple fee dispute revealed a deep issue in the religious world of Mexico City and New Spain: it captured how people imagined and constructed boundaries around bodies and souls.

The roots of the conflict could be found in Mexico City's parish system, which not only divided the city geographically, but also along what modern observers would call racial and ethnic lines. The two priests argued at length over Garcia's racial status, since the parish in which he was initially buried was intended solely for Indians, while the aggrieved priest served in a parish meant for Spaniards and castas (persons of mixed race). So to settle the dispute, the priests not only had to determine where García had lived; they also had to determine who he was. Was he an Indian, a Spaniard, or a casta? If he was a casta, was he a mestizo(half Indian, half Spanish) or a mestindio or coyote (three-quarters Indian, one-quarter Spanish)? García's story sheds light on the racial ordering of colonial society, but it also demonstrates the very intimate role that religious practice and administration played in structuring, regulating, and even interpreting life for residents of New Spain and its capital. The spiritual geography of the capital-its religious institutions, sacred buildings, and devotional icons-also comprised a social geography of individuals, collectivities, and practices. But parishioners contested the normalizing role of colonial Catholicism as they embraced, appropriated, and modified the administration and practice of religion.

The documents produced by the contact points of religious institutions thus captured enduring features of colonial New Spain and republican Mexico. Our primary concern in this chapter is to understand how religious thought and practice shaped colonial subjects and communities. How did officials and subjects create and modify the category of Indian? What room for maneuver and agency did this and other categories open for colonial subjects? What did they foreclose?

This history of political communities and the discourse of Indianness has an unlikely beginning in religious structures-the theologies, institutions, and ideas that shaped the spiritual landscapes of Mexico City. Colonial subjects thought of communities, political and otherwise, through institutional and ideological containers. These structures offered metaphors and methods of community formation, the ideas and building blocks of exclusion and inclusion. Our first task is to survey these twin landscapes-a physical and social geography of a city, but also a topography of religious ideas-from their origins in the sixteenth century into the eighteenth century, where the rest of this story unfolds.

Buildings and Bodies

Mexico City seems to epitomize the best and worst of the modern megalopolis: a vibrant cultural space defined by diversity and hybridity; an over-crowded and polluted urban environment; a site where the countryside confronts the city; a place where grinding poverty and incredible wealth exist cheek by jowl. If we begin our story around 1900, we might say these are recent developments, the products of twentieth-century urbanization, political transformation, economic growth, and social dislocation. We would be right, to a point. On a smaller scale, however, Mexico City, or the Aztec-built Tenochtitlán, was a bustling metropolis for the previous 500 years-in the nineteenth century, during the period of Spanish colonialism (roughly 1521-1821), and prior to the arrival of Europeans. Many of these hallmarks of modernity have deep genealogies. By approaching colonial religious history outside of traditional interpretive frameworks, which tend to separate the spiritual from the political, we can better understand how religion helped fashion the colonial order and modern Mexican political culture. There is another history here, a different past to explore, and an overlooked path to the present.

Some estimates place the population of Aztec Tenochtitlán between 200,000 and 250,000 upon the arrival of Hernando Cortés and his followers in 1519. If one were to include the city's immediate hinterland in the surrounding Valley of Mexico, the figure would jump to approximately 400,000. As the center of the Aztec empire, Tenochtitlán was connected to an array of regional polities and ethnic groups stretching from today's northern Mexico to Central America. The presence of diverse goods and peoples gave Tenochtitlán a cosmopolitan character and made a walk through the island city an accelerated tour of Mesoamerica: markets held quetzal feathers, cacao, monkeys, and other tropical products brought north from Chiapas and Guatemala, dyes and fabrics from Oaxaca, coconuts and shells from the coasts, maguey and nopal from the central highlands. The physical environment also communicated a social geography. The city consisted of calpolli (extended kinship units that possessed a territorial base and exercised political functions), with separate wards for the merchant class and temporary visitors from other regions or ethnic groups. With an architectural landscape that conveyed not only the political and military power of the empire, but also its social organization, the city offered a living and breathing map of empire.

Tenochtitlán stunned European eyes, especially the city's population density and powerful buildings. One of Cortés's soldiers, Bernal Díaz, explained it best, remarking:

When we saw all those cities and villages built in the water, and other great towns on dry land, and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico [Tenochtitlán], we were astounded. These great towns and pyramids [cues] and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision from the tale of Amadis. Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether or not it was all a dream.... It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before.

But the Spanish conquest and the forces it unleashed devastated the city, turning a cosmopolitan dream into an urban nightmare. Most of the unique architecture and gleaming stonework that so enchanted Díaz was destroyed in the first decades of Spanish rule. In the void left by the razing of Tenochtitlán, the Spanish built the City of Mexico using forced Indian labor and the recycled stones, columns, and beams that had embodied the Aztec empire. One historian has imagined the new environment as "a kind of freak city, a composite architecture composed of crumbling remains and newly erected buildings." Harnessing indigenous labor, the Spanish began mammoth drainage projects that gradually lowered the level of the surrounding lakes, expanded the footprint of the city, and reclaimed many of the canals that had intersected Tenochtitlán, converting them into streets or habitable space.

The construction projects demanded enormous amounts of material and labor. Indigenous peoples from Tenochtitlán, Tlatelolco, and other towns in the Valley of Mexico supplied the vast majority, though enslaved Africans, European craftsmen, and coerced indigenous laborers from outside the valley also took part. The Franciscan chronicler Fray Toribio de Benavente, known as Motolinía, described the reconstruction of the city as one of the "ten plagues" unleashed upon the indigenous Nahuas after the conquest. In the postconquest destruction and reconstruction of Mexico City-Tenochtitlán, he observed:

So many [Indians] were occupied in the projects that a fellow could barely walk down some of the streets and avenues, even though they are quite wide. And many Indians died in these projects, some hit by beams, others falling from on high, and others buried beneath the rubble of the buildings that were being destroyed and replaced, especially when they demolished the main pagan temples.... Lamentably, this is the way things are done in this part of the world-the Indians do the work, pay for the materials, the stone smiths, and the carpenters. And if they don't bring something to eat when they are working, they go hungry.

As Motolinía noted, the built environment told a story of Indian toil. Stone by stone, native workers transformed the rubble left in the wake of the conquest into housing for Spaniards, seats of government and other civil buildings, and the spiritual infrastructure of the city's new religion. The old architecture of Tenochtitlán had expressed Aztec imperial power and the dominance of the Mexica over surrounding ethnic groups and city-states. Under Spanish rule the buildings of Mexico City also symbolized imperial ambitions, though the main binary of dominance and submission now paired Europeans against the new social category of Indian.

The emerging colonial city, like its predecessor, left a deep impression on subsequent visitors. In 1557, some thirty-five years after the conquest, an English traveler to the city, Robert Tomson, remarked on the beauty of the Spanish buildings around the main square. The grid pattern of the urban core drew special praise. "The city of Mexico," Tomson noted with wonder, "hath streets made very broad and straight that a man being in the highway at one end of the street may see at the least a good mile forward." The city center, or traza, comprised fourteen square blocks centered on a main square (plaza mayor), partially superimposed on the old center of Tenochtitlán. For Europeans who wrote about the sixteenth-century city, the neatly ordered streets, which would become a hallmark of Spanish American cities, helped tame a world they found unimaginably foreign. But most remarkable of all was the integration of Mexico City with that other world-the surrounding Indian towns and communities that supplied the city's buildings with labor and raw materials, and fed the city's people with foodstuffs. These native communities provided the "European" city its sustenance. The ongoing reconstruction of the city, its temperate climate, and bountiful crops all led Tomson to predict that Mexico City was likely "to be the most populous city in the world." For Tomson and other Europeans, it seemed the Spanish traza harnessed the productive capacity of its hinterland while differentiating itself from the Indian population that encircled it. This ambivalent embrace between the European city center and its Indian surroundings would become a theme of the city's long-term development. In a broader sense, this uneasy relationship captured the contradiction at the heart of Spanish American colonialism: an attempt to incorporate indigenous and other non-Europeans peoples into the very fabric of colonial society while simultaneously relegating them to lower rungs on the hierarchies of privilege, status, and power.

As the city matured over the sixteenth century, visitors continued to praise its location and built environment. In 1596, a well-traveled Florentine merchant, Francesco Carletti, remarked that the city was located "in a place as beautiful and delightful and abundant in every deliciousness as could be imagined or seen in the whole world." Like Tomson, he also admired the well-ordered city center, that was "built in the modern style by the Spaniards, with the houses of stone and lime, almost all of them with a sidewalk, along the straight, wide streets"; in his description, "these, crossing one another, form very beautiful and perfect squares, with three or four very ample and beautiful plazas, and with fountains there in places easily available to the public." Though the evolving urban landscape impressed Carletti, not all was well with the city he visited. If one ventured away from the traza and into the Indian wards, away from the imposing stone buildings surrounding the central plaza and into the neighborhoods of simple adobe construction, a tragedy was underway. The native peoples of the city were dying, a social catastrophe that followed a pattern set in the Caribbean and that would be repeated throughout most of the Americas.

The Florentine witnessed an acute moment in an extended demographic catastrophe that began with the arrival of his fellow Europeans. Due primarily to the introduction of Old World pathogens, against which indigenous peoples had little or no immunity, between the 1560s and 1610 the city's indigenous population fell from approximately 84,700 to 32,000, perhaps 15 percent of its preconquest level. Indian population decline in Mexico City coincided with a more severe collapse underway throughout central Mexico-the large swath of territory running from the traditional homeland of the Maya in the south to the Chichimec and Tarascan frontiers on the north and west, respectively (see table 1). Carletti described the horrific scene in Santiago Tlatelolco, an Indian district on the northern edge of the city, where "[the Indians] were dying off rapidly from a certain illness. After having been a little ailing, they lost their blood through their noses and dropped dead, a catastrophe visited only upon them, not upon the Spaniards." The work conditions imposed by Spaniards exacerbated the Indians' vulnerability to introduced pathogens, such as smallpox, and, in stark contrast to the optimism of Tomson, led Carletti to remark, "It is believed that within a short time all of them will have died out, as has occurred on the island of Santo Domingo and in other places that were thickly populated when Columbus discovered them, but now remain deserted, quite without inhabitants."

The human toll was profound and waves of mortality periodically swamped the city, but the grim prediction of Carletti was never fulfilled. Despite the ongoing demographic collapse, throughout much of the seventeenth century the Indian population hovered around 30,000. This estimate somewhat understates the extent of local Indian population decline, since it includes a steady stream of immigrants that moved to Mexico City from other parts of New Spain. As early as 1617, for example, Dominican brothers established a separate parish for Mixtec and Zapotec Indians originally from the southern region of Oaxaca. European immigration and the growth of a local casta population also helped to stabilize the general population of the capital. By the late seventeenth century, the total population of the city, including Indians, Spaniards, and castas, was estimated to be in the range of 100,000 souls. Though this number paled in comparison to preconquest levels, it was on a par with many of the largest cities in Europe of the time (see table 2). Mexico City's population was also larger than any other American city during the colonial period, with the notable exception of the boom years in the South American mining center of Potosí.


Excerpted from A FLOCK DIVIDED by Matthew D. O'Hara Copyright © 2010 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction The Children of Rebekah....................1
One Geographies of Buildings, Bodies, and Souls....................17
Two An Eighteenth-Century Great Debate....................55
Three Stone, Mortar, and Memory....................91
Four Invisible Religion....................123
Five Spiritual Capital....................159
Six Miserables and Citizens....................185
Conclusion The Struggle of Jacob and Esau....................221
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