Mixtec Evangelicals

Globalization, Migration, and Religious Change in a Oaxacan Indigenous Group

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Mary I. O'Connor
  • Boulder, CO: 
    University Press of Colorado
    , October
     2016.
     272 pages.
     $70.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781607324232.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In the 1990’s, David Stoll asked the following question: “[i]s Latin America turning Protestant?” In his monograph of the same name, Stoll characterized evangelicalism in Latin America as an external outpost of the “Religious Right,” emanating from the United States. While aspects of this portrayal can be accurate, Stoll also pointed out that it was communities at the margins—especially those that managed to become self-sufficient—that led the growth of these evangelical movements. This question continues to provoke curiosity among scholars, and Mary O’Connor’s Mixtec Evangelicals: Globalization, Migration, and Religious Change in a Oaxacan Indigenous Group, is one of the latest additions seeking to answer this inquiry, albeit through a new lens. 

O’Connor presents original ethnographic research of case studies and data gathered from the last ten years, both in Mexico and United States. Between 2001 and 2012 she was immersed in the Mixtec evangelical world. The Mixtec are an indigenous group from Oaxaca, Mexico with a rich culture and history dating back to, at least, the Postclassic period (c. 900 CE). Surviving pictorial codices—such as the Codex Colombino and the Codex Zouche-Nuttal—attest to the group’s longevity, and even though “Mixtec” is a linguistic category, the term now acts as an ethnic marker for communities originating in this part of Mexico.

O’Connor argues that patterns in globalization and migration, as well as return migration and community responses, partly explains the ways that Mixtec evangelicals experience evangelicalism. This book focuses on four communities that offer distinct reactions to evangelicalism; and while some find middle ground and compromise, others reject the new converts, expel them, and redistribute their property. Ethnographers might find her observations and thick descriptions illuminating, especially in areas where evangelicalism is treated with nuance and substance. As the four communities push the story forward, O’Connor develops important concepts that deserve mention.

One of Mixtec Evanglicals’ strongest sections explores the idea of “selective modernity.” O’Conner defines the term “selective modernity” as a combination of modern and traditional behaviors which diffuse, not only into material, but also into religious dynamics. This seems to occur mostly in Oaxacan villages, where the opportunity for modernity is limited. For example, a village may not have a modern sewage system, but they will adopt the use of cell phones in order to maintain communication with migrant routes. O’Connor found similar selective patterns in the embrace of evangelical commitments. She demonstrates that Mixtec evangelicals continue to invest in traditional indigenous social systems—such as the concept of tequio (labor)—where members of the community must provide labor for the well-being of the village. These obligations involve the redistribution of goods and resources for annual festivities, participation in councils, and the acknowledgement of village sovereignty.

O’Connor does not forget how evangelicalism affects people outside the boundaries of village life, and this is another important component of the book. Consider the congregations of the Iglesia de Jesucristo de las Americas—“the Church of Jesus Christ in the Americas”—which appears to be the largest network of evangelical churches to which the Mixtec belong. The churches exist in both Mexico and in the United States, mainly in California. Given that Mixtec migrants find themselves in a double-minoritized position, neither as Latinx or US citizens, Mixtec migrant churches ultimately reinforce both ethnic and village identity. O’Connor notes that as migrants travel the immigration routes, they might bring news from villages and other congregations. It is in these spaces that the Mixtec-can-be-Mixtec, without suffering ridicule for speaking in their own language, talking about village life, and sharing their migration experiences.

One of the tensions that O’Connor’s work brings out is the power of exclusion. In some instances, exclusion is drawn by commitments to Mixtec village sovereignty—which might have Roman Catholic undertones. In other cases, however, it is evangelicals who exact this exclusion. While evangelicals may participate in “secular” labor to support the village, they seem to refuse involvement in any activities that venerate Roman Catholic saints. What drives the power of exclusion for either group?

Mixtec Evangelicals is a breath of fresh air that considers the nuances surrounding indigenous communities who chose to affiliate with evangelicalism. As new studies elucidate the old question of Protestantism in Latin America, readers must remember the people at the margins who become self-sufficient, and lead the growth of these movements. O’Connor’s work contributes to the conversations continually reinterpreting Christian traditions in indigenous communities of Mexico in ways that benefit their social contexts. The Mixtec have been engaging, rejecting, and transforming European systems since the 16th-century and will continue to do so. Mixtec Evangelicals is a book for anyone preparing a course or wishing to know more about modern evangelicalisms and Indigenous Religions in the Americas.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Josefrayn Sánchez-Perry is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Date of Review: 
August 28, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mary I. O’Connor is associate researcher at the Institute for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Research at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her work with Mixtec Evangelicals has included field research in the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Sinaloa, Sonora, and Baja California, as well as in California, Oregon, and Washington in the United States. She has received two Fulbright fellowships for teaching in Mexico. She was a visiting research fellow at the Center for US-Mexico Studies at the University of California, San Diego, and has received two Fulbright-Hays grants for faculty research as well as numerous grants from agencies within the University of California system.

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