Words and Worlds Turned Around

Indigenous Christianities in Colonial Latin America

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David Tavárez
  • Boulder, CO: 
    University of Colorado Press
    , December
     344 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This book is part of an important moment in the historiography of colonial Latin America. The authors in this volume represent the cutting-edge research that is redefining the study of indigenous religions of the Americas and their relationship to Christianity. Words and Worlds Turned Around: Indigenous Christianities in Colonial Latin America tells a powerful story about the ways in which indigenous peoples played an important role in the history of the colonial encounter. Leading this book is the editor, David Tavárez, Professor of Anthropology at Vassar College. Tavárez has become one of the leading voices on the history of the interaction between indigenous communities and the Christian religion in the central valley of Mexico.

Words and Worlds Turned Around is divided in four main sections that explore first contacts, questions of agency, methods of appropriation, and present-day expressions. The book begins with an introduction by Louise Burkhart. Burkhart illustrates the historiography that steered the field until now. If Richard Ricard’s The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico (Institut d’Ethologie, 1933; University of California Press, 1982) was the inception, then this book may be its climax. Burkhart shows how the study of indigenous religions of Latin America matured into using native language sources and leaves an open door for new voices and incoming scholars.

The book opens with four philological studies. The authors of this section focus on indigenous language manuscripts that presented the Christian religion in its vernacular forms. David Tavárez explores the invention of Zapotec Christianity through the creation of lexicons and Zapotec origin stories. Tavárez argues that these practices did not create a nepantla (“in the middle”) status for Zapotec peoples. Instead, Tavárez shows that the boundaries between new beliefs and practices remained contingent and selective. Julia Madajczak then offers new insights into what appeared to be “confession” practices in pre-Columbian rituals. Madajczak demonstrates that the Nahuatl word scholars translate as “to confess” is misleading, and then challenges readers to think about the problematic practice of using charged terminology to talk about Mesoamerica. Gregory Haimovich reviews the politics behind translation processes in the ecclesiastical language of Quechua texts (a language from the Andean region). Through its intricate history of church polity, Haimovich argues that even Quechua experts were not drawn to use the full richness of the indigenous lexicon. This section ends with an analysis by Gary Sparks and Frauke Sachse on the K’iche’ field notes of a Dominican missionary in Guatemala. K’iche’ is an important language that is still spoken in the highlands of Guatemala. Sparks and Sachse argue that these field notes fill in the gaps of the earliest K’iche’anized Christianity in the Maya highlands by comparing it to other existing manuscripts.

After these philological studies, the book continues by considering agency and reception. The authors of this section focus on strategies that modified or conformed to a Christian mold. Kittiya Lee introduces the presentation of Christianity through a militant theology that appeared appealing to the Tupinamba peoples of Brazil and Amazonia. Lee argues that French missionaries and indigenous peoples in the area changed and adjusted to make themselves interesting to one another. Justyna Olko then explores the interesting case of the Nahua story of Judas Iscariot. Olko argues that moments of agency are present every time a concept enters into a cross-cultural translation, and such was the case with the transformation of Christian literature as it was translated for a Nahua audience. Finally, Ben Leeming presents the subtle pushbacks in the Nahua-Christian dramas of Fábian de Aqunio. He argues that Aqunio’s seemingly rigid Christianity may have been an attempt to mediate between mendicant friars and Nahua peoples.

In its third part, the book enters a conversation with appropriation strategies and methods. The authors in this section focus on the transformation of tropes and concepts that took new frames of reference after their original diffusion. John Chuchiak IV investigates how Yucatec Maya informants buried sexualized innuendos in sex-related definitions for mendicant dictionaries and grammars. Chuchiak argues that the Franciscan obsession with sex and promiscuity created problems of mixed signals, but these could also traverse into the realm of sexual abuse. Claudia Brosseder then revisits the methods of Christianization in the Andean region. Taking the testimony of Francisco Martin as an example, Brosseder argues that Christianization relies on local meaning, the implications for combining elements, and the agency behind the process. Mark Christensen ends this section by offering a comparative study of portents and omens in European, Nahua, and Yucatec Maya texts. Omens and portents played an important role in Mesoamerican daily life, and Christensen shows that Nahua and Yucatec Maya scribes changed the interpretation of European premonitions to fit a Mesoamerican model.

The last section of Words and Worlds Turned Around focuses on the present-day relationship of Nahua communities with the Christian religion. Abelardo de la Cruz analyzes how Nahua catechists in the Huasteca region of Chicontepec, Veracruz interact with Christianity. De la Cruz argues that Nahua peoples in this region continue to practice their own traditions. More importantly, he argues that it is the local people who are the key resource that will continue to preserve Nahua religion. David Tavárez then concludes the book by pointing out the work that is pending. Tavárez argues that study of colonial Latin America and its relationship to the global Renaissance and Counter-Reformation is still in its infancy, but Words and Worlds Turned Around shows part of that story by focusing on the transatlantic connections between Christianity and indigenous religions.

The study of Latin America is interdisciplinary and Words and Worlds Turned Around is a book that captures that trajectory. Anyone interested in indigenous religions and world Christianities, the early modern period and debates about colonialism, or theories and methods of culture and religion would do well to get a copy of this book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

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

Date of Review: 
March 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Tavárez is professor of anthropology at Vassar College, and a doctoral advisor at the PhD Program in Mesoamerican Studies at UNAM (Mexico). He is the author of The Invisible War: Indigenous Devotions, Discipline, and Dissent in Colonial Mexico, and a coauthor of Painted Words: Nahua Catholicism, Politics, and Memory in the Atzaqualco Pictorial Catechism (with Elizabeth Boone and Louise Burkhart), and of Chimalpahin’s Conquest: A Nahua Historian’s Rewriting of Francisco López de Gómara’s La conquista de México (with Susan Schroeder, Anne Cruz, and Cristián Roa). He has also published more than forty peer-reviewed articles and chapters on Mesoamerican religion and colonial Latin American history. A recent recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, his research has also been supported by grants from the NEH, the NSF, the Mellon Foundation, and the John Carter Brown Library.


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