Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor
The Forging of the Cosmic Race: A Reinterpretation of Colonial Mexico. By Colin M. MacLachlan and Jaime E. Rodríguez O. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 362 pages. $25.00.
Reviewed by W. Michael Mathes, Professor of History, University of San Francisco, author of various books and articles relative to Colonial Mexico and the Californias.
In general, Mexico’s colonial past has been interpreted as a negative experience by modern scholars. Within Mexico this interpretation is based primarily upon political concepts which idealize pre-Cortesian culture and condemn Spain as a cruel, autocratic nation which forcefully imposed itself upon Aztec civilization through bloody conquest. Foreign scholars either adhere to this “Black Legend” concept or, in a more revisionary sense, simply condemn colonialism as an institution. This new study presents a positive approach to the three centuries of Spanish domination in Mexico as an integral part of national evolution, not as a better-to-be forgotten period of darkness.
The basis for the development of Colonial Mexico, New Spain, is seen as mestizaje, the fusion of Indian and European culture which began with the conquest in 1519. In that Aztec and Spanish society shared more similarities than differences, mestizaje produced a dynamic new race, referred to by José Vasconcelos as “Cosmic,” the “Mexican.” As an integral part of society within New Spain, the mestizo is seen as the prime mover of economic growth and cultural homogeneity.
In the first section of their book, following a brief introduction to the land and climate, Professors MacLachlan and Rodríguez provide an overview of early civilizations in central Mexica, the rise of Mexica (Aztec) dominance, and the Spanish conquest from 1519 to 1530. From the highly advanced Mexica theocracy and the well-organized Spanish militant-Catholic state there emerges a new “nation” which would develop into the richest and most sophisticated colonial possession in the world.
The second section provides excellent insights into colonial political and ecclesiastical institutions, the economy, society, and the role of women. Following an open philosophy regarding society and culture, Spain was able to develop a vital economy in New Spain, using mestizaje as a common denominator for acculturation by both Indian and European. The openness of this society was further demonstrated by the extensive legal rights of women, who were often economically and politically very active.
Eighteenth-century Bourbon reforms in administrative, economic, military, and ecclesiastical areas are treated in the third section, as are the factors leading to independence and the revolt itself. Seen as authoritarian and foreign, the implantation of the Bourbon reforms is considered as the beginning of alienation of Mexican society which had hoped for greater autonomy within the empire. The French Revolution and Napoleonic expansion effectively cut communications between the Mother Country and New Spain, and an opportunity for autonomy again presented itself. Again, Bourbon autocracy caused conflict, and while autonomy was desired, as a last resort independence became a reality.
In concluding, the authors reflect upon independent Mexico in the nineteenth century, viewing the social, political, and economic instability of that era as the result of class conflict born from the total rejection of mestizo culture, the indictment of colonial institutions as the cause of national ills, and the search for a foreign culture to replace that which evolved during the preceding three centuries. The Revolution of 1910 which reinstated mestizo culture is seen as the turning point in Mexican modernization and economic growth.
The work of MacLachlan and Rodríguez is worthy of high praise. They have succeeded in producing a very readable synthesis of Mexican colonial history which establishes that period as a part of the continuing evolution of the nation. While some minor points could be argued, the presentation is objective and straightforward, logical and clear. An extensive bibliographical essay provides the reader with additional sources according to topics and chronology. This book is particularly useful for the beginning student of Mexican history and would serve as an excellent text for university-level courses; however, this does not preclude its value as an essay which should be read by all Mexicanists.