The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1998, Volume 44, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Reviews

Indian Women of Early Mexico.

Edited by Susan Schroeder, Stephanie Wood, and Robert Haskett. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997. Illustrations, maps, bibliography, notes. x + 486 pages. $29.95 cloth.

Reviewed by Stephen A. Colston, Department of History, and Adjunct Faculty, Department of American Indian Studies, San Diego State University.

The late Charles Gibson was the first scholar to examine in any significant way the history of the indigenous peoples of colonial Central Mexico through native voices encoded in Nahuatl (“Aztec”) and Spanish manuscripts. Gibson’s pioneering scholarship, most notably represented by his Tlaxcala in the Sixteenth Century (Yale, 1952) and The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule (Stanford, 1964), established colonial Mexican ethnohistory as a legitimate specialization within the Latin American history profession. Yet, as with all studies, even Gibson’s lustrous works are not without their limitations. Among these must be counted his reliance principally upon Spanish rather than Nahuatl documents from which he rescued a female voice that often appears as little more the softest whisper.

The disproportionate attention Gibson gave to European source materials and to male subjects clearly reflects the sensibilities of the times in which he wrote. But since then, and particularly during the last twenty-five years, the directions of Mexican ethnohistorical research, influenced by developments within the broader field of professional historical scholarship, have been profoundly transformed. The burgeoning field of women’s studies has provided historians with an important conceptual framework for interpreting the historical record. Even the boundaries of this record have been markedly redefined and expanded as ever greater numbers of historians equip themselves with linguistic skills which allow them to interrogate extensively previously ignored or only superficially consulted sources written in an array of the world’s native languages.

Indian Women of Early Mexico is the first comprehensive treatment of colonial Mexican ethnohistory from this gendered and philological orientation. The fourteen essays comprising this volume offer insightful interpretations of Aztec, Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec, Tarahumara, and Tepehuan female experiences by examining topics as diverse as naming patterns, inheritance and property ownership, political empowerment, and armed insurrection. Geographically, the studies cluster within three regions: Central Mexico (seven essays, by Louise M. Burkhart, Arthur J.O. Anderson, Pedro Carrasco, Rebecca Horn, Susan Kellogg, Robert Haskett, and Stephanie Wood), Southern Mexico (four essays, by Ronald Spores, Lisa Mary Sousa, Marta Espejo-Ponce Hunt and Matthew Restall, and Kevin Gosner), and the northern frontier (two essays, by Susan M. Deeds and Leslie S. Offutt). The fourteenth essay, by Frances Karttunen, is about Malinche, the translator and mistress of the conquistador Fernando Cortes, who personifies many of the survival strategies of the other native women represented in this volume.

These studies are consistent in their lucidity, erudition, and originality, qualities which are all too rarely achieved in anthologies. Editor Susan Schroeder has written a valuable introduction to the fourteen studies, and coeditors Stephanie Wood and Robert Haskett have produced a concluding essay that deftly assesses the principal findings presented in these studies within the larger contexts of both colonial Latin American history and gender theory.

The volume’s principal flaws are in the form of omission. The sixteen ethnohistorians who have contributed to this book represent three disciplines (history, anthropology, and linguistics). But because art historians have for years offered so many important studies to the published corpus of colonial Mexican ethnohistorical research, it is regretted that at least one essay does not appear by an art historian. Moreover, the book suffers from some geographical imbalance as eight of the fourteen studies are about Nahua women (Offutt’s essay is included among these as it pertains to Nahuatl-speaking women from the northeastern frontier). Keeping the book’s present length, a desideratum would have been to devote somewhat less attention to Central Mexican topics so that at least one essay could have been included about native groups from the Gulf Coast and/or West Mexico. Both regions continue to be investigated cursorily by ethnohistorians, and these important native culture areas are similarly treated in this volume by giving them little more than passing reference.

Still, the introduction, essays, and conclusion provide a sufficiently diverse representation of subjects and approaches, and attain such a uniformly high level of innovative scholarship, that the book’s enthusiastic reception by students of Mexico’s colonial native past seems assured.