On August 10, 1519, five ships, under the command of Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese captain in Spanish service, set out from Seville on an epic voyage that would end on September 6, 1522, when the Victoria, with eighteen survivors on board, limped back into Seville, having circumnavigated the globe. Meanwhile a Spanish adventurer, Hernán Cortés, after disembarking in April 1519 on the Mexican coast with a small band of Spaniards, overthrew the “empire” of its Mexica overlord, Montezuma II, with the help of large numbers of indigenous allies, and laid the foundations of Spain’s “empire of the Indies” in the vast area of conquered territory that he christened “New Spain.” That brief span of three years between 1519 and 1522 marks the emergence of two dominant themes in the history of the succeeding centuries—globalization and territorial-based European imperialism. Between them they have transformed the world.


Daniel Giannoni/Private collection, Lima

Anonymous Cuzco artist: Virgin of Cocharcas, circa 1730–1750

Colin MacLachlan, a professor of history at Tulane University whose previous publications include Spain’s Empire in the New World1 and a co-authored work, The Forging of the Cosmic Race,2 tells us in an autobiographical prologue to his new book, Imperialism and the Origins of Mexican Culture, how his experiences as a child of empire, specifically of the British and American empires, awakened his interest in imperial themes. He also tells us how he was struck, in what sounds like a Gibbonian moment, by the fate of “a once magnificent empire of the New World,” while living and studying “atop the ruins of Tenochtitlan, destroyed and rebuilt as Mexico City by Hernán Cortés.” He displays a truly Gibbonian ambition in seeking to relate the histories of Mesoamerican civilizations, Roman and medieval Iberia, and the Moorish–Christian encounter to the post-conquest creation of “mestizo Mexico.” The dedication of his book to his “mestizo son” suggests a degree of personal involvement in a theme of universal significance.

We live today in a mestizo world. Sebastián de Covarrubias defined mestizo in his Spanish dictionary of 1611 as “what is engendered from [the mixing of] different species of animals,” and derives it from miscere, to mix.3 There seems to be no adequate English equivalent of mestizaje. The Oxford Spanish Dictionary uses the questionable definition “people of mixed race.” “Miscegenation” has too many pejorative connotations, and such words as “hybridity” and “hybridization,” although neutral, have not caught on as terms applicable to human relationships.

In discussing these terminological questions Colin MacLachlan writes:

Although the racial definition of a Mestizo is a person born to Indian and European parents, a better definition of a Mestizo is a person who functions within a modified culture drawn from both the indigenous and European historical-cultural experience: in short, those who embrace cultural mestizaje and organize their personal life and behavior accordingly.

Under this wide definition, almost everyone in central Mexico very soon becomes a mestizo, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, thanks to the rapid modification of Mesoamerican culture under the impact of the Spanish conquest. The category “mestizo” would therefore apply to the indigenous population that, more than a hundred years later, still made up almost three quarters of the total population of New Spain, in spite of the catastrophic ravages wrought by epidemics since the arrival of the Spaniards.

MacLachlan’s definition, however, appears to accord with the official description by the Mexican government between 1917 and 2004 of Mexico as a “mestizo nation.” In 2004, as MacLachlan tells us in one of his numerous and often lengthy endnotes, the president officially declared the mestizo Mexican nation to be “based also on indigenous roots.” “Ironically,” comments MacLachlan, “that is the definition of a Mestizo culture,” and he goes on to explain that “what the 2004 declaration did was elevate indigenous-Mestizo culture to a position of equality with the Mestizo Mexico,” which for him includes many European influences.

This wording, in short, seems to suggest both a separate character for “indigenous-Mestizo culture” and also its fundamental identity with that of “Mestizo Mexico” partly based on its European historical and cultural experience. Under this formulation the whole concept of “cultural mestizaje” begins to look excessively vague. MacLachlan does, however, make clear his preference for a cultural over a biological definition of mestizaje. “Biology,” he writes, “is less important than the acceptance of a culture introduced by the imperial power mixed with elements from Indo-Mexican culture.”

Yet before biology is sidelined, it should be pointed out that biological differences were important, in that they facilitated the processes of classification by the conquerors that gave rise to racial and ethnic prejudice.4 Medieval and early modern Spain, in common with the Europe of the times, was obsessively concerned with notions of genealogy and “bloodline,” and wove a mental universe around them. Carrying these notions across the Atlantic, Spaniards encountered peoples who were previously quite unknown to Europeans and who could not automatically be slotted into preexisting categories. In the circumstances they naturally made use of such conceptions as they had to hand. The end result was that the mass of the indigenous population of the Americas was allotted its own specific and subordinate place in a Spanish-imposed ethnic hierarchy.


Almost as soon as an exact classification of the Indian population had been devised, however, the effects of biological mestizaje began to impose themselves. The divisions between the so-called “republic of the Indians” and the “republic of the Spaniards” were soon eroded by the growth of a genetically mixed population. In due course, too, rapidly growing numbers of imported African slaves were added to the melting pot.

Ethnic and racial classification, constructed on the basis of real or presumed physical and other characteristics, exercised a powerful hold over viceregal New Spain. This was an acutely caste-conscious society, in which the boundaries of each casta would be meticulously delineated in the famous sets of eighteenth-century Mexican casta paintings, more than a hundred of which are known.5 Yet the gulf between the image and the reality constantly widened, as racial classification found itself competing with the social, economic, and cultural determinants of status. In the process, classification by race became itself subject to modification, with the consequence, for example, that a dark skin could be reclassified as white, for instance by the purchase of a certificate from the crown.

Whatever the respective weighting to be given to biological as against cultural mestizaje—and this will surely vary over time and space—MacLachlan’s interest is in the latter, and in the way in which it was shaped by the imperial enterprise. He has clearly thought much about the nature of empire, and he detects fundamental similarities in the evolution of empires, with “religion and language” being “perhaps the two most important cultural elements in that they express a unique consciousness that governs all else.”

This belief in a similarity of evolutionary processes informs his book, the purpose of which, as he describes it, is to set out

Indo-Mexico’s evolution alongside that of Euro-Spain, so that their amalgamation in the Mexican setting can be better understood. In a macro sense, Hispano-Indo- Mexico became an heir to a lengthy historical process including early Iberian tribalism, Rome, the Visigoths, Spanish Islam, Judaism, and Western civilization, in general.

Historians of Spain’s “empire of the Indies” have long been interested in the ways in which the experience of medieval Spain, and in particular its encounter with Islam in the long process of the Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula from the Moors, dictated the methods and the manner of its conquest and colonization of America. The story has indeed been pushed further back, to the time when Spain was a province of the Roman Empire.6 There is therefore nothing especially novel about the intent behind MacLachlan’s undertaking. The obvious questions that arise are how far he has been able to bring new insights to bear from his comparative study of empires, and how far it succeeds in giving us a fresh understanding of the emergence of cultural mestizaje in what he rather tiresomely calls “Indo-Mexico.”

One can only admire the range of his reading in the history of several civilizations, and the scope of his ambition in attempting what might be described as a “macrohistory” of the origins of Mexican culture. Although he is keen, as a comparative historian, to show the similarities in the evolution of his chosen empires from tribalism to a Spanish “imperial chieftancy” based on strict social hierarchy, he is also ready, like any good comparative historian, to identify important differences, as in his treatment of religion, where he has valuable points to make about the similarities and the differences between Indo-Mexican and Christian theology. “The creation and the end of the world,” he tells us, “constituted the two pillars of belief” in both, but he also points out that “Christianity, with its roots in Greek and Roman logic, represented a different way of thinking from that underpinning Indo-Mexican theology.”

The result, he suggests, is that Indo-Mexicans, unable to reinterpret their gods rationally, were incapable of making major modifications to their world-view when new conquests involved the need to incorporate new gods with contradictory characteristics into an already crowded pantheon. This in turn could explain why, among the Mexican people, or “Mexica,” “human sacrifice took on a desperate extravagance that matched their unarticulated frustrations, eventually mounting to unsustainable levels on the eve of the European arrival.”

Other suggestions of a comparative nature seem to me less convincing, as when he claims that “Mesoamerica in the late fifteenth century verged on a commercial revolution along the lines of medieval Europe in 1000–1300.” Mesoamerican economic life was distorted by a tribute system involving the compulsory regular dispatch to Tenochtitlán of vast quantities of regional commodities, such as cacao, cotton, turquoise, copper, and feathers for cloaks and other purposes. For all the importance of markets and of the corporate group of merchants, it is hard to see the same kind of transformative influences at work as in medieval Europe with its increasingly self-confident and assertive urban civilization. These, however, are matters of opinion. More important is the degree to which MacLachlan’s treatment of his subject helps him to realize his ambitious aim of incorporating the history of a variety of civilizations, stretching over many centuries, into a coherent picture that illuminates the origins of Mexican culture.


Unfortunately his chosen method does not seem to me to achieve its purpose. His book is divided into four chapters, examining in turn Mesoamerican civilization, the formation of “Euro-Spanish” culture, Moors and Christians, and the creation of Mestizo Mexico. All these chapters are informative in themselves, but as is to be expected of a work of synthesis, the information is hardly new, and the organization of the book into discrete divisions prevents it from building up a sustained argument. The handling of the chapters, too, slides uneasily between historical summary and historical commentary, and sometimes we are left wondering about the story that is being told.


Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia del Perú, Lima

‘Archangel Harquebusier’; by an anonymous Cuzco artist, circa 1690–1720. As Luis Eduardo Wuffarden writes in Painting in Latin America, ‘harquebusier archangels constituted another clear local contribution to religious iconography. Unlike the warrior angels of Europe, who appear armed in the manner of ancient Romans, the winged figures of the Andean world carry firearms and wear contemporary costumes in the style of royal guards.’

In a discussion of early Christianity, for instance, it is suggested that “the death of paganism was not sudden or complete. Christianity was not inevitable.” This seems unexceptionable, but the comment is preceded by a brief reference to the Jewish revolt of AD 66, which ends with the assertion that “a Jewish revolutionary nationalist, Jesus of Nazareth, was crucified for sedition.” Not only does MacLachlan’s account suggest considerable chronological confusion, but his depiction of Jesus is taken from the famously controversial work of Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, and is here treated as if it were an established truth. The endnote, which indeed refers to Aslan’s book, simply informs us about the circumstances in which crucifixion was used.

It may be wondered, in any event, why the revolt in Judea should appear at all in a book on the origins of Mexican culture, but this is only one of many occasions in which it seems to wander into irrelevancy. A one-paragraph reference to the epidemics that so drastically reduced the indigenous population of post-conquest Mexico is preceded by nearly three pages on Eurasian plague epidemics, starting with the 430 BC epidemic in Athens. It is hard to see why the author should have felt this to be necessary, and his frequent descent into detail that seems only remotely related to the subject under discussion makes for opaque and distracting reading. The final impression is of a book that is rich in ambition and sometimes suggestive in the parallels that it draws between civilizations, but one that lacks a clear focus.

This is unfortunate, because, buried beneath all the detail and commentary, an important theme is struggling to get out. MacLachlan’s prime concern is with acculturation, both of Roman and medieval Spaniards and of sixteenth- century Mesoamericans. This is a theme that has long attracted the interest of anthropologists and historians, and one that has proved particularly fruitful in illuminating the history of post-conquest Mexico.7 The story includes the attempted imposition of one culture on another through the assertion of imperial power, the process of cultural transfer, the extent to which a “submerged” culture manages to survive, and the degree to which the dominant culture is itself changed by its encounter with that of another civilization. These are all themes of which MacLachlan is well aware, but he does not succeed in constructing a coherent account or explanation of them.


Perhaps the challenge is simply too great, given the number and variety of cultural transfers, the vast areas they covered, and the changes they underwent over time. Yet the theme itself is unendingly rich, and the potential for future discoveries is great. Just how great is suggested by an outstanding new book that covers the viceroyalty of Peru as well as that of New Spain, and confines itself strictly to the visual arts. Painting in Latin America, 1550–1820—not the happiest of titles for a volume devoted to Hispanic viceregal America—is an exceptionally handsome book, originally produced by Ediciones El Viso in Madrid, and illustrated with some 370 color images, many of them never before reproduced. The illustrations in themselves are likely to come as a revelation to readers, without even taking into account the high quality of the accompanying essays.

While Iberian-American art has been the subject of numerous surveys over the last fifty or sixty years,8 its study has acquired a new momentum during the past two decades, and its popularity has been enhanced by a number of striking exhibitions in major museums on both sides of the Atlantic, although not all museum directors have responded with enthusiasm to the idea of displaying works of art that they regard as “provincial,” and hence in some way inferior.

In the United States the promotion of research in this field, and the large-scale reassessment of paintings that have traditionally been excluded from the art-historical canon, have been led by one of this volume’s two editors, Jonathan Brown, professor of fine arts at New York University, who has recently described his intellectual trajectory from the study of Spanish art to that of Spanish-American art in his engaging semi-autobiography, In the Shadow of Velázquez.9

The volume he has edited with the Spanish art historian Luisa Elena Alcalá consists of eleven essays by seven authors, including the two editors themselves, with one author, Luis Eduardo Wuffarden, taking responsibility for all but one of the six essays on Peruvian art. The resulting book is important, not only for what is likely to be the relative novelty of the topic to a majority of readers, but also for the way the subject is treated. The editors have selected their contributors not only for their technical expertise but also for their willingness to reconsider and reinterpret Hispanic-American painting in the light of an overarching theme—the nature and methods of cultural diffusion in the first age of globalization. The result is a book that, while containing much new information about recently identified artists and paintings, also makes a valuable contribution to the broad topic of cultural transfer.

While one or two art historians, especially Latin Americans, have emphasized the originality and unique characteristics of many of the works emerging from such viceregal centers of artistic production as Mexico City, Lima, and Quito, the conventional approach has been to see them as derivative and provincial, and as inferior versions of the works of European masters. The method of diffusion tended to be informed by a center–periphery model. It worked not only by means of the migration to the New World of European artists, bringing with them their own skills and tastes, but also by a large-scale transatlantic export trade in paintings and prints from Seville. These were then diligently copied by creole, indigenous, and mestizo artists and artisans.

The editors and contributors to this volume demonstrate the inadequacy of this model, with its implications of an artistic hierarchy. They also question the whole notion of provincialism that underlies it, which assumes the existence of national artistic styles—Spanish, Flemish, Italian—that provide the inspiration for provincial centers. In reality artistic styles transcended national boundaries, especially in an age of empires and composite monarchies. Instead, following a model originally proposed by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, the editors prefer a model based on cultural fields or spheres.10 Spanish art itself thus becomes an amalgam of stylistic influences, notably from the Netherlands and Italy, both of them constituent parts or spheres of influence of the dominions of Charles V, Philip II, and their successors on the Spanish throne. These stylistic influences are then transmitted to Spain’s American empire, where, more by chance than design, Flemish images and styles, notably those of Rubens, tend to be dominant in Mexico while Italianate influences prevail in Peru.

Once transmitted, the images are then appropriated for different purposes, by different patrons and artists in different places and different ways. Indigenous artisans were quick to learn European techniques, although this seems to have been accomplished more easily in New Spain—in Mexico and Central America—than in Peru, which lacked Mexico’s pre-conquest pictographic tradition, combining picture and text. One of the many valuable contributions of the book, indeed, is to illustrate and explain some of the striking differences between Mexican and Peruvian viceregal painting. In both viceroyalties the post-conquest indigenous nobility acted as cultural intermediaries, “preserving indigenous social values and beliefs in some form while championing a kind of Hispanized identity that guaranteed them a superior status to that of the common Indian.” The Inca nobility, however, was to show more staying power than the Mexican, and sometimes nobles of Indian descent, particularly in the Andean region, themselves became artists.

Traditional indigenous art forms, most notably the feather paintings for which Mesoamerica was renowned, survived the conquest, but were placed at the disposal of European patrons, headed by the church and the religious orders. This inevitably meant an imposition of European themes and styles, at a time when indigenous painters were also having to compete with European artists who had no use for indigenous forms. Yet at least in the Cuzco region of Peru, indigenous iconographic elements like the rich ornamentation of pre-conquest Andean textiles succeeded in holding their own against European elements, and the Cuzco school was to show a remarkable inventiveness and creativity, not least in the paintings of archangels armed with arquebuses for which it is famed.

The overwhelming impression created by this splendid book, however, is of the inventiveness of Hispanic- American painters—indigenous, creole (i.e., immigrant Europeans and their white descendants), and those of mixed ancestry—in amalgamating styles and techniques imported not only from Europe but also from the Far East, from where porcelain, silks, and folding screens were shipped by the Manila galleons from the Philippines, a remote extension of the viceroyalty of New Spain.

Faced with this medley of works and influences, they then devised their own collective and individual responses, bringing to bear on those responses their own belief systems and visual vocabulary. In one of the most fascinating chapters in the book, devoted to mural painting in the churches of the Andes, Hiroshige Okada questions the whole concept of “mestizo art,” on the grounds that it presupposes an “Indian self” and “indigenous sensibility,” whereas the indigenous community was itself culturally divided between the elites who had access to European art and appropriated it over the course of three centuries to suit their own tastes and purposes, and a passive population that became conditioned to the art imposed by the imperial power.

In view of the diversity of situations and responses, “cultural mestizaje” begins to seem too limited and restrictive a term to describe the complex processes involved in cultural transfer. The same is even more true of those other terms so frequently employed, “acculturation,” and “deculturation.” The cultures of Hispanic America were all, in their varied forms, cultures of imposition, appropriation, and adaptation. But it is sufficient to look at a Mesoamerican feather painting of The Mass of St. Gregory (1539), or Triumph of the Eucharist (1686) by the greatest artist produced by viceregal Mexico, Cristóbal de Villalpando, or the portrait of an Inca noble by an anonymous Cuzco artist, to appreciate how the fusion of styles, techniques, and belief systems could create works of extraordinary originality. In the sixteenth century the world came to “Indo-America,” and, in the centuries that followed, a biologically mixed civilization appropriated that world and made it uniquely its own.