A Flock Divided

Race, Religion, and Politics in Mexico, 1749–1857

A Flock Divided

Book Pages: 336 Illustrations: 5 photos, 10 tables, 9 maps, 2 figures Published: November 2009

History > Latin American History, Latin American Studies > Mexico, Religious Studies

Catholicism, as it developed in colonial Mexico, helped to create a broad and remarkably inclusive community of Christian subjects, while it also divided that community into countless smaller flocks. Taking this contradiction as a starting point, Matthew D. O’Hara describes how religious thought and practice shaped Mexico’s popular politics. As he shows, religion facilitated the emergence of new social categories and modes of belonging in which individuals—initially subjects of the Spanish crown, but later citizens and other residents of republican Mexico—found both significant opportunities for improving their place in society and major constraints on their ways of thinking and behaving.

O’Hara focuses on interactions between church authorities and parishioners from the late-colonial era into the early-national period, first in Mexico City and later in the surrounding countryside. Paying particular attention to disputes regarding caste status, the category of “Indian,” and the ownership of property, he demonstrates that religious collectivities from neighborhood parishes to informal devotions served as complex but effective means of political organization for plebeians and peasants. At the same time, longstanding religious practices and ideas made colonial social identities linger into the decades following independence, well after republican leaders formally abolished the caste system that classified individuals according to racial and ethnic criteria. These institutional and cultural legacies would be profound, since they raised fundamental questions about political inclusion and exclusion precisely when Mexico was trying to envision and realize new forms of political community. The modes of belonging and organizing created by colonialism provided openings for popular mobilization, but they were always stalked by their origins as tools of hierarchy and marginalization.


A Flock Divided's most important contribution is its linking of religious practices to social and especially urban geographies in Mexico—in other words, of community to place, beyond the often reified rural Indian town.” — Laura Matthew, Journal of Colonialism & Colonial History

“[A Flock Divided] rests on an extensive base of sources from Mexican and Spanish archives, published documents, and secondary works on religious culture and Mexican colonial society. Recommended.” — V. H. Cummins, Choice

“[F]or those interested in the intersection of race, religion, and subaltern politics in late colonial and early republican Mexico, A Flock Divided is a well-written, thoughtful contribution to the literature.” — Christopher Albi, Ethnohistory

“[T]his valuable study conclusively demonstrates the polyvalent relationship between liberalism and Old Regime norms, a complex legacy bequeathed to the nineteenth-century Mexican republic.” — Scott Eastman, Canadian Journal of History

“Matthew O’Hara has produced an exemplary study focused… on detailing the intertwining of devotional practice, race, identity, parish affiliation and the everyday politics of Mexico City in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In the process, he sheds considerable light on why religious culture and ethnic identities forged in the colonial era proved resistant to change.” — Edward Wright Rios, Journal of Ecclesiastical History

“O’Hara uses an interesting combination of analytical tools from anthropology and art history. While paying attention to the symbolism of objects and structures, he also deploys a political analysis. Thus, he combines the disciplinary approaches of several areas to offer an inventive view of religious and political history. His book continues the trend of historians examining the unique relationship between Mexicans and the Catholic Church. It should be useful for students of religion and politics, as well as for those of Mexican history.” — Sonya Lipsett-Rivera, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

A Flock Divided is a well-researched and well-written book that makes several important contributions to the discipline. . . . O’Hara also adds significantly to our understanding of cultural, social, and political developments in this transitional period of Mexican history.” — Jim Norris, Western Historical Quarterly

A Flock Divided is an elegantly written and insightful work that casts new light on religious practice in the Americas. O’Hara has revitalised the study of race, religion, and politics in Latin America setting a new standard for historians interested in these themes.” — Alexander Hidalgo, Itinerario

A Flock Divided is based on careful archival research and offers new insights into the often hidden practices of local Catholicism and the role of religion in identity formation. . . . [T]his is an impressive work that merits careful attention.” — Brian Larkin, Hispanic American Historical Review

A Flock Divided is true to its title. It is a rich, revisionist history that confounds old notions of indigenous passivity and obsolescence by bringing to light a trove of new sources and interpretations that furnish great insight into what being Indian was about over the longue durée. It is a welcome contribution to the history of early Mexico.” — Susan Schroeder, Journal of Latin American Studies

“[T]his is a brilliant and readable book that helps to elucidate the divisiveness of the parish system in Mexico during periods when the official government
(vice-regal or republican) was trying to get rid of caste boundaries in the Catholic Church. O’Hara does an incredible job of showing how parishioners and priests alike were frustrated by some government edicts and how they manipulated other edicts to their own benefit. . . . O’Hara should be commended for a job well done.”
— Jonathan Truitt, Bulletin of Latin American Research

“Carefully researched, engagingly written, and strongly argued, A Flock Divided will be mandatory reading for scholars and students of colonial and
nineteenth-century Spanish America for many years to come.” — Matthew Restall, Journal of Social History

“In this fascinating study, O’Hara explores group formation and self-representation in central Mexican parishes founded as missions to Native Americans…his sophisticated narrative deals well with the complexities of race, religion, and collective organization.”   — Matthew W. Dougherty, Religious Studies Review

“Based almost entirely on extensive new archival research, primarily in ecclesiastical records, A Flock Divided is an original, thought-provoking, and compelling contribution to scholarship on late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century Mexico. Through subtle analysis and graceful writing, Matthew D. O’Hara illuminates the multiple intersections among race, religion, and politics.” — Margaret Chowning, author of Rebellious Nuns: The Troubled History of a Mexican Convent, 1752–1863

A Flock Divided is a pioneering work that contributes to a new understanding of Mexican history. It sheds light on many topics, including the intricacies of colonial and republican politics, the limitations of reform projects imposed by the church and by the state, the often difficult relationship between priests and parishioners, and the religious bases of civil society. This brilliant book also shows how much church documents reveal about popular culture and politics, from the persistence of ethnicity and race in shaping urban identities to the continuing importance of the parish and religious devotions as the locus of sociability.” — Silvia Marina Arrom, author of Containing the Poor: The Mexico City Poor House, 1774–1871


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Matthew D. O’Hara is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: The Children of Rebekah 1

Part I. Institutions and Ideas

1. Geographies of Buildings, Bodies, and Souls 17

2. An Eighteenth-Century Great Debate 55

Part II. Reform and Reaction

3. Stone, Mortar, and Memory 91

4. Invisible Religion 123

Part III. Piety and Politics

5. Spiritual Capital 159

6. Miserables and Citizens 185

Conclusion. The Struggle of Jacob and Esau 221

Notes 239

Bibliography 281

Index 303
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Winner, 2010 Thomas McGann Award, presented by the Rocky Mountain Council for Latin American Studies

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4639-5 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4627-2
Publicity material