Hall of Mirrors

Power, Witchcraft, and Caste in Colonial Mexico

Hall of Mirrors

Latin America Otherwise

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Book Pages: 280 Illustrations: 1 map Published: September 2003

Author: Laura A. Lewis

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, History > Latin American History, Theory and Philosophy > Race and Indigeneity

Through an examination of caste in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Mexico, Hall of Mirrors explores the construction of hierarchy and difference in a Spanish colonial setting. Laura A. Lewis describes how the meanings attached to the categories of Spanish, Indian, black, mulatto, and mestizo were generated within that setting, as she shows how the cultural politics of caste produced a system of fluid and relational designations that simultaneously facilitated and undermined Spanish governance.

Using judicial records from a variety of colonial courts, Lewis highlights the ethnographic details of legal proceedings as she demonstrates how Indians, in particular, came to be the masters of witchcraft, a domain of power that drew on gendered and hegemonic caste distinctions to complicate the colonial hierarchy. She also reveals the ways in which blacks, mulattoes, and mestizos mediated between Spaniards and Indians, alternatively reinforcing Spanish authority and challenging it through alliances with Indians. Bringing to life colonial subjects as they testified about their experiences, Hall of Mirrors discloses a series of contradictions that complicate easy distinctions between subalterns and elites, resistance and power.


“[A] richly textured account of social differentiation and power in colonial Mexico.” — Elizabeth Emma Ferry , Journal of Colonialism & Colonial History

“Lewis’s thesis is clear, well-structured, and multilayered, and it succeeds in piecing together fascinating stories taken from the colonial archives. . . . [A] rewarding study that should be of great interest to anyone interested in caste relations or in the interplay of prohibited indigenous religious practices (and how they were potentially perceived by Spaniards) with Hispanic Christianity.”
— Andrew Redden , History of Religions

"Hall of Mirrors . . . touches on some of the most important questions in the recent historiography of colonial Latin America. . . . Lewis has written a fine book. Well-documented and replete with thick detail. . . . It is . . . suitable for inclusion in upper-level undergraduate and graduate seminars. [It] will be essential reading for scholars of colonial Latin America and is highly recommended for those who study gender and witchcraft in other context. Hall of Mirrors is indeed deserving of the wide readership it has already won." — Jacqueline Holler , Canadian Journal of History

"[A] great contribution to the study of religion and society in Latin America." — R. Andrew Chesnut , Latin American Research Review

"[A] suggestive and often compelling work. [Lewis's] study is based on deeply nuanced readings of three hundred inquisition cases. . . ." — Susan Deans-Smith, Bulletin of Latin American Research

"[A] very satisfying interpretation of witchcraft in colonial Mexico. . . . I strongly recommend this book to all those interested in the meaning of witchcraft, the nature of colonial power and the functioning of racial (or, as Lewis would prefer) caste divisions in Spanish America." — Rebecca Earle , History

"[A]n important ethnographic study. . . . The author provokes the reader to think of colonial society in new ways through her research, data and interpretation. This book is highly recommended to both students and scholars of colonial societies." — Colonial Latin American Historical Review

"[A]n original and honest attempt at examining a complex problem. . . . [P]rovides both historians and anthropologists with new issues for discussion and research." — Gabriela Ramos , Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

"[E]nlightening. . . . [A] refreshing and challenging re-reading of colonial race and social relations. . . . Lewis has written a book that by shaking the foundations of the concepts of authority, proposing the multiplicity of foci of domination, and the malleability of the process of colonization will reopen the debate on those terms." — Asunción Lavrin , Catholic Historical Review

"[E]xtraordinary. . . . Hall of Mirrors is . . . a landmark that historians and cultural and literary critics can use to plot future scholarship." — Daniel Torres , Sixteenth Century Journal

"[H]ere is a densely written and argued book on a complex set of issues. . . . Hall of Mirrors stakes out new positions on debates regarding the casta system, gender, popular culture, and the dynamics of colonial power in New Spain." — Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert , Itinerario

"[T]errific scholarship-well-researched and neatly argued. . . . [I]nnovative. . . . [T]he book is thoroughly provocative, raising tough questions about the nature of power and colonial rule. Hall of Mirrors almost certainly will shape future assessments of colonialism in Spanish America and beyond. As such, it should be required reading for scholars of colonialism across geographical boundaries and would be a fine text for use in upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses." — James H. Sweet , Journal of Latin American Anthropology

"[T]hought-provoking. . . . The descriptions of individuals are skillfully woven into the larger argument about the way that people related to the discourses of caste and witchcraft, making this book a wonderful illustration of the multivalent colonial world. . . . Hall of Mirrors is a fresh and insightful book that is sure to fascinate readers and serve as a touchstone for academics interested in witchcraft and caste in colonial Spanish America." — John Bristol, Journal of Social History

"Hall of Mirrors substantially adds to our understanding of colonialism in the New World. . . . [T]he author provides one of the most concise and clear discussions available concerning Spanish colonial concepts of race." — Jim Norris , History: Reviews of New Books

"The most engaging part of the book is the presentation of the witchcraft cases themselves. . . . What raises Lewis's accounts of these episodes well above the level of quaint and colourful folk practices is her astute analysis of the social relationships in which they were embedded, especially their gendered and ethnic dimensions." — Eric Van Young , Journal of Latin American Studies

"The particular strength of this absorbing book is its linkage of actual witchcraft cases to larger social issues: gender, caste, and race; the nature and limits of Spanish power and hegemony; the interpenetration of practices of the black, mulatto, and mestizo actors so long underrepresented in colonial Latin American historiography." — Louise M. Burkhart , American Historical Review

"The supreme value of Hall of Mirrors . . . rests in its array of examples that afford a rich, textured view of life in and around Mexico City. . . . These stories are a welcome comlement to an already very interesting book." — Susan Schroeder, Hispanic American Historical Review

“A smart, sophisticated analysis of the cultural politics of caste, gender, and power in colonial Mexico, Hall of Mirrors is built upon a foundation of strong archival work with fascinating sources from the Mexican Inquisition.” — Orin Starn, author of Nightwatch: The Politics of Protest in the Andes

“Here is a fine example of well-researched, ‘thick’ ethnographic description at the service of a fuller understanding of ‘caste as a system of values, practices, and meanings in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Mexico.’ Hall of Mirrors offers memorable cases from Inquisition files nestled in an unusually probing and synoptic analysis.” — William Taylor, author of Magistrates of the Sacred: Priests and Parishioners in Eighteenth-Century Mexico


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Laura A. Lewis is Associate Professor of Anthropology at James Madison University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments xi

Note on Sources xiii

Introduction 1

1. Forging a Colonial Landscape: Caste in Context 15

2. The Roads Are Harsh: Spaniards and Indians in the Sanctioned Domain 46

3. La Mala Yerba: Putting Difference to Work 67

4. From Animosities to Allegiances: A Segue into the World of Witchcraft 95

5. Authority Reversed: Indians Ascending 103

6. Mapping Unsanctioned Power 132

7. Hall of Mirrors 167

Notes 185

Works Cited 235

Index 255
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Winner, 2004 Erminie Wheeler-Voegelin Award (American Society for Ethnohistory)

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3147-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3111-7
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