The fiesta system, or the cofradía, hermandad, and guachival, is a major institution in Latin American society. From the conquest, it has existed at every level and in all parts of this hemisphere. In some regions, it is the oldest social institution, integrating Amerindian and Christian beliefs while defining community social structure. Why, I wonder, has the fiesta system or cofradía received so little attention by social historians? They could benefit from the works of the anthropologists.

Waldemar R. Smith’s Fiesta System is an excellent study of Mayan pueblos in western Guatemala, their social structure, their position within regional, national, and capitalist economies, and the response to change experienced by the fiesta system. He explores for us the functions of fiesta ceremonies (for example, the Masked Dances, the Dance of the Conquest), the sources of prestige within the system, and how each of these differ between regions and under different economic systems. His descriptions represent the best in ethnology, the concluding chapters comparing towns where subsistence economies are “degenerating,” towns with “relative stability” and towns where peasant communities are becoming “modern participants in the national economy and society” are important contributions to our knowledge.

His political and historical analysis is marred, however, by distortion of historical evidence, and by his use of theorists such as Marvin Harris as primary evidence. I also disagree with an intepretation that sees fiesta systems in decline whenever the entire pueblo contributes to them and in ascendancy whenever one or two mayordomos are charged with financing them in “ritual sponsorship.” This contradicts historical documentation which shows community sponsorship as the general practice throughout Mesoamerica in the colonial period.

Smith should consult Santiago Montes’ Etnohistoria de El Salvador. Montes’ excellent study is based upon the important visita of Guatemala and Salvador conducted by Archbishop Cortés y Larraz in 1769 and 1770. Half of the visita was published before, but without the important section describing cofradías. Now, in volume II of Etnohistoria de El Salvador, it is finally in print. This, in itself, is a significant contribution.

But why this title, that first obscures the publication of the visita (all of volume II is devoted to it) and second does not adequately describe Montes’ analysis of Guatemalan and Salvadoran cofradías in volume I?

Aside from this, Santiago Montes’ ethnohistory in volume I is a much needed analysis and description of the cofradía in eighteenth-century Central America. He reviews the Larraz visita together with other primary sources. As a disciple of Lévi-Strauss, Montes provides an excellent structural analysis of a system that, he asserts, integrated indigenous communities into colonial society while maintaining indigenous traditions. The eighteenth-century documentation, which he often quotes at great length, provides concrete proof for this point of view.

He briefly discusses cofradías in Salvador today, giving an interesting comparison with those of two hundred years ago as well as those discussed by Smith in Highland Guatemala. Both Smith and Montes’ books should be read together to provide a contrast between two different schools, styles, and points of view.