For many years, Hugo Nutini and various collaborators have been carrying on massive ethnographical research on aspects of rural society and religion in the important central Mexican region of Tlaxcala, publishing the results in an impressive series of volumes. The latest, the book under review, deals with the cult of the dead, centering on the early November observances referred to, a bit misleadingly, as “Todos Santos.”
At the core of the book are several richly detailed chapters, resting primarily on direct observation, which describe the practices and material phenomena associated with the cult as of about 1960. Interwoven with the description is insightful discussion of the meaning of the actions and objects. The entire complex is convincingly shown to possess a unified rationale, primarily pre-Hispanic. The household rites, featuring an elaborate food offering, emerge as more strongly indigenous and more central to the cult than the public rites at the cemetery.
Nutini shows a laudable interest in patterns of evolution over time. Internal distinctions in the community and oral tradition give him good tools for diachronic analysis over the present century. For earlier times, he draws on ecclesiastical writers of the sixteenth century, establishing a solid base of preconquest belief and practice against which to measure his twentieth-century data. Out of the same sources, plus some local ecclesiastical records and sodality books, he forms estimates about Spanish-indigenous interaction in the first century and a half after the conquest. Here, however, the analysis is severely underdocumented and suffers from overreliance on the great, but now long outdated, Robert Ricard. This aspect of the study calls for a systematic reinvestigation obeying the norms of recent historical scholarship. Nevertheless, one of Nutini’s main conclusions about the early period—that the overall Hispanic-indigenous syncretic complex reached maturity around the middle of the seventeenth century and changed relatively slowly thereafter—agrees with what I have found, using Nahuatl-language sources, in nearly every branch of indigenous life in central Mexico in the postconquest period.
At the theoretical level, Nutini is concerned to add a concept “spontaneous syncretism” to the “guided syncretism” of which he has spoken in his previous work. I welcome this additional category and its application; to me the guided syncretism interpretation, asserting that early Spanish ecclesiastics consciously fostered religious convergences between the two traditions, is not well founded in the written record, and I am glad to see it qualified to an extent. At one point (p. 108), Nutini goes so far as to suggest that syncretism was tolerated rather than actively fostered by the mendicant friars, a position with which I would have no argument. Nutini is also increasingly interested in what he calls the expressive aspect of his topic. To do justice to this dimension, however, a far more detailed analysis of the pattern in spoken texts, gestures, and visual displays will be required. Such ambitious scholarship and such a large contribution inevitably lead into areas which for the moment remain less well explored and understood.