Aside from sharing the same publisher, a house that specializes in publishing archival materials on pre-Columbian and colonial life in the Americas, Matthew Restall’s Life and Death in a Maya Community and Sandra Orellana’s Ethnohistory of the Pacific Coast have little in common, either in the task that each sets for itself or in the level of analysis that each displays.

Restall’s work is by far the more sophisticated of the two. While first and foremost a rendering of mid-eighteenth-century testaments from a Yucatec Maya community, in both Maya and in English translation, Restall’s contextualization of the wills, in the first section of the book, and his commentary on individual wills open a valuable window into the world of the Maya and the vitality of their municipality, the cah, some two centuries after initial contact. Restall begins with the premise that “indigenous alphabetic writing was one of the few Spanish introductions subsequently used against the Spaniards by their colonial subjects; it was a symbol and expression of the independence, authority, and identity of the indigenous community” (p. 10). Restall’s work moves beyond linguistic analysis to examine what the testaments reveal about the internal structures and relations of this community—marriage and kinship, inheritance, distribution of political power, and the like. Such a close and nuanced reading leads him to argue that “the colonial period witnessed a process more complex than mere syncretism, with two cultural systems remaining distinguishable from each other while interacting within a broader syncretic framework” (p. 13).

The vitality of the cah posited by Restall’s work stands in sharp contrast to Orellana’s vision of postcontact society. Orellana traces the increasing ladinoization of the region encompassed by the provinces of Suchitepéquez, Escuintla, and Soconusco over the course of the colonial period, a process intimately connected to economic change through the integration of the region into the larger colonial economy. She argues that the Spaniards’ presence fatally compromised the indigenous peoples of these provinces. “Indians lost control of their lives . . . reduced from independent peoples to vassals in a hierarchy that allowed them little or no political freedom” (p. 109).

How can we reconcile Orellana’s grim picture of postcontact society along the Pacific coast of southern Mexico and Guatemala with Restall’s representation of a vibrant, integral indigenous world in the Yucatán? Does the answer lie, perhaps, in the greater European penetration of the area Orellana studies? Surely the local economies of that region seem far more attractive to Europeans than those of Ixil, the area studied by Restall. Might it reflect the far greater pre-Hispanic contact with other indigenous peoples that the coastal region experienced, including expansions of Quiché and Nahua-speaking peoples? Were these areas thus already compromised, already weakened by contact with intrusive populations, and therefore open to a more rapid deterioration of the indigenous world after European contact?

Orellana’s work hints at this, but for her, the Spanish presence is the decisive factor. In the Yucatán, Restall notes, “the conquest . . . was complete in the sixteenth century only in the sense that the presence of Spanish settlers, Spanish colonial rule, and enforced Catholicism were facts; yet a variety of factors, including active and passive Maya resistance, ensured that the cultural conquest would persist, incomplete, up to the present” (p. 5). Orellana seems to find no such resistance among the populations she encounters.

Orellana’s work is useful in much the way Peter Gerhard’s Southeast Frontier of New Spain (1979, 1993) is useful: as a compilation of all available data about a particular region in a particular historical period. But hers is a generally uncritical reading of sources, and she evinces little willingness to assess their relative value. Short on analysis, lacking in nuance, with no clear thematic focus to tie the pieces together, Orellana’s work disappoints rather than opening new perspectives. Restall’s is by far the richer treatment.