Paloma Martinez-Cruz

Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 2012.

Reviewed by E.A. Polanco

Women and Knowledge in Mesoamerica: From East L.A. to Anahuac maps an ethnohistorical journey through Mesoamerican time and space in order to understand why Latinas in the U.S. are viewed as “pathogens,” even though they are vessels of knowledge. Martinez-Cruz employs theoretical tools from social epistemology, feminist historical analysis, performance studies, and literary criticism to disrupt notions of European epistemological superiority and instill within readers that the Western mind is like a “fever,” and with enough time it will pass.

Martinez-Cruz traces Mesoamerica’s intellectual history and tradition to the Olmec, Mesoamerica’s first state-organized society. She then fast-forwards to Mexico’s flagship indigenous group‑ the Mexica (Aztec) of the post-classic period. Martinez-Cruz points out that the Mexica Empire had vulva envy, something common among Mesoamerican cultures based on auto-sacrificial acts where phallic perforation and bloodletting is central (28). She argues that Mexica priests and warriors supplanted the act of birth by metaphorically replicating the act through war and ritual sacrifice (35) and female titicith (ritual-specialists) were defenders of women and their sacred knowledge of birthing. Martinez-Cruz claims that “…a power center derived of women’s fertility was successfully and publically defended by Tenochtitlan’s women physicians, in spite of the aggressions of the city’s most feared wizards and able-bodied warriors” (42).

Using the works of Bernardino de Sahagún, Diego Duran, and Hernando Ruíz de Alarcón Martinez-Cruz unpacks Nahua (the broader ethnic group of the Mexica) women’s epistemology during the colonial period. Martinez-Cruz’s use of the term Mexica can be confusing at times because she refers to all Nahua groups as Mexica. As historian John Lockhart has noted the term Mexica is strongly connected to the Nahuas of Mexico-Tenochtitlan.

Moving into the Colonial and Independence periods, Martinez-Cruz examines how during this time women lacked access to education and thus lacked legitimacy in intellectual realms. She argues that the Catholic Church was the institutional exception, and it provided women with a forum for knowledge production. Thus, when Mexico was secularized by liberal reforms in the nineteenth-century women lost their only access to intellectuality. Women had to wait until the late nineteenth-century for educational competency to fill the void left by spirituality, which again allowed for women’s intellectual participation.

Although the Catholic Church might have empowered Spanish women, it also repressed Indian religions, delegitimized Mesoamerican healing practices, and persecuted casta ritual specialists. In the Colonial period, Catholic campaigns of extirpation were spear headed by Fray Diego de Landa (Yucatán) and Bishop-elect Juan de Zumárraga (Mexico City). As Martinez-Cruz argues, even Bernardino de Sahagún and Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón’s chronicles were motivated by a quest for orthodoxy and extirpation.

Women and Knowledge in Mesoamerica also investigates present-day Mazatec mushroom rituals, made famous among hippies by María Sabina. She claims that hongito (mushroom) ceremonies are an example of indigenous resistance to colonial oppression. Mazatec shamanism is grounded in the second stage of Franz Fanon’s anti-colonial awakening, meaning that Mazatec shamans celebrate what is “essential” in their culture in order to aspire to decolonial thought (119). This claim will likely spur subsequent ethnographic studies exploring how these ritual-specialists view their ceremonies and the knowledge that surrounds them.

Finally, Martinez-Cruz examines the Chicano movement of the 1960’s and the inequalities that existed within the movement, namely the inequitable distribution of leadership roles based on gender. She brilliantly argues that Chicana Feminists faced the difficult task of obtaining agency without disturbing community solidarity and identity (127). Martinez-Cruz then applies this theory to her literary analysis of three Chicano/a novels. In all three novels a curandera (female folk-healer) champions Mesoamerican knowledge while breaking free of the virgin/whore dichotomy that was chained to Chicana womanhood. Yet I would argue that this analysis also creates confusion since two of the novels take place in New Mexico, and the other is set in Northern Mexico, areas outside of Mesoamerican cultural influence. More evidence is needed to show connections between these areas and Mesoamerica.

A minor criticism of Women and Knowledge in Mesoamerica is that African customs and beliefs are not discussed in terms of how they might have impacted Mexican healing customs and epistemology after Spanish contact in Mexico. Moreover, although this text focuses on Mesoamerica, only Nahua and Mazatec customs are explored in depth and diverse Mesoamerican groups with rich traditions (e.g. the Maya) are left virtually unmentioned. Martinez-Cruz proposed an ambitious task for Women and Knowledge in Mesoamerica in understanding the knowledge production of “Mesoamerican” women and debunking their status as a “pathogen” in the U.S. and undoubtedly we will see new works emerge based on this engaging and stimulating book.

E.A. Polanco is a doctoral student in the department of history at the University of Arizona. Edward’s research interests include gender, race, religion, and medicine in sixteenth through eighteenth century Mexico. Presently, he is a US Department of Education Foreign Language and Area Studies Academic Year fellow.


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