Imperialism and the Origins of Mexican Culture. By Colin M. MacLachlan. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2015. Pp. 1-330. notes, bibliog. index. $35.00.)

Colin M. MacLachlan hypothesizes that the cultural fusion of Spanish and what he calls Indo-Mexico cultures began many years before their historical encounter in 1519. At that point, both peoples, according to MacLachlan, were becoming imperial powers. (MacLachlan’a use of the terms empire and imperial is problematic since in the modern sense the terms refer to the last stage of capitalism and the Aztecs were certainly not capitalists).
The strength of the book is its readability. It is an entertaining book, with a provocative if not controversial discussion of the world and religious views of both civilizations. One flaw is that the author, for the most part, does not use indigenous sources to document the gory and highly contested descriptions of human sacrifice and cannibalism (“Feeding the Population,” 92-97). There is considerable documentation that Columbus created the word “cannibal” initially derived from Carib or Caribes. Throughout Mexican Colonial History, the invention of cannibalism and human sacrifice were pretexts for enslaving or making war on native populations; charges of cannibalism and human sacrifice justified the brutal conquest. It also dehumanized the indigenous peoples.
The book has other flaws, beginning with MacLachlan’s reliance on arguments first made in his book (with co-author Jaime E. Rodríguez O), The Forging of the Cosmic Race: A Reinterpretation of Colonial Mexico (1980). That treatise offers a central argument that has come under much critical scrutiny: This is the notion that the Mexican nation-state forged an integrated pan-ethnic national identity during the colonial period. Today, the notion of mestizaje is contested and many younger scholars are more in tune with late Jack Forbes’ “The Mestizo Concept: A Product of European Imperialism.” It was Forbes who, before Bonfil Batalla, presented the argument that the concept of mestizaje is “a subtle undermining of native peoples.”
MacLachlan mixes his terms. He does not explain what he means by “civilization” or “culture.” His definition of the boundaries of “Indo-Mexico” is unclear; at times, he seems to refer exclusively to the Valley of Mexico and the Mexica (Aztecs). Although he mentions them, his narrative ignores the great indigenous peoples north and south of the Valley that played major roles in the cultural fusion of Indo-Mexico. I found myself asking, what happened to the Mayan, the Pu’repecha, Zapotec, Mixtec, and other great Mexican states in MacLachlan’s Indo-Mexico construct?
Population dynamics have constantly reshaped the history of Mexico. The driving force is the dramatic increase of the Mexican origin population in the United States. It has zoomed from three and a half million to 35 million since 1970, and the impact of this is the growth in the number of scholarly and popular publications on Mexico. Before 1971, for instance, 660 dissertations were listed on Mexico in the ProQuest data bank. From 1971 to 2010, 9,078 were written.
MacLachlan ignores the large body of research produced by Chicana/o and younger more radical scholars as well as many works on Mexico in other fields.[3] The study of Mexico is neglected by traditional history departments while the field of Chicana/o studies is growing. For example, at California State Northridge, the history department offers one course on Mexican History every other semester while the Chicana/o studies department offers over 160 sections per semester.[4] It offers courses on Nahuatl and has offered courses on classical Yucatecan Mayan. These changes promise to impact historical interpretation because no longer will history be learned exclusively in translation.
In sum, many scholars question not so much the established story, but what it is based on. More indigenous sources would have added to the depth and nuances of the author’s major arguments. MacLachlan is a leading historian in the field of Mexico; however, the lack of clear definitions makes it seem as if the author lacks a profound grasp of indigenous societies of the Western hemisphere.

California State University Northridge Rodolfo F. Acuña