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Sarah Jo Townsend

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Black Indians and Savage Christians: Unmaking the “Other” in the Performance of the Conquest
by Sarah Jo Townsend

Abstract en español

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Few of the Spanish conquistadors, either spiritual or secular, could have hoped for a welcome like the one that greeted Alonso Ponce in each of the villages he passed through during his travels in the province of Michoacán from October 1586 to February of the following year. In his Tratado curioso y docto de las grandezas de la Nueva España (Curious and Learned Treatise on the Marvels of New Spain), Ponce's secretary Antonio Ciudad Real describes the elaborate festivities featuring dances, mock battles, and occasional plays that invariably culminated in offerings to the Franciscan prelate and requests for his blessing. Using nothing more than the force of his mere presence, Ponce is shown conquering the hearts of his indigenous subjects in a series of scenes that have all the sense of wonder and newness of Columbus's initial encounter with the people of the Caribbean: "there was not a single iindian, big or small, in the village who did not come to see him, and they were all dumbfounded looking at him," Ciudad Real tells us of his employer's reception in one village. (1). Strangely enough, however, when the Europeans look back, what they see are not their native subjects but black men and Chichimecas, the nomadic Iindians to the north against whom the Spanish were waging an ongoing war of conquest. Why, one wonders, would these good Christians who were key allies of the Spanish – "very devout and sincere people," according to Ciudad Real – choose to dress up as black slaves and wild men? Furthermore, why would their Spanish visitors take as signs of devotion these performances in which their compliant Other appears, not as himself, but as Another Other?

Beginning with the early conquistadors' letters to the Spanish kings and continuing up to the present day, most attempts to describe the Conquest and its legacy have relied, either implicitly or explicitly, on a distinction that is often framed in terms of a European "Self" and its "Other" whose subjugation the Conquest enacts. In addition to physical violence and genocide, the partial destruction of native ways of life and the imposition of another have resulted in a preoccupation with cultural mimesis evident even to this day in the discourse of intellectuals who struggle to define a distinctive Latin American identity. The Brazilian novelist and cultural theorist Silviano Santiago, for example, states that "[t]he archaeology of America leads us back to the violence of the conquest…to the violence that imposed on the Other his inexorable condition as a copy." (2) Similarly, Enrique Dussel, an Argentine philosopher whose ideas are in many respects at odds with Santiago's poststructuralist bent, claims that the European ego did not "dis-cover" the New World but rather "covered over" its true alterity, leading Dussel to conclude that "[t]he Same violently reduces the Other to itself through the violent process of conquest."(3)

While such analyses have been essential in revealing the logic that authorizes the act of conquest, the language they employ also points to the risk of mimetism that is inherent in the act of criticism itself; that is, it is possible that in engaging one's object of study on its own terms the critic may end up reinforcing the very dynamic that she or he is attempting to undermine. What, then, might be an alternative to this constricting binary and the constant mirroring that it sets up between the European Self and the Latin American Other?

One possibility, I suggest, is to rethink the meaning of the Conquest by drawing attention to the multiplicity of identities being constructed in performances such as those witnessed by Alonso Ponce and his secretary. In what follows, I use a strategic reading of the representations of blacks and Chichimecas described in Ciudad Real's Tratado curioso y docto to argue that despite the constant discursive move to subsume all subordinate or adversarial groups into a monolithic "Other," the relationship between the colonizer and specific colonized groups is often mediated through the performance of other "Others." In some cases, as in the missionary plays involving battles between Christians and Moors restaged by indigenous actors, these alternative Others are the ghosts of historic enemies that accompanied the conquerors across the Atlantic. Often, however, they reflect the daily realities of colonial society itself. In the case at hand, the indigenous groups of Michoacán and the Spanish defined themselves not only in relation to each other but also through their interactions with black slaves and the Chichimecas, their common adversary. Keeping in sight not only the spiritual conquistadors and their indigenous suppliants but also the negros and Chichimecas invoked by the latter's performance not only disrupts the facile Self/Other opposition that condemns the New World to being an imperfect copy of the Old but also suggests the need to rethink the way in which power and resistance function through the act of representation (4).

It is precisely this ability to foreground the juxtaposition of different identities that makes both the study of embodied performances and the methodology of performance studies particularly useful in approaching these questions. In her book The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas, Diana Taylor points out that performances hold the potential of confronting spectators with bodies, gestures or facial expressions that can reveal new facets of a scripted narrative or even undermine or parody its original intention. Invoking the example of the mock battles between Christians and Moors, she states that whereas the original plays are clearly meant to polarize racial and cultural groups, the visual discrepancy between the roles and the indigenous actors who performed them forces us to realize that for the participants, the battle scenes may have served as an opportunity for "cultural masquerading" and "strategic positioning" in which they could "act out their own versions of the us/them." Taylor proposes the idea of the "scenario" as a useful paradigm for understanding the transmission of social behaviors and structures. A theatrical concept that foregrounds the issues of embodiment and physical location, "the scenario more fully allows us to keep both the social actor and the role in view simultaneously, and thus recognize areas of resistance and tension." (5)

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