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The Spectacular City, Mexico, and Colonial Hispanic Literary Culture

The Spectacular City, Mexico, and Colonial Hispanic Literary Culture

Stephanie Merrim offers a dynamic interdisciplinary approach to colonial Hispanic writing based on the spectacular city, a model that encompasses three driving forces of New World literary culture: cities, festivals, and wonder.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

November 2010
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
377 pages | 6 x 9 | 4 b&w photos |

The Spectacular City, Mexico, and Colonial Hispanic Literary Culture tracks the three spectacular forces of New World literary culture—cities, festivals, and wonder—from the sixteenth to the seventeenth century, from the Old World to the New, and from Mexico to Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. It treats a multitude of imperialist and anti-imperialist texts in depth, including poetry, drama, protofiction, historiography, and journalism. While several of the landmark authors studied, including Hernán Cortés and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, are familiar, others have received remarkably little critical attention. Similarly, in spotlighting creole writers, Merrim reveals an intertextual tradition in Mexico that spans two centuries. Because the spectacular city reaches its peak in the seventeenth century, Merrim's book also theorizes and details the spirited work of the New World Baroque. The result is the rich examination of a trajectory that leads from the Renaissance ordered city to the energetic revolts of the spectacular city and the New World Baroque.


The Modern Language Associations Katherine Singer Kovacs Prize for an outstanding book published in English or Spanish in the field of Latin American and Spanish literatures and cultures

  • Preface
  • Introduction. Road Map
  • Chapter 1. Agile Platforms of the Spectacular City: The New World and the Old
  • Chapter 2. Order and Concert
  • Chapter 3. Balbuena's "La grandeza mexicana" and the Advent of the Spectacular City
  • Chapter 4. Balbuena's Spectacular City and the Creole Cause
  • Chapter 5. Engaging Plurality: Baroque Plenitude and the Spectacular City in Mexico
  • Chapter 6. "To Know the All": The Spectacular Esoteric City in Mexico
  • Chapter 7. Babel: Wild Work of the New World Baroque
  • Appendix. Chronology of Principal Works
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index

Stephanie Merrim is Royce Family Professor of Comparative Literature and Hispanic Studies at Brown University. Her previous books include Early Modern Women's Writing and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.


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At the beginning of William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (1936), the demon-horse-man figure of Thomas Sutpen "abrupts" onto the scene (4). Bit by bit, piece by astonishing piece, he begins to take shape before the readers' eyes, first through the narrative of the haunted Rosa Coldfield. Speaking in a "grim haggard amazed voice" with an "air of impotent and static rage," Rosa sets in motion the "long unamaze" (3-4), the process of comprehending the amazing maze that Sutpen, with his near-colonialist design of forming a dynasty, foisted on her South. The narratives that ensue in Absalom fight their way through the labyrinth of personal, social, historical, and ideological circumstances that fueled Sutpen's design, ultimately reembodying them in their rich, interlocking complexity.

Rosa's amazement and urgent desire to "unamaze" speak to me of the issues that apprehending colonial Hispanic discourse presents. As a thick, long-gone universe of words and worldviews that continues to haunt, a maze of factors, colonial Spanish American discourse amazes, confounds, and resists narration. How to reembody and comprehend it? How to render a meaningful account of its myriad components, none of which exists in pristine isolation and each of which demands that its story be told? The Spectacular City, Mexico, and Colonial Hispanic Literary Culture takes the stand that for colonial Hispanic discourse to abrupt robustly and comprehensibly onto our scene as Faulkner's Sutpen did onto the stage of Absalom, we first need to embrace its complexity by considering the broad band of cultural formations that contribute to it. Then, and crucially, we may start to make sense of the colonial maze, even to "unamaze," by bringing the various cultural formations into active coherence.

My book casts this wide net into colonial Spanish America's literary culture, a term that connotes the field in which literary and other discourses are conceived, produced, and consumed (Valdés xviii). As its means of articulating colonial Hispanic literary culture or, if you will, its Ariadne's thread through the maze, the book tells the story of an interdisciplinary construct called the Spectacular City. A composite of elements that prove to drive colonial literary culture, the Spectacular City both shapes and facilitates the telling of stories that cut across the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of colonial Spanish America, carrying Old World ideologies and epistemologies in tow. My book tells these diverse stories, yet in tracing the life and works of the Spectacular City it forms a narrative that has an almost novelistic shape.

Fittingly enough for a study that treats so many walking tours of colonial Spanish American cityscapes, the present Introduction offers a road map to the book, a practical initial guide to the Spectacular City and to the interlocking stories whose telling it enables. The introduction sets up the stories that the study plays out, suggests the relationships between them and the directions in which the stories travel, and demarcates their boundaries, while paying particular attention to race and place. Practical as it may be, the road map, I hope, will impart a feel for the potential and drama of the approach to colonial Spanish American culture the book proposes and engage the reader for subsequent chapters, wherein walking tours and texture animate the Spectacular City that we now begin to traverse.

Motor of all the book's stories, the Spectacular City fundamentally derives from the actual, throbbing, propulsive, truly exorbitant cities of colonial Spanish America, locus of the Spanish "civilizing" campaign for the New World. The colonial city reached its fruition in the seventeenth century, when, reacting to the austerity of the Reformation, the Hispanic worlds fired back with spectacle and ostentation. The Spanish colonies in the New World produced the overblown wealth that brought those spectacular proclivities to a hyperbolic peak in statecraft, religion, architecture, consumerism, daily life, and so on. Accordingly, we will here experience a city grounded in the spectacular way of living and experiencing the world that Irving A. Leonard conveys in his classic Baroque Times in Old Mexico: Seventeenth-Century Persons, Places, and Practices (1959).

The Spectacular City that comes alive in the following pages, however, transcends its grounding in concrete places and practices. It becomes an abstract entity, an explanatory construct: an ensemble of broad elements that, as I wish to demonstrate, has dynamic generative and explanatory power for colonial Spanish American literary culture. This is the central life of the Spectacular City in the book at hand. And the three coordinates of the Spectacular City, each spectacular in its own right, are New World cities, their festivals, and various facets of that multiplex phenomenon, wonder.

Separately, each of the Spectacular City's three forces constitutes a powerhouse of colonial Spanish American culture across the board, a mainstay of it at once constant and protean. Over the arc of colonial discursive production, the city, festival, and wonder individually assume the host of distinctive, charged forms that my book sets out to disclose. Each of the three matrices functions as an extraordinarily capacious and malleable arena, equally available to the imperial colonizer and to the colonized. Quite purposefully in the hands of the colonized, or at times mercurially escaping the grasp of the colonizer, the components of the Spectacular City can become "structures of feeling" that from within the core of the dominant culture surreptitiously corrode it, heralding the emergence of new trends (Williams 133).

When the textualized city, festival, and wonder pull together to form the constellation or template that is the Spectacular City, they allow one to discern and to enunciate vital, wide-ranging stories. (We will see throughout that the Spectacular City both intersects with and exceeds Angel Rama's "ciudad letrada," or lettered city, which up to now has been one of the main tools for interpreting the real and literary colonial Hispanic city). As it pushes through time and space, the composite Spectacular City proves to engender and to elucidate a spectrum of significant movements in colonial Hispanic literary history as well as their verbal monuments. In other words, the Spectacular City affords a platform from which to chart many large-scale trajectories of colonial culture, and it provides several fundamental bases for devising an intra-Hispanic, comparative literary history.

The dynamic Spectacular City, as suggested above, organically calls other stories into telling as it evolves. One such story line is the education and modus operandi of the creole colonial intelligentsia, treated more contextually here than in Rama's La ciudad letrada. The palpitating life of wondrous objects and collections of them is another. The Spectacular City also convenes several quite conceptually driven stories. Wending back and forth between the Old World and the New, the tale of the Spectacular City exposes the hegemonic aspects of seemingly autonomous, abstract European epistemes, their guilty pleasures.

Analogously and principally, since the Spectacular City coalesces in the seventeenth century it dovetails with the magnificent, slippery phenomenon known as the New World Baroque. The second major story my book tells, therefore, tracks the intimate relationship between the New World Baroque and the Spectacular City, both of which militate against order and containment. Construing the New World Baroque as a precarious embodiment of the uncontainable, The Spectacular City necessarily attends to the work, the diverse and deeply efficacious specific jobs, that the quicksilver Baroque performed for the New World and its writers. For instance, one key plotline of the book contends that with its potent conjunction of city, festival, and wonder the Spectacular City triggers the genesis of the Baroque on New World soil rather than as an imported mode and subsequently plays a determining role in advancing the spirited work of the New World Baroque for the New World.

Who does this work? Although all sectors of society partake of colonial festivals and contribute to the discourse of the colonial period, the simple answer to the question is: mostly radicados (foreigners who had put down roots in the New World) and creoles (American-born Spaniards). I trust my readers will agree that the current lively, well-justified interest in Indian texts of all sorts need not block awareness that the radicados and, preeminently, creoles who occupy these pages continue to warrant close attention. As those who for better or for worse enjoyed the greatest educational opportunities and the highest social positions, it was they who published most widely in the New and Old Worlds and thus momentously impacted the ideology and literary cultures of their times. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, creoles had come to dominate Mexican and Peruvian literary cultures. By the end of the century, they had utilized their position advantageously to formulate and propagate structures of feeling, which gathered into the protonationalism that would at long last spur independence from Spain.

Yet there is nothing simple about radicados, creoles, or any other subjects implicated in a colonial situation. For instance, received categories such as radicado and creole belie the fluidity of the colonial context. Some radicados eventually embraced the local milieu to the point of blending with the creoles or defending the Indians. Others never shed the touristic or deeply imperialist, yet ultimately erratic, perspective that informs the texts studied in chapters 2 and 3 here. More important, scholars estimate that from 20 to 40 percent of the individuals who identified themselves as creoles in the early years of colonization may actually have been mestizos seeking to elude racial prejudice (Mazzotti 11).

The indistinction of categories ineluctably gives rise to, among other things, the fact that creole texts by no means tell a single or a monolithic story. In truth, owing to a matter that has recently received much scrutiny, they deliver some of the most tangled, challenging, and telling stories to issue from the colonial period. I refer to the sometimes conflicting investments of the creoles in both home and empire, attitudes which a raft of excellent scholars have brought to the fore. Their collective efforts furnish a consummate picture of the creoles' Janus-faced, unstable identity and loyalties. On the one hand, creoles internalize deeply felt local attachments, paradigms, and alliances. On the other, they lean favorably toward the metropolis, Spain's cultural paradigms, ideologies, and, especially when mistreated by the viceregal system, imperial power structures. Conservative and dissident, dominant (as over/against Indians and mestizos) and subordinate (to viceregal officials, civil and ecclesiastic), creoles shift back and forth between polarities. Concomitantly, they find themselves well situated to mediate between stances in person and in writing, in the colonies and, as creole texts make their way across the ocean, in Europe.

We meet, in sum, an identity in the making and a conflict-ridden creole discourse "forged in the nexus of various circuits of identity and power" (Martínez-San Miguel 208). The dual positionality of creole writers catches both sides of the colonial divide. Creole writers meld the American and Spanish cultures that permeate every facet of their daily existence. Their works hold official and nonofficial stories in tension. Such works subscribe to the official story wholeheartedly or in mimicry. Creole discursive production thus focuses an array of tensions inherent in the colonial situation.

Indians and self-proclaimed mestizos focus and face other significant tensions, tensions which generally distance their writings from the Spectacular City. Oppression and the obliteration of their past urgently preoccupy Indian writers, with the result that they often train their sights on protest and on recuperating indigenous history. Mestizo writers "concerned with the problems of lineage, inheritance, and remuneration," similarly defend "their claim to the future through an examination of the past" (Ross, "Historians" 142). On a lesser note, the improbability that subjected Indians or mixed-race writers would desire to pay homage to viceregal cities or festivals further separates their works from the Spectacular City. The two groups of writers therefore do not directly enter the ranks of Spectacular City texts, although the actions, writings, and history of the Indians play a tremendous, inalienable role in several creole and other works that come under study here. For example, as the seventeenth century progressed and creole protonationalism took shape, the movement increasingly aligned itself with the Indians, if, as we will find, mostly with their past.

In order to do justice to the trajectory of creole discourse together with the life force of the Spectacular City, this book centers on colonial Mexico City, capital of the viceroyalty of New Spain. Beyond the specifics of its literary culture, Mexico City constitutes a fertile arena for tracing the evolution and currency of the Spectacular City because of the viceregal capital’s many paradigmatic and leading-edge features. Constructed atop the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, a place whose strong history never faded from cultural memory, Mexico City combines aspects of the Peruvian cities of Lima and Cuzco. Mexico City also quickly experienced the brunt of Spain’s urbanizing project, which included the early installation of a printing house (1535 in Mexico versus 1583 in Lima) and of a university housed in its own buildings (1554 in Mexico versus 1576 in Lima). Both projects promoted the rapid, steady progress of literary culture in New Spain. Given its centrality to Atlantic, Pacific, and intracontinental trade, Mexico City imbibed foreign cultural currents; literary issues that would resonate throughout the colonies often manifested themselves first, and keenly, in Mexico City. By the same token, Mexico City did not fail to absorb the tidal waves of capitalism that would transform all that it touched. As the first modern, unwalled city of Latin America, the capital of New Spain early on pressed inexorably toward Latin America’s problematic modernity.

None of this means to accord the literature of Mexico City any superiority to that of other colonial cities. In fact, being more distant from the metropolis, less controlled or controllable, other cities evidence a more unbroken dissentient literary tradition, albeit one that still can operate within the bounds of the Spectacular City and do the work of the New World Baroque. Chapter 1, therefore, contextualizes the Spectacular City with regard to colonial Spanish America at large, and the final chapter of this book chiefly scrutinizes the work of the Baroque in and for the spectacularly scandal-ridden cities of the South American continent.

Yet the heart and bulk of The Spectacular City lie in Mexico. Chapters 2 through 6 follow Mexico City and the cultural artifacts it yielded from the start of the sixteenth century to the end of the seventeenth. A case study, the chapters on Mexico aim to substantiate my broad claims about the Spectacular City and the New World Baroque. A chronologically organized book within a book, the Mexican chapters enact a sample literary history that revolves around the city, festival, and wonder—without intending to be a literary history, exhaustive or otherwise. Rather, the third major story told here, that of colonial Mexico City and its literary culture, will immerse readers in the dense texture and elusive gyrations of colonial texts, be they canonical or works that have almost faded from sight. To meet the challenge of the often daunting texts with the nuanced readings they demand and with the fresh readings the Spectacular City opens up is a primary, job of the book at hand.

Exhuming and probing colonial works on Mexico City (historiography, treatises, poetry, drama, protonovels, and journalism) through the lens of the Spectacular City brings to the fore a pivotal aspect of Hispanic Mexico's early literary history: a conscious, sustained, cross-fertilizing discursive tradition enacted by creoles that spans most of the colonial period. As creole writers engage in an apologetics for Mexico City, one which models an apologetics for the New World at large, they instantly begin to assemble a vibrant intertextual corpus. Creole writers avidly read and insistently quote and rewrite one another, often polemically. Resourceful and intent on consolidating a textual edifice favorable to Mexico, they also exploit any available material that might suit their cause. Hence, creoles selectively redeploy and cannily reterritorialize extant writings on Mexico by Spaniards, radicados, and, later, Indians. From wayward, scant beginnings, creoles cobble together a Mexican Archive that never ceases to ramify or to entail astonishing acrobatics with received knowledge.

To label the intellectual body an archive is, of course, to activate Michel Foucault's construction of the archive as "the general system of the formation and transformation of statements" (Archeology 130) or, better yet for our context, Roberto González Echevarría's refinement of it as "an archive of stories and a storehouse of the master-stories produced to narrate from Latin America" that can manifest the "power to negate previous narrative forms from which it takes texts" (Myth 3, 34). And to identify the colonial Mexican Archive with creole writers invokes Kathleen Ross's characterization of Baroque creole intertextuality: "Baroque literature in Spanish America was the vehicle through which the criollos, or American-born Spaniards, engaged in an intertextual dialogue with the sixteenth century and the writing of the age of the Spanish conquest" (Baroque Narrative 7). No less does the "creole archive" bring to mind Anthony Higgins's Constructing the Criollo Archive. Predicating his contentions on eighteenth-century texts, Higgins distinguishes "a genealogy through which criollos seek to articulate a body of practical and theoretical knowledge of their environment and the history of its inhabitants, with a view to constructing for themselves a position and space of authority within colonial society" (xii).

The investigations undertaken here should broaden and thicken the understanding of the creole-constructed archive that the preceding formulations have so importantly and trenchantly seeded. Chapters 3 and 4 redraw the chronological boundaries of that archive, demonstrating that it began to take shape long before the Baroque period or the eighteenth century. Moreover, it will become apparent that when, as Ross stated, Mexican writers dialogue with Spanish texts of the conquest, they conduct those dialogues in full awareness that they are also communing with compatriots who had cited the same Spanish-authored and, as time goes by, Mexican-authored texts.

By laying bare and working through how creoles signify upon their forebears of various provenances, the suite of chapters on Mexico City helps reembody a literary history that up to now has largely derived its coherence from extrinsic criteria like dates and places or from disciplinary criteria such as literary period characteristics. The broadly based Spectacular City grows that literary history and contributes to its coherence. First, because the festival chronicles that often constitute the Spectacular City attained publication and wide dissemination. They thus had considerable impact on local writers. Second, because the Mexico City text that first conjoined city, festival, wonder, and the Baroque to crystallize the Spectacular City, the radicado Bernardo de Balbuena's 1604 "La grandeza mexicana" [Mexican grandeur], reverberated explosively into creole discourse. This lengthy, elitist, convoluted poem remained a constant touchstone of Mexican criollismo or "creolism" well into the eighteenth century. A towering, complex protagonist of my study, Balbuena's prodigiously influential pro-Mexico City text fueled Mexican creole patriotism and channeled its discursive history—in directions Balbuena would often not have countenanced. That is, Balbuena's overweening scorn for the Indian, the exile of the Indian from the poem except in its final, degrading allusion to the "indio feo" [ugly Indian] (124), sets a pattern that Mexican creole discourse would either adopt, modify, or overtly contest. Thus although Indian authors may not figure prominently in these pages, we will bear extensive witness to creole constructions of the Indian that incrementally supplement Balbuena's elitist poem.

The seven chapters of The Spectacular City, Mexico, and Colonial Hispanic Literary Culture most vitally bear witness to the complex birthing process and manifold life-forms over time of the mobile Spectacular City. Chapter 1 frames its components and their transatlantic genealogies. In essence, the book then follows the Spectacular City from its antecedents (chapter 2) to its advent (chapters 3 and 4) to its multifaceted Baroque apogee (chapters 5-7).

More specifically, chapter 1, "Agile Platforms of the Spectacular City: The New World and the Old," grounds the city, festival, wonder, and creole concerns in their historical contexts. It next places the Spectacular City in motion between the New World and the Old to conceptualize the crosscurrents that underwrite it, as deriving from the efforts of Spain in the Renaissance and Baroque eras to contend with the crises that the New World presented. From here, in an ever-shifting ars combinatoria, the book conjugates the city and its representation, the festival and festival chronicles, and wonder-as-emotion or wonder-as-object. While each coordinate of the Spectacular City comes into play throughout (except for chapter 2, where loaded representations of the communal marketplace stand in for the communal festival), each chapter or period inflects the mix differently, highlighting certain aspects. To flesh out the backstories and compass of the Spectacular City, the book frequently contemplates texts other than official festival chronicles or festival-allied works.

Chapter 2, "Order and Concert," considers the insidious fit between the epistemologies and esthetics of the European Renaissance, on the one hand, and Spanish imperialism, New World city planning, and sixteenth-century representations of Mexico City, on the other. The Renaissance Ordered City they all contrive to produce reaches expression in propagandistic and/or touristic city texts written by Hernán Cortés, Francisco Cervantes de Salazar, and Juan de la Cueva and in the hegemonic pastoral city crafted by the little-studied radicado author Eugenio de Salazar y Alarcón. Chapter 3, "Balbuena's 'La grandeza mexicana' and the Advent of the Spectacular City," breaks out of the Ordered City and gravitates toward the creoles. It locates Balbuena's works in the transition from the Mendicants to the Jesuits that formed a creole intelligentsia and that pulled Mexico City away from its previous austerity. Then, interrogating Balbuena's seminal, liminal poem, the chapter begins to sketch the special profile of the New World Baroque. With its effusive celebration of an exotic Mexico City and the disruptive particularity that the poem's economic bent occasions, "La grandeza mexicana" overflows the Apollonian Ordered City to debut the Dionysian Baroque Spectacular City.

That city spins off its imperialist axis and into orbit as creoles take it up for their own purposes. Chapter 4, "Balbuena's Spectacular City and the Creole Cause," details how creole writers appropriate and complicate "La grandeza mexicana" shortly after its publication. A short-term reception history of Balbuena's poem, the chapter examines its imploding esthetic and ironic returns in texts by Baltasar Dorantes de Carranza, Mateo Rosas de Oquendo, and Arias de Villalobos, all of which put pressure on Balbuena's sublime, elite city.

Chapter 5, "Engaging Plurality: Baroque Plenitude and the Spectacular City in Mexico," explores the pluralized, multicultural landscape of Mexico City and the attendant discourses of plurality that surge forth irrepressibly in the late seventeenth-century cultural nationalism of Agustín de Vetancurt, Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. In treatises and in festival texts, the three authors lift official discourses to new, plural, creolized heights.

Chapter 5 examines popular festivals, the enormously popular Guadalupanism that took root in the mid-seventeenth century, and texts on communal festivals for Mexico City, Querétaro, and Madrid. Conversely, chapter 6, "'To Know the All': The Spectacular Esoteric City in Mexico," turns to the elite counterparts of those phenomena. It analyzes the esoteric festival practices of the creole intelligentsia; their spectacular philosophical proclivities that rally around the enticing possibilities for knowing the All held out by the renowned German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher and his museum; and metaphorical renditions of the festival encountered in Sor Juana's and Sigüenza's works. The spectacular esoteric city of which these various enterprises are integral parts carries the Baroque to its peak, as Sor Juana and Sigüenza mount a literary fin de siècle based on the creole archive, and also to its devastation on epistemological and social grounds.

Finally, the upheaval of absolutist viceregal society that Sigüenza's account of the 1692 Mexico City food riot depicts leads into chapter 7, "Babel: Wild Work of the New World Baroque." This last chapter projects the Spectacular City onto texts from Mexico, Bogotá, Potosí, and Lima that attack colonial misrule, often championing the Indian. Unfettered, sensationalizing exposés, the works enact what would strike the imperial eye as the backfiring of the Baroque. Hence, the New World Baroque and Spectacular City that began in the imperialist "La grandeza mexicana" demonstrate their potency for denouncing colonial societies that have descended into malignant hegemonies and Babelic pandemonium.

From the beginning of the seventeenth century to its end, the Spectacular City and the New World Baroque display an extraordinary ability to overflow bounds, defying containment. To capture those energies as vividly as possible, several of my chapters have a pictorial epigraph. More than as illustrations, the pictures that preface the chapters serve as keys to the issues of verbal representation that the chapters broach. The visual epigraph of chapter 1, Hieronymus Bosch's effervescent, fearsome Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1500-1505), suggests a mode of representation and a prevailing mood. Subsequent visual epigraphs progress sequentially from archetype to explosion. At heart, this is the story of the Spectacular City, and the transit from Sandro Botticelli's geometrical, airbrushed Venus (c. 1484) to Cristóbal de Villalpando's busy, particularized Central Square of Mexico City, 1695 subsumes and tells that story as effectively, perhaps, as any words the following pages can muster on its behalf.


“A scholarly tour de force. . . . Stephanie Merrim is one of the most respected colonial scholars in the Americas, and this book will only add another well-deserved star to her crown.”
Nina M. Scott, Professor Emerita of Spanish, University of Massachusetts, Amherst


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