Outside a grand colonial cathedral in el Zócalo, the historic center of Mexico City, you can find men in feathered headdresses and beaded garments performing pre-Hispanic spiritual cleanses on tourists and down-on-their-luck locals. The Catholic church just behind them sits on the site of a fourteenth-century Aztec pyramid that once featured four sloped terraces and two shrines. Despite the tangled history of the two belief systems, they now coexist in the square; it’s not uncommon to find a churchgoer signing the cross as they head toward a healer for a fifteen-minute herb-and-incense “limpia.” 

Much of Mexico, where I’ve lived for the past four years, is like this, a blend of Spanish and Indigenous traditions that results in a constant reminder of the country’s colonial past. In recent years, there’s been a growing interest outside of Mexico and the rest of Latin America to understand how the Spaniards’ arrival more than five hundred years ago shaped the region—and continues to mold it today. In response, museums such as the Dallas Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston have amped up their Latin American departments. The University of Texas at Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art now employs a curator, Rosario Granados-Salinas, who specializes in art from the Spanish Americas and has worked as an assistant curator at the Museo de la Basílica de Guadalupe in Mexico City. Since 2019, she’s worked to build a collection of colonial-era works, many of which will be presented in a new exhibit titled “Painted Cloth: Fashion and Ritual in Colonial Latin America.”

The exhibit, on view between August 14 and January 8, consists of more than seventy paintings, sculptures, furniture items, and garments produced in Bolivia, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela in the 1600s and 1700s, grouped together to explore the colonial period through the lens of fashion and cloth. The decision to use fashion as an entry point to the era was a calculated one. Granados-Salinas hopes that the focus on garments will appeal to a wide audience, not just to art buffs, historians, or those who are Catholic or Latino. “It’s a very contemporary way of thinking about the complicated history of colonialism, race, class, and gender,” she said. 

Before arriving at the Blanton, I was dubious about the amount of information on gender or racial dynamics I’d be able to glean from European-inspired shoe buckles or paintings of tailors and seamstresses making Italian-style lace. But as I walked through the museum and spoke with Granados-Salinas, I found the garments to be an accessible entry point for people like me who usually go on autopilot when looking at religious paintings. 

Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene, made in Cuzco, Peru, in the eighteenth century, depicts the saint in a state of worship. I knew from my childhood Catholicism classes that she had a bad rep as a sinner consumed by “seven demons.” Although the exact story about the saint is debated—some theologians claim Mary Magdalene was a sex worker—she’s known by some Catholic worshippers for having been saved through devotion, prayer, and repentance. 

Installation view of Painted Cloth: Fashion and Ritual in Colonial Latin America, Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin.
“Painted Cloth” is on view through January 8, 2023. Courtesy of Blanton Museum of Art
Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene, Cusco, 18th century, oil and gold on canvas, 21 1/4 × 26 3/4 in., Colección Barbosa Stern, Lima.
Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene, Cusco, eighteenth century, oil and gold on canvas, Colección Barbosa-Stern, Lima. Courtesy of Blanton Museum of Art
Left: “Painted Cloth” is on view through January 8, 2023. Courtesy of Blanton Museum of Art
Top: Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene, Cusco, eighteenth century, oil and gold on canvas, Colección Barbosa-Stern, Lima. Courtesy of Blanton Museum of Art

In the painting on display, she’s surrounded by a forest and lying on the ground, propped up by two angels. When I looked at the piece, the first thing that caught my eye was, as intended, a white veil that frames the woman and angels. According to the exhibit’s catalog, in the seventeenth century, Mary Magdalene paintings like this one were somewhat of a hot commodity. Granados-Salinas suspects that the demand came mostly from women, some of whom may have been longing for a chance at entering the pearly gates after losing their virginity out of wedlock. “I imagine that the veil is a very refined reference to the recovery of virginity through praying,” Granados-Salinas said. “I think that it’s a female public that is asking for this object—the devotion of this saint was a way in which women could be empowered.” The hidden message in the painting was engrossing. 

The meaning behind other paintings felt more straightforward. A mid-1700s Mexico City casta oil painting, intended to inform Spaniards about the diversity of people in the Americas, depicts different racial and ethnic categories along with the types of clothing each was expected to wear. (Wealthy Indigenous women who married Spaniards were expected to use more-lavish huipiles, traditional loose-fitting tunics, while a woman who was half white and half Black was required to wear Spanish-style petticoats, skirts, and blouses.) When some people tried to trick the system by wearing clothing outside of their “rank,” authorities in Mexico City responded with the 1582 ordinance that made it illegal for women with Spanish or African ancestry to wear native garments, unless they were married to an Indigenous man. The punishment was severe. The Spaniards threatened arrest, incarceration, one hundred public lashes, and a fine. 

During my preview of the exhibit, I found myself considering what women of the time period were thinking and feeling in a way I never had when learning about the colonial era in school. That’s exactly what Granados-Salinas intended. With the casta painting, specifically, she wants viewers to go beyond what she sees as a surface-level understanding that the intent to classify and rank people is racist. “I think we can see the subjects, not as documents of awful practices, but also to make evident that race is something far more fluid,” she said. 

The desire for the artwork to inspire more than cursory interest was a theme in both the exhibit and my discussions with the curator. She hopes that the works will inspire deeper conversations about colonization. “We were colonized, yes. But maybe we were really colonized by the narratives of what the conquest meant,” she said, acknowledging that she can’t speak for those from Indigenous communities. 

In Conversion of an Indigenous Nobleman by Intercession of Our Lady of Copacabana (artist unknown), an early 1700s painting from Cuzco, an Indigenous man wears fine clothing, including a colorful, fringed uncu, a knee-length tunic often made from cotton and wool-like yarn. The intricate garment clues viewers in on the fact that he’s an important person in his community. Hands clasped and eyes downcast, the man kneels in front of two friars dressed in black robes. It’s the kind of image that I’ve seen in textbooks about colonization since I was in grade school. The understanding has long been that the friars are subjugating the man, but Granados-Salinas wonders if there might be another possibility: What if the man is a “humble neophyte ecstatic to be assisted” with Catholicism? “That space of doubt, of the possibility of it being the two, is where I think we can really start a conversation about what the colonial period is,” Granados-Salinas said. 

That’s a dicey question, especially in the United States. Here there is widespread recognition of the atrocities that Spaniards committed in their race for colonial dominance and quest for gold and land. They invaded prosperous cities like the Aztec Tenochtitlán, co-opting the capital and renaming it Mexico City. Along the way, they brought to the Americas diseases such as smallpox, installed forced labor and slavery, and violently combated locals, leaving millions murdered in their wake. In recent years, some states in the U.S., including several Texas cities, have publicly acknowledged that history by replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. However, Granados-Salinas suggests that the response to colonialism has at times been different in Latin America, where some aspects of Spanish traditions are fully embraced. 

For example, Latin Americans are predominantly Catholic. In Mexico, some 70 percent of the population practices the religion. “People in Mexico, as well as in Peru, Guatemala, and other countries in Latin America, have a lot of pride in their Catholic background,” Granados-Salinas said. “You cannot just erase that [by] saying, ‘Oh, this is the way you were dominated and continue to be dominated.’ ” 

While living in Mexico, I’ve seen the way that some locals, like the visitors to the cathedral who also seek out the limpias, have found ways to proudly fuse Indigenous and Spanish traditions. There are very vibrant and visible Indigenous communities; when I walk the streets of Chiapas or Oaxaca, I don’t hear just Spanish—I spot Indigenous dialects as well. (There are 68 Indigenous groups in Mexico, and some seven million people speak their native languages.) I worry that the largely U.S. audience that visits the Blanton without this context isn’t ready for such a nuanced conversation about colonialism. 

I left the Blanton wondering whether someone without roots in Latin America will be able to fully grasp the complexities of colonialism in the region solely through the artwork on display, but Granados-Salinas believes it’s worth a shot. She told me there are consequences to thinking of Latin Americans as defeated people. It’s a trauma, she says, that is passed down for generations. “Do we want to continue to be colonized by saying, ‘Oh, we were the conquered ones?’ Or, can we change this and say, ‘This was an invasion?’ ” she asked. “We were not defeated. This exhibit is a way of thinking differently. It’s a way of reclaiming.”