H-Net Review [H-LatAm]: Hagler on Taylor, 'Fugitive Freedom: The Improbable Lives of Two Impostors in Late Colonial Mexico'

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Subject: H-Net Review [H-LatAm]:  Hagler on Taylor, 'Fugitive Freedom: The Improbable Lives of Two Impostors in Late Colonial Mexico'
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William B. Taylor.  Fugitive Freedom: The Improbable Lives of Two
Impostors in Late Colonial Mexico.  Oakland  University of California
Press, 2021.  Maps. 224 pp.  $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-36856-9.

Reviewed by Anderson Hagler (Duke University)
Published on H-LatAm (August, 2021)
Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz

Eighteenth-century Spanish officials stood aghast as charlatans,
sinners, and villains infested the Crown's precious American
colonies. In the viceroyalty of New Spain, Joseph Lucas Aguayo y
Herrera and Juan Atondo were two such conmen, dedicating their lives
to deceit and sin. Among their many crimes, Aguayo and Atondo
impersonated priests with varying degrees of success. However,
perverting the Eucharist and confession threatened the eternal souls
of those subject to their duplicity. But why did Aguayo and Atondo
choose this life of crime, and were they as depraved as the
Inquisition feared?

In four splendid chapters, William B. Taylor shows how political and
economic disruptions facilitated the rise of "shady opportunists,"
like Aguayo and Atondo, who preyed on the pious (p. xii). According
to Taylor, Spanish colonial rule "remained a work in progress right
to the end" (p. 4). Political and spiritual unification meant
"putting people in their place," so an influx of rootless strangers
threatened the consolidation of the empire (p. 6). Colonial laws
placed vagabonds and beggars in the same category as gamblers and
prostitutes. Elites grew anxious as droves of unknown faces entered
their towns.

To provide the details of Aguayo's and Atondo's transient lives,
Taylor analyzes several Inquisition trials and a dossier of related
information. Aguayo testified before the Holy Office on three
occasions (1770, 1771, and 1773). A final note from the office of the
archbishop of Mexico in 1792 shows that Aguayo had been arrested once
more for impersonating a priest near Guanajuato. Charges grew against
Aguayo as his former victims sought retribution for his deceit. For
his part, Atondo remained in custody for three years (circa 1815-18),
just before the Mexican Inquisition disbanded in 1820. Remarkably,
Atondo wrote unbidden thirty pages of script about his life. He cited
his "obstinate heart" as the driving force for his "scandalous and
criminal excesses" (p. 73). Though a final ruling remains lacking,
Taylor highlights that the prosecution viewed Atondo negatively as a
heretic and charlatan.

In the second half of his book, Taylor compares Aguayo and Atondo to
the literary picaresque genre, questioning whether these two
historical rogues were worthy of redemption. Indeed, Aguayo and
Atondo deliberately chose the con to swindle plebian men and women.
For Taylor, their indifference toward women was "chilling" (p. 123).
It seems, though, that Aguayo and Atondo were nonviolent criminals.
Descriptions of Aguayo's slight physique suggest that "he was
harmless" (p. 124). Moreover, Atondo's "periodically unsettled,
erratic behavior, insomnia, inflated self-esteem, and sudden urges
and appetites suggest manic episodes" (p. 128). Although
twenty-first-century mental health terms cannot be used in
eighteenth-century historical studies, Taylor implies that Atondo may
have been somewhat unbalanced.

Aguayo seems to have been more of a loner than Atondo. Aguayo "never
married or mentioned lovers, and claimed to have no friends" (p.
136). Atondo once made a comment about being rejected by his father,
revealing his deracination early in life.  Although
twenty-first-century readers may empathize with Aguayo and Atondo as
_pícaros_, meaning rogues, Taylor elucidates just how these two
small-time imposters threatened to undo the colonial rule as it
consistently struggled to maintain sociopolitical coherence.

Taylor concludes that the liberty Aguayo and Atondo experienced
drifting from one town to the next was not the type of freedom
described by eighteenth-century philosophes but rather a fugitive
freedom. Although Aguayo and Atondo likely enjoyed their hoodwinking,
they remained on the run to avoid a prison sentence. Mobility
jeopardized the Spanish social hierarchy because refusing to stay put
made it more difficult for elites to control the masses. Indeed, it
is simply remarkable that these two con artists survived for so long
on the run. In sum, _Fugitive Freedom _weaves together extraordinary
Inquisition cases to illuminate the cracks and imperfections built
into the edifice of the Spanish Empire. No doubt, historians,
students, and enthusiasts of colonial Mexico will take delight in
Taylor's sharp analysis and supple prose.

Citation: Anderson Hagler. Review of Taylor, William B., _Fugitive
Freedom: The Improbable Lives of Two Impostors in Late Colonial
Mexico_. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. August, 2021.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56549

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States

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