The call—famously issued by the great nineteenth-century historian Leopold von Ranke— to narrate the past as it really was is no longer explicitly endorsed as a possibility, but it is embedded in the way in which historians perform their craft. Von Ranke’s call for trans-locative objectivity stands as a classic example of what Pierre Bourdieu called the academic interest in disinterestedness, a disposition that can function as the ultimate legitimation of undisclosed ideological commitments. In Made in the Margins, Hjamil Martínez-Vázquez challenges the way in which the “rankian disposition” manifests itself in U.S. religious historiography. At the heart of Martínez-Vázquez’s project is the subversion of what he calls the colonial nature of the traditional discourse of U.S. religious history and the construction of a self-determining Latina/o identity through the construction of historical narratives from the Latina/o perspective.
Each of the three parts of the book not only supports the author’s goal of subverting dominant discourses for the inclusion of Latina/o agency in U.S. religious history, but also provides unique contributions to the field of U.S. religious history in general. In the first part of Made in the Margins, Martínez-Vázquez challenges the Protestant-Puritan thesis as synthesized by Sydney Ahlstrom’s A Religious History of the American People, in which religious expressions in general are measured in relation to the normativity of Puritanism and its metamorphoses. Although Martínez-Vázquez acknowledges that there are exceptions to the Protestant-Puritan model, he rightly claims that this paradigm is still significant and must be deconstructed and replaced by new paradigms that appropriate religious and racial pluralism as interpretive lenses. Martínez-Vázquez criticizes the canon of US religious history, of which Ahlstrom is the most emblematic figure, as a colonial discourse because it tends to exclude groups that, if properly included, would upset the flow of the dominant narrative by relativizing the constructed normativity of any religious or racial group.
Martínez-Vázquez then provides an incisive overview of the historiography of Latina/o christianities. Despite what is to me the omission of a few important works in the field, such as Susan Yohn’s A Contest of Faiths, Richard Martínez’s PADRES, and Timothy Matovina’s Latino Catholicism, Martínez-Vázquez offers a helpful framework for tracing the development of both Latina/o Catholic and Protestant history. For him, Latina/o Catholic histories progressed in three chronological phases: 1) an institutionally-focused concern for establishing the presence of Latinas/os in the U.S. religious landscape, 2) a search for identity with an emphasis on the agency of the people, rather than the role of the institution, and 3) a focus on religion as a lens through which ethnic history must be understood. Protestant histories, according to the author also progressed in three distinct phases: 1) a descriptive approach of missionary activities, 2) a critical analysis of missionary activities and ideologies through the appropriation of a liberationist paradigm, and 3) a strong focus on participatory analysis. Based on this historiographical progression, Martínez-Vázquez argues that Latina/o religious history is going through a process of reinvention in which it is becoming harder for historians to neglect the need for deeper methodological awareness. Although it remains unclear how Latina/o history is radically different from the wider field in this respect, Martínez-Vázquez’s “typology of historiographical progression” is a helpful pedagogical tool for understanding the general development of Latina/o historiography.
In the final part of the book, the author presents his suggestion for an appropriate methodological disposition for historians in general and historians of Latina/o religion in particular. He calls for a multidisciplinary approach in which postcolonizing criticism is central. Here, his goal of deconstructing dominant narratives and creating historical discourses that rely on Latina/o religious experience is revealed as an unapologetically ethical task bearing a heavy dose of political commitments. For him, epistemological claims are necessarily ethical, objectivity is a false construct, and the historian’s task is inevitably invested in political projects. Martínez-Vázquez focuses on two methods that support his postcolonizing project—lived religion and feminist history—as tools for reclaiming the history of groups that have been historically neglected by traditional scholarship. He concludes his piece by issuing a much-needed call for the construction of historical narratives from the perspective of the colonized, not the colonizer. In other words, he is concerned with building a Latina/o religious identity that is not highly relativized by the dominant, colonizing aspects of traditional U.S. historiography.
Made in the Margins is an important challenge to traditional histories and stands as a worthy addition to the field of U.S. religious history. Martínez-Vázquez provides a significant methodological synthesis that can benefit those interested in Latina/o religious history to identify, resist, and counteract the normativity imposed by dominant discourses. One potential shortcoming of Martínez-Vázquez’s work is his apparent criticism of traditional historians as methodologically naïve. It might have been helpful to make a distinction between the ability of historians to diagnose the difficulties of narrating the past and their ability to provide an appropriate construction of suitable solutions to such difficulties. When it comes to the solutions themselves, Martínez-Vázquez’s main contribution is articulating fruitful ways for historians of Latina/o religion to appropriate dispositions that are, by and large, already present in sectors of the U.S. academy. As the author himself recognizes, the field of religious history is increasingly welcoming of multidisciplinary approaches. Nevertheless, the foundationalist tendencies of the field remain strong and many historians would be uncomfortable in blurring the line between history and advocacy, as Martínez-Vázquez seems to do. Despite these potential limitations, Made in the Margins should be read by historians of all stripes for the challenge it provides to the state of the discipline.