In Tongues of Fire, Nancy Farriss investigates the role of language and translation in the creation of Mexican Christianity during the first centuries of colonial rule. Spanish missionaries collaborated with indigenous intellectuals to communicate the gospel in dozens of unfamiliar local languages that had previously lacked grammars, dictionaries, or alphabetic script. The major challenge to translators, more serious than the absence of written aids or the
great diversity of languages and their phonetic and syntactical complexity, was the vast cultural difference between the two worlds. The lexical gaps that frustrated the search for equivalence in conveying fundamental Christian doctrines derived from cultural gaps that separated European experiences and
concepts from those of the Indians. Farriss shows that the dialogue arising from these efforts produced a new, culturally hybrid form of Christianity that had be.come firmly established by the end of the 17th century.
The study focuses on the Otomangue languages of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, especially Zapotec, and relates their role within the Dominican program of evangelization to the larger context of cultural contact in post-conquest Mesoamerica. Fine-grained analysis of translated texts reveals the rhetorical strategies of missionary discourse. Spotlighting the importance of the native elites in shaping what emerged as a new form of Christianity, Farriss shows how their participation as translators
and parish administrators helped to make evangelization an indigenous enterprise, and the new Mexican church an indigenous one.
Nancy Farriss has dedicated a half century to studying the history of the church in Mexico and the history and religion of the indigenous populations of Yucatan and Oaxaca. She is currently retired from teaching colonial Latin American History and Ethnohistory at the University of Pennsylvania and divides her residence between Philadelphia and Oaxaca.