What can we learn about the documents we work with if we incorporate a study of document creation, travel, and storage into the consideration of document content? Some well-known documents, such as the Popol Vuh, have backstories that reveal as much as their content. But even obscure documents, such as a dispute over a road detour in 18th-century Guatemala, can be read productively as objects with life trajectories. Understanding the “life” of this document—the world in which it was made, the tools and knowledge of its making, its travel while being written, its storage in colonial and national archives—sheds new light on its meaning. Similarly, all colonial documents can be interpreted in new ways if their lives are treated as part of the interpretation.
Jorge González Alzate
The Kingdom of Guatemala, a neglected backwater of the Spanish Empire under the Habsburgs, figured prominently in the long-term strategic planning of the Bourbon state. Royal preoccupation with this impoverished colony was reflected in the wide-ranging program of reform that the crown sought to put into practice in the isthmus over the course of the 18th century. For Philip V and his successors, the most pressing concern was the crown’s lack of control over the colony’s Caribbean coast (also known as the Mosquito Shore), a swampy and insalubrious region that for decades had been under the effective control of British interlopers and their native allies, the indomitable Sambo-Mosquitos. The main thrust of the reform project was therefore directed at addressing that serious security gap, a situation which, at the same time, severely limited Spain’s capacity to reap the benefits of Central America’s economy and trade. In its initial stages, the effort to implement the reforms proved to be a protracted and frustrating process, hampered by resistance from vested interests, lack of funds and personnel, natural disasters, and above all by recurring military conflict. It was not until the aftermath of the Seven Years War (1756–1763) that Charles III, facing the prospect of an even more damaging British attack, resolved to take decisive action and commanded his ministers to expedite the pace of reform. Royal orders were then issued that called for the de-Americanization and overhauling of the civil administration, direct state intervention to stimulate economic productivity and expand maritime trade, the establishment of a modern, efficient, crown-administered fiscal structure, the strengthening of the defense system, and the assertion of royal authority over the ecclesiastical establishment. Initially, the uncompromising manner utilized by the crown in introducing the changes, particularly the reforms to the fiscal system, provoked much unrest and resistance among wide segments of the population. But in the end, the reforms survived and, by the closing years of the century, most of the measures had largely met the crown’s objectives. The fiscal surplus generated by the economic and commercial expansion of the second half of the 18th century enabled the Bourbons to attain their principal strategic objective in Central America, namely dislodging the British enemy from much of the Atlantic coast. Unfortunately, not long after this climatic point, the decades-long effort quickly unraveled as the monarchy began to collapse in 1808. In the end, the reform project proved insufficient; the dream of attaining modernization and preeminent status among European powers remained elusive. As conditions in the mother country deteriorated, so did the economic and political stability of Central America. The kingdom’s provinces were engulfed by increasing political volatility and economic depression. Following the example of neighboring New Spain, Central Americans declared their independence in 1821. Thus, in the end, the Bourbons had “gained a revenue and lost an empire.”
Regarded as an ethnohistorical treasure, the Popol Wuj narrative has been read exclusively as a freestanding, self-contained text used to inquire into a history far removed from when it was actually created. Consequently, the colonial context of the text itself has been minimized, including the central role of Dominican friar Francisco Ximénez as transcriber and translator of the only copy in existence. The present study delineates a historical trajectory of the Popol Wuj, reframing the narrative within its colonial ecclesiastic context. It explores the physical structure of Friar Ximénez’s 18th-century manuscript, preserved as MS 1515 by the Newberry Library in Chicago, to demonstrate that his work was first and foremost a series of religious treatises intended to carry out the conversion of the K’iche’ to Christianity. As a cautionary word, rather than revisiting the old, biased approach of questioning the authenticity and authorship of this Popol Wuj narrative, the current study suggests a broader reading, addressing the complexities intrinsic in this text, particularly the fact that the narrative was the result of the cultural contact between mendicant friars, whose main objective was to evangelize, and indigenous groups, who strived to maintain their cultural continuity by recording their oral history in the face of such a threat. Finally, this study invites scholars to ponder on the implications that the present structure of Ximénez’s manuscript (MS 1515) presents for future Popol Wuj studies as the narrative enters the age of electronic information and digital imaging.
Xiomara Avendaño Rojas
Unlike the French and North American revolutions, which fought against a monarchical power, the Hispanic political revolution began by evoking the memory of the beloved Ferdinand VII of Spain. The French invasion of Spain in 1808 had unimaginable repercussions; the government was reestablished in the name of the King, and the territories of the Americas that were convened in the Cortes participated in the development of a charter in 1812 that created a constitutional monarchy. In the Kingdom of Guatemala, the application of constitutionalism gave rise to tensions between elected officials and former royal appointees. By way of indirect elections, the isthmus took its first steps in the construction of a representative system, and worked its way up to local, provincial, and legislative power.
The Declaration of Independence, which took place on September 15, 1821, along with the Plan of Iguala inadvertently brought about a type of “examination” in which the provinces, empowered by their sovereignty and autonomy, broke away from the metropolis but produced a dilemma: Mexico or Guatemala. Independent from the choice, they assumed full ownership of the government that originated from the 1812 Constitution of Cádiz. Few people called for a congress, and the traditional referent in the political community, the cabildos, chose the Imperio del Septentrión (the Northern Empire). After the fall of the monarch Agustín de Iturbide, in March 1823, a constituency was organized to decide on their future government as the Provincinas Unidas del Centro de América (United Provinces of Central America). The new republican project was issued in a second Declaration of Independence or absolute independence, signed on July 1, 1823.