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.
The establishment of the Jesuit Province of Paraguay in 1609 expanded upon the “spiritual conquest” of the Guaranís of South America. The liminal position of this territory, located between the southern boundaries of the dominions of the Iberian monarchies in America, conditioned the policy of conversion applied to the indigenous peoples who inhabited this region. Missionaries sought to attract the attention of indigenous leaders to catechesis to ensure evangelization, but much of their positive results stemmed from a convergence of mythical and historical motivations. Along with the use of firearms, used to repel the attacks of the bandeirantes from the captaincy of São Paulo, these factors contributed to a political alliance forming between the Jesuits and the catechized Guaraní. This alliance, in turn, allowed for the creation of a successful social, political, and cultural arrangement.
The foundation of these Christian Indian settlements—known as missions—was one of the variants of the “Republic of Indians,” a framework for limited indigenous self-government codified in Spanish law, which enabled the Guaranís to overcome increasing social fragmentation and reorient their cultural activities. Since teaching “arts and crafts” was a leading vehicle for evangelization, many indigenous people also became literate. Lessons in reading and writing taught in the Guaraní language, through seminars, catechisms, and dictionaries, familiarized the population of the missions with written culture. Daily life in these Christian communities allowed the natives, under the tutelage of the Jesuits, to overcome the precariousness of the conditions to which they were subjected as exploited workers. It also afforded them an opportunity to recreate a semblance of their way of life (ñande reko) adjusted to colonial parameters.
The mission economy supported tens of thousands of Guaraní Indians and made the Jesuit reducciones (1609 to 1767) the most populous and financially prosperous of all the missions among native peoples of the Americas. The communal structure of collective labor, shared ownership, and redistribution of communal property formed the basis of the mission economy and seemed to leave little room for the possession of private property, independent trade, and economic initiative on the part of the resident Guaraní. Late 18th century Jesuit authors reinforced such an understanding in an attempt to defend their order and its actions in Paraguay. They argued that the Guaraní were incapable of managing their own affairs and that Jesuit management of the communally structured economy was indispensible for the wellbeing of both the missions and the Guaraní. Such accounts overlook evidence to the contrary. Mission Guaraní did in fact own private property—yerba mate, horses, clothing, and jewelry—and Jesuit leaders repeatedly issued orders for the missionaries to allow the Guaraní to independently trade yerba mate. Furthermore, although Jesuit authors repeatedly denied that they paid mission Guaraní wages—to do so would go against the communal structure that they so vehemently defended—the missionaries acknowledged that they paid mission Guaraní bonuses as a reward for their skills or extra labor. These bonuses served as a way to motivate individual economic initiative or agency within the framework of the missions’ communal structure. In sum, the communal structure allowed for more flexibility in the ownership of private property, independent commerce, and economic initiative by the Guaraní than has been portrayed in both the 18th century writings of Jesuit authors and much of the current literature.
The New Philology and its emphasis on the use of indigenous-language sources for ethnohistorical insights contributes greatly to the study of religion in New Spain. Previous studies primarily employed Spanish-language accounts and reports to understand evangelization efforts. Although providing important insights, histories based solely on Spanish sources are limited in their contributions. The New Philology, however, provides an additional point of view from which to study religion. Indigenous-language texts in Nahuatl (Aztec), Yucatec Maya, Mixtec, Zapotec, and other languages contain a wealth of information on how natives responded, negotiated, resisted, and participated in the spread of Catholicism. The contributions of the New Philology to the study of religion in New Spain, although many, are particularly evident in its re-evaluation of the spiritual conquest; the natives’ role in evangelization; the diversity of religious beliefs, practices, and experiences throughout the colonial period; and through its critical study of the legend surrounding the Virgin of Guadalupe.
While several indigenous languages from the Americas have been alphabetized and written, no Native American language has such an extensive corpus of historical texts as Nahuatl, the language of the Nahuas or Aztecs of central Mexico. Writing in Nahuatl but using Latin letters, colonial Nahua scribes or tlahcuilohqueh produced an unparalleled outpouring of texts throughout the colonial period. Prior to the Conquest, the Nahuas recorded information in codices, which consisted of pictographic glyphs painted on sheets of bark paper, analogous to European books. They thus readily perceived the parallels between their pictographic codices and European alphabetic texts and quickly saw the utility and potential of the new technology. All that was needed was an introduction to European writing techniques. For the most part, this came in the form of friars, some of whom established schools for elite Nahuas, such as the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco in the latter part of the 1530s. Some Nahuas likely also learned writing from professional Spanish scribes as well. These students of the friars and lay Spaniards would soon teach other Nahuas to write, such that only a few years after the opening of the Colegio, Nahua scribes, working entirely on their own, were producing written texts. These scribes then taught others, and by the 1550s Nahuatl alphabetic writing became a self-sustaining, independent tradition that touched nearly every corner of the Nahua world. Alphabetic writing overtook indigenous glyphs, and by the 17th century most Nahuatl texts were entirely alphabetic. Last wills and testaments made up the bulk of scribal output, along with other “mundane” Nahuatl documents of financial, legal, or governmental matters, which have proven highly illuminating to historians. There were also annals; local histories stretching back to preconquest times; and plays, songs, and speeches (huehuehtlahtolli). Nahua scribal culture thrived until the 19th century, when opposition to it from both the Spanish Crown and, later, the independent Mexican nation made Nahuatl texts obsolete and superfluous.