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For historians of the Spanish Americas indigenous portraits and casta paintings offer two distinctive lenses for understanding the relationships between indigeneity and colonialism. Both genres of painting anchor indigenous bodies and subjectivities in the racialized practices that were constitutive of, and crucial to, colonialism in the Americas. Indigenous portraits record individual biographies and family histories, offering scholars of the present insights into the lives of people whose desires rarely surface in prose sources. Indigenous portraits also document the economic and material investments people were willing to make in preserving images of lives well lived. In the colonial past, as in the present, indigenous portraits therefore speak to the ways social ambitions fueled identity formation. Cuadros de castas, or casta paintings, are a genre of painting invented and painted in the Spanish Americas in the late 17th and 18th centuries. Casta paintings, like indigenous portraits, describe status and economic wealth; their main aim, however, was to portray the ethnic mixing and concomitant racialized thinking in colonial society. According to the iconography and composition of casta paintings, the mixing of people from Europe, Africa, and the Americas could be ordered and organized such that everyone seemed to have a place and appropriate ethnic designation. Today, casta paintings are understood as persuasive works of art that presented an idealized, hierarchical view of urban life. The painters and patrons of indigenous portraits and casta paintings participated in networks formed by habits of material exchange, patterns of urban mobility, and practices linked to Catholic religious beliefs. Some of these networks stretched across the Americas; others were bound to trade and travel across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The histories referenced in indigenous portraits and casta paintings should be understood, then, as tethered to local concerns, global economies, and cosmopolitan ambitions.

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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.