Nahua peoples in central Mexico in the late postclassic period (1200–1521) and the early colonial period (1521–1650) had a sophisticated and complex system of healing known as tiçiyotl. Titiçih, the practitioners of tiçiyotl, were men and women that had specialized knowledge of rocks, plants, minerals, and animals. They used these materials to treat diseases and injuries. Furthermore, titiçih used tlapohualiztli (the interpretation of objects to obtain information from nonhuman forces) to ascertain the source of a person’s ailment. For this purpose, male and female titiçih interpreted cords, water, tossed corn kernels, and they measured body parts. Titiçih could also ingest entheogenic substances (materials that released the divinity within itself) to communicate with nonhuman forces and thus diagnose and prognosticate a patient’s condition. Once a tiçitl obtained the necessary information to understand his or her patient’s affliction, he or she created and provided the necessary pahtli (a concoction used to treat an injury, illness, or condition) for the infirm person. Finally, titiçih performed important ritual offerings before, during, and after healing that insured the compliance of nonhuman forces to restore and maintain their patients’ health.
When the anthropologist Paul Kirchhoff proposed a new definition of Mesoamerica in a landmark study from 1943, the first common characteristics he identified were technological and agricultural: the use of the digging-stick (coa) and “the construction of gardens by reclaiming land from lakes (chinampas).” For thousands of years, Native peoples across Mesoamerica drew on their technological innovations to devise bountiful kinds of farming that have been as diverse as the environments in which they were created. All of their farming systems required some degree of intervention in nature, be it through domesticating plants, tilling the soil, or altering the physical environment by making terraces and harnessing water supplies. On an essential level, then, technology and agriculture went hand in hand. Of the many kinds of Mesoamerican farming, the one that arguably modified the environment the most was a distinctive kind of wetland agriculture in which Nahuas—or Aztecs, the speakers of the Nahuatl language—constructed raised garden beds, known as chinampas, in the shallow, freshwater lakes of the Basin of Mexico. At the heart of this zone of wetland agriculture was the ancient city of Xochimilco. There the raised gardens filled the surrounding lake of the same name, and eventually came to cover a vast area of some 120 square kilometers. The construction and the intensive cultivation of the chinampas required a considerable investment of time and effort, a good deal of technical expertise, and the mastery of specialist skills and knowledge, including hydrology and engineering so as to manage water levels in the lakes through complex irrigation works. The intensive farming of the fertile, well-irrigated gardens, which could be cultivated year round, yielded sizable harvests of maize and other crops. So productive was chinampa agriculture that scholars have considered it one of the most abundant kinds of farming ever devised. As a technological innovation and environmental adaptation, the chinampas were crucial to changes in Mexican history: they generated surpluses sufficient for urbanization and the rise of Tenochtitlan, one of the early modern world’s great cities, as well as the expansion of the Aztec Empire. The chinampas remained important for the provisioning of the capital long after the Spanish conquest, and in spite of the desiccation of the Basin of Mexico, they are still cultivated in a few places today.
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.
Mesoamerica is a culture zone that stretches geographically from approximately north-central Mexico into the northwestern half of Central America. Human occupation of this region dates back thousands of years. The end of the Post-Classic Period (c. 1519) is marked by the invasion of the region by Europeans, who were looking to extract goods, services, and taxes from the Mesoamerican peoples. Spanish occupation stretched into the early 19th century. Neocolonial Mesoamerica, of the 19th and 20th centuries, came to experience increasing influences from the United States, Britain, Germany, and other external powers. The past two centuries have also been marked by a continuing local control by a minority, Euro-originating elite over a majority, indigenous population, even as what we once knew as Mesoamerica faded from view. The division between these ethnicities has grown somewhat less clear as a result of the increasing mixed-heritage mestizo or ladino population across the region. Authoritarian regimes marked much of the 20th century, and civilian rule (still without much or any indigenous participation) came at the end of that century, continuing up to the present. But police and military authorities remain present, concerned with internal dissent and unrest at least as much as external threats. For the present purposes, Digital Mesoamerica has as its focus the region’s indigenous cultures and their histories. Shared cultural traits in the pre-contact era—such as the calendars, glyphic writing, the ball court, human sacrifice, certain legends and religious beliefs, agricultural methods, art, and technologies—set off the many peoples of Mesoamerica from other parts of the Americas. The history of the culture zone is rich for exploring the rise of civilizations, social, economic, and political systems, gender ideologies and practices, religions, land tenure and agricultural systems, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, calendrics, and language diversity (among many other themes). Colonization and its dimensions—such as the impact of epidemic disease, the nature of hybrid religions, evolving tribute and labor systems, struggles over land, efforts to defend some measure of local autonomy, and more—is another arena of great scholarly interest. Contemporary studies are marked by human rights and cultural survival issues, ethnography, mining and other environmental crises, and fair trade, among many other topics. The most popular and numerous digital resources supporting research and teaching related to Mesoamerican cultures and their histories tend to center on indigenous-authored manuscripts and maps, some of them pre-contact and most of them colonial. These sources are located primarily in Mexican, Guatemalan, U.S., and European repositories, where institutional funds are supporting the creation of open-access digital collections of such materials, along with audio demonstrating language use, videos of all kinds, educational units, and photographs of three-dimensional cultural heritage materials. We are also witnessing moves toward the aggregation of digital content across multiple repositories, such as we see with the World Digital Library, the Internet Archive, and the Getty Research Portal, among others, which increasingly represent Mesoamerica along with other regions of the world. Individuals are also submitting their full-text publications to such aggregators as Academia.edu, announcing their public talks and publications on listservs, Twitter, and Facebook pages, or creating their own robust, one-of-a-kind Web-based projects (with funding from host institutions or national endowments).
From a geographically, environmentally, linguistically, and ethnically highly variable Mesoamerica, Spain created a core region within her American territories. But for New Spain’s indigenous inhabitants (Mexica or Nahua, Mixtec, Zapotec, and Maya), despite experiencing demographic catastrophe, political and religious subjugation, and labor exploitation during and after conquest, native cultural patterns and agency influenced the reshaping of governance and community (the latter into pueblos de indios), economy, and spiritual and social life during the period of colonial rule. Because environments, indigenous languages, patterns of political, economic, and spiritual organization, ways of structuring family life, varieties of cultural expression, and forms of interrelationships with Spaniards varied so much, indigenous people did not experience a single New Spain. Instead, a multiplicity of New Spains emerged. These indigenous New Spains would play different roles during the independence period, which led to a protracted struggle, further impoverishment, and growing isolation in the new nations of Mesoamerica but cultural survival as well.
Liliana Toledo Guzmán
Agustín Lorenzo was a prototypical social bandit, according to Eric Hobsbawm’s definition in his studies of that phenomenon. As a bandit from south central Mexico believed to have lived between the 18th and 19th centuries, the exploits of Agustín Lorenzo have been recounted in myriad ways: myths, legends, loas, corridos, films, carnival representations, among others. Lorenzo is said to have stolen from the rich to give to the poor, swearing to avenge his grandfather’s mistreatment at the hands of his employer, the local landowner. To achieve his mission, the story goes, Lorenzo made a pact with the devil, to obtain supernatural powers. The attributes of this bandit undoubtedly place him in the same category as the great body of stories about banditry that have survived for centuries around the world, particularly considering their shared essence: a desire for justice. In the case of Agustín Lorenzo, it is possible to disentangle the universal principles Hobsbawm established regarding the phenomenon of social banditry from the local context in which this particular myth lives on. Hence, to analyze the myth of Agustín Lorenzo, it is essential to explore the narratives and meanings of the cosmogony of the Nahua peoples of south-central Mexico.