Writing in indigenous languages, particularly Nahuatl, was widespread throughout colonial Mexico (called the viceroyalty of New Spain at the time). From the 16th through the 18th century, the república de indios—indigenous communities governed by native elites—functioned separately from the república de españoles. Within these native communities, alphabetically written Nahuatl (as opposed to pictographic) was used to record local government minutes; legal documents such as wills; and annals, histories, and genealogies. Semasiographic literature (writing with signs) also persisted, although in altered form; Spanish colonization destroyed the cultural structures that perpetuated this expertise and introduced European artistic and literary conventions. Some works combined semasiographs and alphabetic writing. While alphabetic and semasiographic literatures preserved indigenous knowledge and served as legal evidence within the colonial Mexican court system through the 16th and 17th centuries, by the mid-17th century their legal weight diminished as Spanish respect for indigenous collective memory faded. Indigenous language literatures circulated largely in manuscript form because printing presses were controlled by Spanish clergy until late in the colonial period. Moreover, paper was costly and the few presses could not keep up with publishing demand. When items were printed in indigenous languages (including Nahuatl, Mixtec, Otomí, Purépecha, Zapotec, and Mayan), they were generally grammars, dictionaries, sermonaries, confessionals, and catechisms, which were intended for evangelization rather than preservation and dissemination of the native archive. Because Nahuatl was the lingua franca in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica and the New Spanish viceroyalty, the majority of indigenous language imprints were also in Nahuatl. The friars who wrote these texts rarely acknowledged their native coauthors by name or recognized the full extent of their contribution, in part because the ecclesiastical authorities doubted the accuracy of native authors’ doctrinal knowledge. The Tetzcoca priest Bartolomé de Alva, was the only indigenous author who succeeded in publishing a Nahuatl-Spanish confessional. Published indigenous language books for a lay audience were much rarer, with the exception of a Spanish-Nahuatl phrasebook meant for merchants working with the Nahua population. When 19th- and mid-20th-century scholars studied colonial Mexican intellectual culture, they tended to focus on Spanish-language texts and gave less attention to native intellectuals and indigenous language literatures. This occurred because they did not speak or study indigenous languages and because the bulk of indigenous language texts sat undiscovered in local, national, and foreign archives until the groundbreaking work of Ángel María Garibay, who built the foundation for 20th-century Nahuatl studies beginning in the 1930s. These scholars believed that literate Spaniards and criollos (children born in the Americas to Spanish parents) moved in separate circles from literate indigenous people. But later 20th- and early 21st-century research demonstrates a social-intellectual network that crossed ethnic and linguistic boundaries, suggesting that there was a larger Nahuatl-speaking reading public interested in both European and Mexican literatures. Studying the contents and linguistic characteristics of indigenous language literatures, as well as how people in colonial Mexico utilized these texts, gives a historical voice to indigenous perspectives and better defines the vital role of indigenous language literatures in building colonial Mexico and transitioning to independence. Moreover, the increase in digitization of rare materials has made these items more accessible, contributing to a shift in the field aimed at centering indigenous voices.
Heather J. Allen
Angélica J. Afanador-Pujol
In the area known as Mesoamerica (Mexico, Guatemala, parts of El Salvador, Honduras, and Belize), indigenous writers between the 13th and 16th centuries produced manuscripts using both pictographic and alphabetic-based texts. They worked closely with noble and priestly elites to meticulously design and paint manuscripts. Before the arrival of Europeans, writers worked on a variety of media, from animal hide and textiles to paper. They folded long sheets into accordion-like manuscripts, covered them in a lime plaster, and, using rich natural pigments, recorded complex writing systems. These books contained historical, religious, political, scientific, and cultural knowledge. They not only recorded information, but guided the lives of individuals and communities. Only fourteen of these manuscripts are known to survive, as Spanish conquistadors and friars destroyed the vast majority of them in their effort to eradicate indigenous religions during the conquest of the region in the 16th century. In the years following the Spanish invasion, Mesoamerican artists and scribes had to adapt to new demands from their indigenous patrons, the viceregal government, and the Catholic church. They learned to use the European alphabet and artistic conventions to produce new materials containing ethnographic, religious, and historical information. In addition, they transcribed and wrote speeches, songs, and poems, and produced legal documents to fight for their own rights and those of their communities, rulers, and patrons. Modern-day scholars have made great strides deciphering pre-Columbian writing systems and understanding the make, medium, and function of manuscripts. The vast corpus of colonial-era manuscripts has also been a productive field for understanding Mesoamerican thought, cultural practices, and the social and political forces that shaped colonial life and its literary production.