Encounters of the Textual Kind

Colonial Counterpoint: New World Texts as Sites of Encounter, 1492-1800

Encounters of the Textual Kind

Mesoamerican cultures had a vibrant and long-lasting tradition of carving, knotting, painting, writing texts and producing manuscripts to serve a variety of sacred and mundane needs.  They had an elite class of painter-scribes who conceived, wrote, and interpreted the paintings and texts recorded in all manner of formats large and small mostly for indigenous authorities.  After the arrival of Europeans, and except for those manuscripts concerned with religious matters, the production and function of pictorial documents and the scribes who created them continued only in the service of a blended indigenous-European authority.  Featured below are selected Mesoamerican pictorial documents from the Latin American Library’s collection that help illustrate this production, including censuses, parish church records, histories and genealogies.

The first is a fragment of an economic census document created probably sometime in the mid to late 16th century for towns in the southern end of the Valley of Mexico.  It is a good example of production for governmental administration.  Displayed below is the top page of the fragment.

Top page, Census of Tepoztlán fragment

At the head of the page is the pictographic place sign or toponym for the town of Tlalnepantla annotated in Spanish.  Listed below in annotated hieroglyphs are the counts using Aztec numerical pictographs of:  households, baptized men (note the picture of a cross on the forehead), widowers and widows indicated by their tears, marriageable boys and girls, and finally all young children. The grand total for each town appears in red on the right side of the page. Trees represent a count of 400; flags, a count of 20; and each single stroke equals 1. Pages for 10 neighboring towns follow and the last page contains a summary written in Spanish. The use of glyphs, place signs, and numbers is native by convention but the painting style and content of the document is European. The place signs are contained in neat circles and the faint outlines of a grid can also be seen.

On display next are two pages from a Techialoyan codex for the town of San Francisco Xonacatlán, Mexico. Techialoyan codices, named for the town of San Antonio Techialoyan, are a sub-genre of native colonial documents related to property.  Native land titles or títulos primordiales combined text and painted pictures and were produced throughout the 16th century, especially in response to official requests made by Spanish authorities to substantiate land ownership.  In the late colonial period, c. 1700, a revival of pictorialism in land titles re-emerged, particularly among towns in and around the state and Valley of Mexico.  Encroachment by neighboring haciendas and administrative attempts to regularize land ownership were threatening the ability of indigenous towns to keep possession of their lands, especially so for those lacking documentation. The response to these external forces was to create pictorial style documents that could serve to support land claims.

Two-page spread from the Codex of San Francisco Xonacatlán

Techialoyan codices follow a common template that includes a textual and a pictorial component. The texts are always written in Nahuatl and recount a gathering of town leaders, including the presence of a Viceroy, to verify town boundaries and its dependencies.  The pictures tell the prehispanic and colonial history of the town, including a genealogy, the entrance of the Spanish and the Catholic clergy, and finally, a description of the town and its lands.  The use of fig bark paper, Nahuatl text, and paintings, among other elements, was to give these documents an air of authenticity, at least for presentation to colonial authorities.  On the other hand, these documents express what indigenous peoples knew about their own remote past and their identity.  The two-page spread displayed above features pictorial elements distinctive to the Techialoyan genre: a genealogy that harkens back to pre-contact iconography (left page), large-size human figures, and polychrome coloring.

Whereas Spanish colonial authorities found the pictographic nature of Aztec writing and communication to be a highly effective and efficient mode of documentation in New Spain when it came to maps, the hieroglyphic writing for text was thrown aside relatively rapidly by native writers in favor of alphabetic script.  Nahuatl was the lingua franca of the Aztec empire and afterwards, in alphabetized form, continued to be a commonly used form of writing for colonial administrative, economic, and religious records, especially in and around the seat of colonial power which was the Valley of Mexico.

The Libro de matrimonios y casamientos del pueblo de Chiauhtla (1585-1678) or parish register of marriages for the town of Chiauhtla shown below exemplifies the relatively long duration of the use of alphabetized Nahuatl deemed suitable for recording official ecclesiastical information. This register of marriages was kept by the village priest in charge of the Franciscan Convent of San Andres in Chiautla, just north of Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. At least once a year, the comisario or a representative would visit and inspect the church’s records, including the Libro de matrimonios. Inspections were recorded with signatures at the bottom of entries.  The first page displayed below is dated to 1585 with the listings of marriages in Nahuatl.  It is not until the end of the book that listings appear in Spanish.

First page of the Libro de matrimonios y casamientos del pueblo de Chiauhtla