By Laura Matthew
Riding the camioneta is a classic gringo experience in Guatemala. But it can be confusing. Buses to Quetzaltenango, for instance, say that they’re going to Xela. That’s because ‘Quetzaltenango’ is a literal translation from the city’s K’iche’ Maya name ‘Xe Lajuj Noj’ into Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec empire and of the Mexican invaders who led the Spanish into Central America in 1524. Despite Maya speakers still constituting the majority of Guatemala’s population as they did in the sixteenth century, almost all Guatemala’s place names are officially Nahuatl. Geography is written by the victors.
But is it true that Nahuatl came to Central America mostly via invasion? The primary indigenous language of El Salvador is Nawat-Pipil, still spoken today by descendants of Nahua-speaking migrants who arrived in the region in the thirteenth century. Some Nahuatl documents produced in colonial Guatemala look like their counterparts in Mexico – but many others are written in a dialect so distinctive that Spanish friars gave it is own nomenclature and used it to create new catechisms for evangelizing the native population.
A good decade ago (!), linguistic anthropologist Sergio F. Romero and I started collecting colonial-era Nahuatl documents from Central America. I and other historians like Paul Lokken and Robinson Herrera were also noticing references in Spanish documents to Nahuatl being spoken by Nahuas, Mayas, Spaniards, and Africans. Sergio and I published our thoughts on this corpus in a 2013 article, but a lot of questions remained. We had no data for huge swaths of the region. We had not systematically looked at other sources like church records or Spanish chroniclers. And our documents raised as many linguistic questions as they answered. Indeed, some of our conclusions in that article have shifted since its publication.
Enter the Nahuatl in Central America Mapping Project, which I am creating with the help of History graduate student Ben Nestor and advice from Indiana-Purdue University’s Polis Center for geospatial informatics. We hope that visualizing the uses of Nahuatl in Central America over space and time will suggest new ways of looking at things. How consistently and for how long, for instance, was Nahuatl used as a language of translation in any given area? How did the Spanish classify different regions linguistically, and did those classifications change? Where and when in Central America do we see concentrations of texts with certain dialectical features?
The GIS component of the project is important, its collaborative character even more so. It would be difficult for any single researcher to ferret out all or most of the many references to Nahuatl that lie scattered throughout Spanish colonial archives. And as a historian, I ask very different questions of the documents than my colleagues trained in linguistics, geography, or anthropology. Putting our heads together consolidates our research efforts around this particular set of questions, pools our collective knowledge, and reveals our disciplinary blind spots. We can accomplish a lot more together than any of us could do separately.
So we begin this spring with an advisory board of specialists in southern Mesoamerican linguistics, history, anthropology, geography, and religious studies, who will help Ben and I create a rich ontology that turns our existing documents into data. The next steps will be linking that data to a series of maps and launching the project website. A broad range of scholars will be invited to join the project as official (and officially recognized) contributors, by uploading their own documents and participating in the resulting conversation as new data is transferred to the maps. I think of this as “curated crowdsourcing”: verified and academically sound, but also open, interdisciplinary, dynamic, collective – and hopefully surprising.
Colonial-era documents and geospatial humanities help us dig deep into the history of Mesoamerica. We thereby honor the living descendants of ancient Mesoamericans, millions of whom ride the camionetas every day.
Laura Matthew is an associate professor of history whose first book, Memories of Conquest: Becoming Mexicano in Colonial Guatemala (2012) was awarded the 2013 Howard Cline Memorial Prize, Conference on Latin American History and the 2013 Murdo MacLeod Prize, Latin American and Caribbean Section, Southern Historical Association. She is the 2014-2015 holder of the Way-Klinger Sabbatical Award.