Archive for October, 2014

Camionetas and a Nahuatl Mapping Project

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 the K’iche’ Maya city Xe Lajuj Noj is on most Guatemalan maps called Quetzaltenango in Nahuatl, 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 officiallyGuatemalaBus 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.

LaurMatthewLASAa 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.

There’s a Legend on the Phone . . .

Ed Schmitt is a Marquette PhD alum who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.  A few months ago he received a surprise phone all from a living legend–the Civil Rights activist James Meredith.

When my cell phone began ringing early on a Friday evening last spring, I expected it to be my daughter. She and a friend had been at a local shopping mall, and it was almost time to go pick her up. Seeing an unfamiliar area code, I hesitated before answering. “Mr. Schmitt,” the caller said, in a measured and slightly weary tone, “this is James Meredith.” I dropped the car keys which I had just grabbed and, while stammering my deep appreciation for his call, began casting about for paper and a pen. I sent a letter to the legendary civil rights figure a few weeks earlier, with a request to interview him for my book project about the activist and comedian Dick Gregory. And now I was quite unexpectedly talking to him in my kitchen.

I’d conducted many interviews before, but never with someone of quite his stature, and never on such short notice. He could tell I was a bit flustered. As I thought about the best way to proceed (my mind raced between – “you don’t have your notes in front of you” and “don’t let this opportunity pass”), I mentioned the possibility of sending him some questions to consider and then scheduling another time to talk. “Whenever and however you want to do it,” he said reassuringly. What followed was a delightful hour-long discussion with one of the most famous heroes of twentieth century U.S. history, and a renewed appreciation for the value of oral history.

I contacted Meredith seeking to learn more about his relationship with Gregory, and particularly how he viewed Gregory’s role in the movement. Both men are fascinating, deeply committed, and somewhat enigmatic. Born less than a year apart, they were a bit older than most of the student activists who energized the black freedom struggle through the sit-ins and other direct action protests of the early 1960s. And both were military veterans, who continue to view themselves as lifelong soldiers in the battle for equality.

While Meredith is best known as the first African American student to enroll at the University of Mississippi, I hoped to focus on a couple of later episodes in his career that I thought might provide insight into Gregory’s significance. He was open to discussing all of these, and his memory seemed quite sharp despite the passage of fifty years since the events in question. I learned about Meredith’s high regard for Gregory despite their philosophical disagreement regarding the strategy of nonviolence, was made aware of a mutual friend I had not been familiar with who became an important Gregory ally in the South, and perhaps most importantly, I gained a deeper appreciation for the human complexity and personal relationships involved in the movement.

James Meredith flanked by federal marshals at the University of Mississippi, 1962 (Library of Congress).

Historians love written documents and have always viewed oral history a bit more cautiously. Perhaps because we are trained to be skeptical of documents, it is even easier to question the motive or memory of a living figure than something fixed in print. While it must indeed be assessed critically, oral history can provide things written documents cannot. Hearing Meredith bristle when he discussed how others tried to use his 1966 “March Against Fear” for their own purposes, or noting his tone of voice when he said that for most of his career Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t really understand poverty conveyed insights beyond what written documents may have. And to hear him gently tell his grandchild to go play in another room because he was discussing “important matters” was to be reminded powerfully of the humanity of a figure who might otherwise be relegated to a role as an iconic set piece in a too familiar tale.

The term “interactive history” has become popular in an age of eye popping technologies that bring the past alive in new ways for students. In truth, history has always been interactive, even with seemingly fixed print documents. Uncovering a pivotal handwritten note on a memo from an advisor to a president, or a viewing firsthand the artistry in an ancient manuscript allows us to encounter the past in sometimes thrilling ways. But perhaps no source is as interactive as an oral history interview. To explore topics of your choosing with an historical figure – and to be able to ask a follow up questions – is historical inquiry at its most interactive. Concluding my interview with Meredith, I asked if I might contact him again should further questions arise. He repeated what he said at the outset: “Whenever and however you want to do it.” All historians should be so fortunate as to have access to such a source.

. EdUniversity of Wisconsin-Parkside Associate Professor of History Edward Schmitt. Schmitt received his PhD from Marquette University in 2003 and is now an associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Parkside.  His first book, based on the dissertation he wrote under the direction of Robert Hay, was President of the Other America: Robert Kennedy and the Politics of Poverty (University of Massachusetts Press, 2011–https://www.umass.edu/umpress/title/president-other-america).  He is currently researching a book on the role of activist and entertainer Dick Gregory in the social movements of the 1960s and 70s.


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