Posts Tagged 'Guatemalan history'

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.


The More Things Change…

Laura Matthew, associate professor of Latin American history, checks in from Spain, where she is conducting research with the support of a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, and shares her thoughts on how a recent archival discovery sheds new light on the historical relationship between racial discrimination and mass incarceration.

National Public Radio recently published this article on the high proportion of black males in jail in Wisconsin – the highest in the nation by far, a statistic that is primarily driven by Milwaukee.

MatthewHeadShot copyThat same week, I stumbled across a handwritten letter in the Archivo General de Indias in Sevilla, Spain. It treats neither the century nor the themes of my current research. But its description of the discrimination facing people of African descent in late colonial Guatemala was so eloquent – and sadly, modern – that I transcribed it in full. (What follows is a somewhat free translation of parts of the letter into English. The full Spanish transcription will be published in the forthcoming volume of the academic journal Mesoamérica.)

A little context: at the beginning of the nineteenth century in Guatemala, slavery persisted but most people of African descent were free and had been for generations. Some had stopped paying the extra taxes demanded of free people of color, usually by serving in the military. Some had moved into positions of local political power, or were practicing professions like medicine, engineering, and law.

Continue reading ‘The More Things Change…’

Lost and Found: Three hundred year-old Mexican document found in Milwaukee

Laura Matthew on the secret life of primary sources and the responsibility historians have to them, and to each other, when documenting the past. 

I have been thinking about how documents are lost, then found.

A week or so ago, my friend and colleague Aims McGuiness from the History department at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (UWM) left me a voice mail message. “There’s this mysterious document at the American Geographical Society Library here at UWM,” he said. “It looks colonial-era, and maybe Mexican. The librarians don’t know what it is, or how they got it. Could you come look at it?”

“Ooh, fun!” I emailed him back (yes, that’s a direct quote). “I can always make time for a lost document.”

Little did I know. A few days later, Jovanka Ristic and Kay Guilden at the AGS Library unrolled in front of me a piece of bark paper on textile, about six feet long and two feet wide. The document had the characteristic look of an indigenous land title from Mexico’s mid-colonial period, a mix of traditional pictographic narration and alphabetic text.

Two sections in Spanish told me that the document dated from 1691-1709, and came from Santa Catharina de Tepexi. The rest of the text looked oddly like Zapotec – odd, because Tepexi is in the current state of Puebla, whereas Zapotec is spoken further southwest in Oaxaca. Since I am no expert in indigenous languages (nor, as it turns out, in Mexican geography), this was as far as my observations could take me.

But I knew who could take it further. The next day I wrote my friend and colleague Michel Oudijk at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Michel and I co-edited a book together in the mid-2000s. He studies ancient Zapotec history through the pictographic writings of the colonial period. He also wrote a book on the leader of Tepexi, Puebla, during the conquest period. “Hey Michel,” I wrote, “there’s this document here in Milwaukee….” I described what I’d seen, and sent some pictures the librarians had provided.

“Wooooooooooooooowwwwwwww, Es el Códice de Santa Catarina Ixtepeji!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” came the response in my email a day later. (Again, a direct quote).

As it turned out, Michel and his friend and colleague Sebastián van Doesburg had been searching for this document for over a decade, in archives throughout Mexico, Europe, and the United States. It is not from Tepexi in Puebla, but from the Zapotec town of Santa Catarina Ixtepeji in Oaxaca. Sebastián had even published an article on the document in 2000, based on a grainy black-and-white photograph of the document’s left-hand corner from the 1950s that he had found in the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City.

Scholars writing in the 1960s reported that a document on leather from Santa Catarina Ixtepeji had been sold to a German consul in the early twentieth century. The scholars included this information in their catalogues of pictorial manuscripts from Mexico, with the hope that someday, somewhere, a document that was once seen would resurface.

(Sebastián’s research suggested that in fact there may have been two lost documents from Santa Catarina de Ixtepeji. The second, it seemed, was sold by a British consular official in Oaxaca named Rickards, a Mexican of Scottish descent, from his private collection. This is the document at the AGS Library).

I rode the bus home that afternoon with a big, goofy smile on my face. I will not use the once-lost Códice de Santa Catarina de Ixtepeji in my own research – but I know exactly how excited Michel and Sebastián were feeling at that moment.

I know, because last year I got an email from my friend and colleague Christopher Lutz, informing me that Sebastián van Doesburg had found the lost city council books of the first successful Spanish capital of Guatemala. Those books, dating from 1530-1553. had been stolen and sold from Guatemala sometime in the last decade of the nineteenth century.

At the time, Sebastián was doing research in the Hispanic Society in New York City. The archivist there asked him to look at these books. Sebastián looked, and though it wasn’t his area of research, knew they were important. He wrote Chris, and voilá. A century-long mystery solved, an incalculable resource for the history of Guatemala returned to the scholarly community. The “lost” cabildo books are currently being transcribed for publication by a Guatemalan team of historians.

I rode the bus with a big, goofy smile on my face that day, too.

There is an unpleasant side to this tale. Countless pieces of Mesoamerican history are scattered throughout Europe and the United States, as a consequence of direct or indirect imperialism and the power of the purse. Antiquities-hunting became something of a craze in the nineteenth century. Dealers scoured indigenous villages for old stuff they could sell to the highest bidder, often a foreign business magnate with a penchant for collecting.

Scholars also bought, copied, and “borrowed” manuscripts. Sometimes things were simply taken. And this swindling continues. In 1995, the politically-appointed president of the national archives in Guatemala sent his wife to sell sixteenth-century documents to Swann Gallery in New York City. Oftentimes, these precious pieces of the past end up hanging on someone’s living room wall or tucked away, “lost,” in an unorganized bundle sold or donated to a library after the buyer’s death.

When I once found a document signed by the famous conquistador Bernal Díaz de Castillo in the Guatemalan archives, I sat in satisfied awe for a few moments at my desk. But I was careful to mention it only to a few trusted Guatemalan friends and colleagues. A document with Díaz del Castillo’s signature currently goes for $125,000; royal decrees from seventeenth-century Guatemala go for $30,000.

But today, I can’t keep the smile off my face. I have repeated the mantra “friend and colleague” because even though research and writing can be solitary, it also means being part of a community. Friends and colleagues, librarians and archivists, all share time together in the archive. We share ideas about what we find, and the challenge of writing about it in some coherent, convincing way. We also share information, and each other’s joy at finding a key fragment of the past that was once lost.

When one of those fragments is recovered, so is piece of history. It’s why we do what we do, and there are few moments that are quite as satisfying.

Update: AGS curator emeritus Christopher Baruth has discovered that the Códice was sold to the AGS in 1917 by a mining engineer, A.E. Place. Baruth suspects that Place had bought it from the private collection of Rickards, whose family was also involved in the mining industry.

Laura Matthew is an assistant professor of Latin American History who specializes in colonial Guatemala.  Her first book, Memories of Conquest: Becoming Mexicano in Colonial Guatemala will be coming out soon (Spring 2012) through the University of North Carolina Press.

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