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Indigenous Cultures

What did an Aztec capital look like?

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To the modern public, the idea of an Aztec city may conjure up a cityscape filled with instances of human sacrifice atop gigantic stepped-pyramids and buildings adorned with gold, jade and intricate stone-carved patterns. Pop culture portrayals of Mesoamerica such as in Apocalypto, The Emperor’s New Groove, or video games like Civilisation, have helped to foster this standardised image for their international audiences.

Interestingly, 16th century Europeans also seem to have shared some of these notions, yet the ways in which these contemporaries depicted an Aztec city was far from uniform. Though information on many cartographers is often unavailable to historians, the maps they produced can tell us a lot about how different societies may have visualised an Aztec city. Using some examples of European maps of the former Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, I hope to show that the image of an Aztec city often changed from place to place as different groups saw it in their own specific way.

Detail from the feature image (Top of page). La Gran Ciudad de Temixtitan, 1524, Woodcut, from Praeclara Ferdinandi Cortés ii de Nova Maris Oceani Hyspania narratio, (Nuremburg, 1524). Newberry Library.

The most widely distributed image of Tenochtitlan was printed in February 1524 in Nuremburg by Frederick Pepyus (above). It was included in a Latin edition of a letter sent from Hernán Cortés to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. This map features several stereotypes of Aztec culture; a large stepped pyramid and a startling headless statue dominate the central plaza, while sacrificial heads indicate gruesome ceremonial practises.

Yet, these landmarks had been razed to the ground after the siege of the city in 1521, meaning this map depicts a conception of the city rather than its reality. So, what explains the city’s image?

It is unknown why Pepyus printed the map, or whether it was influenced by Cortés or Charles V, yet the features of this map may reveal why his version of Tenochtitlan looked like it did. For one, he may have depicted the city in a specific way in order to aid Charles V and Cortés in justifying the conquest of Mexico, possibly to gain royal favours.

Spain’s occupation of America was under constant scrutiny throughout the century by many who felt that their colonial expansion was not legally valid, while conquistadors like Cortés were often criticised for their brutality towards indigenous populations. Meanwhile, many zealous Europeans also held strong vehemence against infidels due to the effects of the Reconquista and continuing struggles against the Ottomans. Such arguments often extended to the Americas, and Pepyus’s map seems to speak to these contexts. By portraying an idolatrous city under Habsburg control – indicated by the imperial flag in the upper-left – the map almost suggests that Habsburg occupation was a necessity if European civility and Christian authority were to transform Mexico. Hence, this map’s conception of an Aztec city seems to be informed by contemporary Christian militant zeal and a desire to justify conquest against unbelievers.

(left) Benedetto Bordone, La Gran cittia di Temixtitan, 1528, Woodcut, from Isolario di Benedetto Bordone (Venice, 1528). Wikimedia.
(right) Giovanni Battista Ramusio, Temistitan, 1556, from Terzo Volume delle Navigationi e Viaggi (Venice, 1556). Wikimedia.

Maps of Tenochtitlan were also produced in Venice, such as those by Benedetto Bordone and G.B. Ramusio. These show a very different conceptualisation of the Aztec capital as they portray Tenochtitlan in a way which more closely resembles Venetian ideals. Both maps emphasise Tenochtitlan’s aquatic setting to draw direct visual comparisons to Venice, while explicit signs of human sacrifice are removed to offer a more sanitised view identifiable with European culture. Ramusio also includes multiple cross-tipped spires to draw parallels to Venetian piety.

Again, these features do not reflect the reality of Tenochtitlan, since its waterways were being filled in to prevent flooding. What these maps actually show is a unique Venetian imagining of the Aztec capital – one which was likely informed by the city-state’s political context.

Venice’s political status had severally declined due to successive military losses, while their dominance of maritime trade had diminished due to Spanish trade in the Americas and Portuguese access to the Indian Ocean and Red Sea trade routes. Yet, rather than accept this reality, many Venetians instead sought to extol their city and envisage Venice as a powerful and hallowed polity. This ‘myth of Venice’ was likely an active component in how Venetians conceptualised Tenochtitlan, visualising the city in terms of their own desire to promote Venetian primacy against their political subjugators.[1] For them, Tenochtitlan became an American Venice in the idealised Italian city model.

Certainly, other maps of Tenochtitlan were also produced in Europe throughout the century, such as in England.[2] These too had their own unique image of an Aztec city which were often influenced by the surroundings, beliefs and values of each society.

So, what did an Aztec city look like? While both modern audiences and 16th century Europeans certainly drew from popular notions of Aztec culture, it may be apt to say that an Aztec city looked how different groups wanted and expected it to look like.

Connor Plunkett has recently completed his final History BA exams at the University of Sheffield. His dissertation focused on European maps of Tenochtitlan in the 16th century and the various ways in which different cartographers depicted the city.

[1] Elizabeth Horodowich, ‘Armchair Travellers and the Venetian Discovery of the New World’, The Sixteenth Century Journal 36.4 (2005), p. 1041.

[2] See Valencia-Suárez, María Fernanda, ‘Tenochtitlan and the Aztecs in the English Atlantic World, 1500-1603, Atlantic Studies 6.3 (2009), pp. 277-301.

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Top 10 Books on the History of Latin America

800px-Incunables_Biblioteca_Personal_de_Carlos_Monsiváis

As I take over as Editor of History Matters from Caroline Dodds Pennock, I’m pleased to introduce our new Best Books feature. Best Books will ask a historian to recommend the most important books to read in order to get started in their subject area. We think these occasional posts will be of interest to a wide variety of readers, but perhaps especially useful to school teachers and A-level students who are looking for the logical place to start with a new topic. All of these blogs will appear here, as they’re posted.

Now, who could possibly be better to kick off the Best Books feature than our outgoing editor Caroline Dodds Pennock?

Happy Reading,
Casey Strine


Last week, a teacher tweeted me to ask about ‘must read’ books on Central American history for an A-level student. And so, I’ve finally got around to putting together my list of the top ten books on Latin American (okay, mostly Mexican) history (or at least the best ten to occur to me!). 1 The following list is entirely subjective and unashamedly the choices of an indigenous-Mexican historian who doesn’t know enough about the modern world, but hopefully should provide some readable starting points. Have I missed your favourite? Please do let me (and everyone else) know in the comments.

1. Inga Clendinnen, Aztecs: An Interpretation (1991) 2
Absolutely unparalleled as a work of cultural history, this offers the most fabulous insights into Aztec life and experience. This book is a big part of the reason I’m an Aztec historian. Read it. And then read all of Clendinnen’s other books.

2. Hugh Thomson, Cochineal Red: Travels Through Ancient Peru (2006)
I learned a lot about Moche archaeology from this book, which strikes a great balance between accessibility and expertise. Written from a personal perspective – following Thomson’s own archaeological expeditions – this also sheds light on ancient Peruvian cultures which are often neglected in English-language writing.

3. Miguel León-Portilla, The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico (1962)
I don’t actually believe that this is how Aztec people saw the conquest happen. These are sources from the colonial period, written by indigenous people trying to rationalise how they were conquered. But this hugely famous book is a really readable and accessible way to dip into the primary sources from the conquest from an ‘indigenous’ point of view.

Cortez_&_La_Malinche4. Camilla Townsend, Malintzin’s Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico (2006)
A hugely readable account of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, told from the perspective of Cortés’s indigenous interpreter Malintzin (also known as Doña Marina and La Malinche). This does a great job of flagging up issues with the sources, our understanding of the indigenous perspective, and women’s roles, without letting it overburden the narrative. 

5. John Chasteen, Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America (2001)
An excellent, briskly written, introduction to the history of Latin America from the European invasion to the present day. Especially notable for including Brazil, which is often mysteriously absent from such texts. Very readable, and a great starting point for students.

6. Earl Shorris, The Life and Times of Mexico (2004)
Covering 3,000 years of history, this eloquent ‘big book’ on Mexican history interweaves history and experience into a far-reaching and very readable history of Mexico, seen through the lives of key figures and personal adventures. It isn’t perfect in every detail, but a great read. (And there’s a surprise appearance by one of my former students in the photos!)

7. Jon Lee Anderson, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life (1997)CheHigh
An exemplary biography of the extraordinary life of Latin America’s most iconic revolutionary figure. Anderson obtained unparalleled access to Guevara’s personal archives, as well as winning the trust of many people who knew him personally, so this contains a wealth of detail not published elsewhere. A fascinating and balanced account which recognises Guevara’s high points without shying away from his darker moments. 

8. Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (1971)
Galeano himself said that he was not experienced enough when he wrote this book, but this is a lively and sharply critical account of the effects of European and US exploitation on Latin America. Even though the author now finds his old writing style a bit ‘stodgy’, it has been hugely influential: Hugo Chavez gave a copy to Barack Obama in 2009, and the book remains a bestseller.

9. Ed Vulliamy, Amexica: War along the Borderline (2010)
This searing account of suffering communities and brutal conflicts is a fascinating introduction to the bloody ‘war on drugs’ along the Mexico/US border. As with any personal ‘journey’, there are omissions, and not everyone will agree with the interpretations (or the Spanish translations…), but this is an absorbing account of a truly horrifying situation.

10. Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950)
Hardly an ‘easy read’, but one of the most enduring works on Mexican history, by one of Mexico’s most famous writers. This is a beautifully written reflection on the nature of Mexican identity and attitudes. Maybe a book ‘of history’ rather than ‘about history’, but indispensable for anyone interested in modern Mexico.

Caroline Dodds Pennock is Lecturer in International History at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of Bonds of Blood: Gender, Lifecycle and Sacrifice in Aztec Culture (Palgrave, 2008; PB, 2011). Her current research focuses on indigenous American travellers to Europe in the 16th century. You can read Caroline’s other History Matters blogs here, and find her on twitter @carolinepennock.

Header image: Incunables Biblioteca Personal de Carlos Monsiváis [ProtoplasmaKid via Wikicommons].
Image 1: Hernán Cortés and La Malinche meet Moctezuma II in Tenochtitlan, November 8, 1519. Facsimile (c. 1890) of Lienzo de Tlaxcala [via Wikicommons].
Image 2: Guerrillero HeroicoChe Guevara at the funeral for the victims of the La Coubre explosion [via WikiCommons].

Notes:

  1. Yes, I know the teacher asked for Central American history. Mexico is in Central America. And Central America is in Latin America. So there.
  2. Dates are for first publication. There are often later editions. Links are to publisher websites. Other (cheaper or more local) options may be available.
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What goes around (eventually) comes around: A partial return to mother-tongue instruction in P’urhepecha

Santa_Fe

With one of the world’s 6000-7000 languages disappearing every couple of weeks, the fate of minority languages across the globe is looking bleak. The situation in Mexico is no different: 21 of the 143 UNESCO-recognized languages spoken in the country are considered critically endangered, while the rest remain in varying states of vulnerability. One of these languages is P’urhepecha, spoken by around 125,000 people in the state of Michoacán.

This number may sound like the language is quite vital, but the reality is that only a minority of children are learning it at home. 1 For any language to survive under pressure from a dominant national language, it needs to feature prominently in the education system. In this case, children need to be schooled in P’urhepecha as well as Spanish, and to see the value in learning to read and write both languages.

The first attempts at P’urhepecha literacy were instigated by Franciscan friars in the early sixteenth century as a means of Christianising locals, but these attempts never really took hold. 2 Around 400 years later, in 1939, the Tarascan Project was launched to teach P’urhepecha. The aim was to promote indigenous literacy and to act as a bridge to literacy in Spanish.

Led by a team of US and Mexican researchers, the project developed materials for group and individual use, trained native-speaker teachers, and established a printing press for public information leaflets and language-learning materials. The programme was fast and effective, forming literate individuals in 30 to 45 days. 3 But funding was cut for the project after just over a year, effectively ending native language education for decades.

The history of the Tarascan Project demonstrated important points that have entered into other efforts at mother tongue instruction. First, national governments of conquered lands often oppose bilingualism because the mother tongue strengthens a sense of identity apart from that of the nation. But a sense of shared identity is critical in engaging the indigenous community in economic development and support for those unable to care for themselves, as well as in reining in destructive tendencies, such as violence and addiction.

Kerenda_tsitsiki
Example of Tarascan Project teaching material: a mural newspaper bearing the title kerénda ȼiȼʌki ‘crag flower’. A younger man, probably a teacher, stands by as members of the community read local and national news.

Despite the introduction of bilingual and bicultural education across Mexico in the 1970s, Spanish remains the language of instruction at all levels. 4 Only a couple of hours a week are devoted to the indigenous language at primary level. However two rural primary schools in Michoacán have shifted wholesale to P’urhepecha-medium instruction in an encouraging but rare example of indigenous language promotion in an educational context. 5 In collaboration with their communities, teachers at two primary schools in San Isidro and Uringuitiro have developed a programme and curriculum that emphasises P’urhepecha language and culture, where teaching for all subjects is provided in P’urhepecha from years 1 to 6.

To see how this mother-tongue instruction impacts on young literacy, we (the anthropologist Cynthia Groff and I) are currently conducting a study of P’urhepecha writing samples. We are studying stories written by four year-five P’urhepecha-dominant students, who were instructed to retell the P’urhepecha story Tukuru ‘The Owl’. We are interested in how the texts are written in terms of cultural appropriateness, lexical diversity, and morphological complexity.

Writing_sample
Extract of a writing sample from a P’urhepecha-medium primary school.

We have identified many examples of typical P’urhepecha discourse structure, which relies heavily on the coordinator ka ‘and’, as well as non-finite verbs ending in -ni, e.g. ka tukuru no uxeni uandani ka…. ‘and the owl did not do, say, and…’. Pupils also use Spanish connectors such as komu (como) ‘like’, pari/para ‘for, in order to’, and porka (porque) ‘because’. This is a common feature of spoken P’urhepecha and is also found in other indigenous languages that are in contact with Spanish. 6

P’urhepecha verbs are pretty complex: a well-formed verb constitutes a stem plus up to 8 or 9 suffixes (there are no prefixes) to express meanings of tense, aspect, mood, location and manner, to mention only a few. The verbs in the writing samples generally include three suffixes, predominantly those expressing an unspecified action, past and person marking, e.g. arhi-x-p-ti ‘s/he said’, weka-x-p-ti ‘s/he wanted’, but also wanta-nts-kwarhi-ni ‘to speak to oneself’, where the suffix –kwarhi marks the reflexive form, translated here as ‘oneself’.

These examples show that the children can represent their own contemporary version of the language, which includes many elements from Spanish, in a grammatically appropriate way. But more importantly, it highlights how a minority language – their own language – can be and should be represented in the written medium, giving it as much value as the dominant national language.

Like the Tarascan Project, the P’urhepecha-medium primary school offers mother-tongue instruction, emphasizing the need for speakers to be educated first in their native language. 7 Such an approach encourages cognitive development and the acquisition of competence in other domains, not just language. 8

Both projects also teach and use an alphabet adapted to the needs of the language, even if inconsistencies can be observed in the children’s writing samples (but this is to be expected for children of this age in any language!). While several alphabets still exist, they all use Latin characters only, unlike the illustrated alphabet below. This enables an easy transfer to Spanish and ensures compatibility with modern communication devices, especially mobile phones.

Alfabeto_ilustrado
The P’urhepecha alphabet, illustrated with example words from the Cherán variety of the language, developed for the Tarascan Project.

The primary school model is a much-needed, longer-term solution to the current low levels of P’urhepecha literacy and transmission. It also provides an example of best practice of mother-tongue instruction that can be emulated by other schools in Michoacán and further afield.

However, for the programme to succeed fully, mother-tongue instruction needs to continue through secondary level.

Kate Bellamy is a PhD candidate in Linguistics at the University of Leiden. She is in the part of the ERC project ‘The Linguistic Past of Mesoamerica and the Andes: A search for early migratory relations between North and South America’. Her research focuses on prehistoric and early modern interaction between Purépecha and other languages of Mesoamerica and South America. 

Header image: ‘The P’urhepecha language is very good’, section of a language-learning wall in Santa Fe de la Laguna, Michoacán, courtesy of Kate Bellamy.

In-text image 1: Example of Tarascan Project teaching material: a mural newspaper bearing the title kerénda ȼiȼʌki ‘crag flower’. A younger man, probably a teacher, stands by as members of the community read local and national news. Photo by Frances L. (Swadesh) Quintana.

In-text image 2: Extract of a writing sample from the P’urhepecha-medium primary school ‘Miguel Hidalgo’, San Isidro, Michoacán.

In-text image 3: The P’urhepecha alphabet, illustrated with example words from the Cherán variety of the language, developed for the Tarascan Project. Courtesy of the University of Chicago Library Special Collections Research Center.

Notes:

  1. Chamoreau, Grammaire du purépecha, parlé sur les ïles du lac de Pátzcuaro (Munich, 2000).
  2. Hamel, ‘Bilingual Education for Indigenous Communities in Mexico’ in: Cummins & Hornberger (eds.), Encyclopedia of Language and Education, (2nd edn, vol. 5, 2008), pp. 311-322.
  3. Barrera-Vásquez, ‘The Tarascan Project in Mexico’ in UNESCO (ed.), The Use of Vernacular Languages in Education (Paris, 1953), pp. 77-86.
  4. This bilingual and bicultural education is now known as intercultural bilingual education.
  5. Hamel & Francis, The Teaching of Spanish as a Second Language in an Indigenous Bilingual Intercultural Curriculum, Language, Culture and Curriculum , (2006), pp. 171-188.
  6. See Chamoreau, 2007 and Bakker & Hekking, ‘Constraints on morphological borrowing: Evidence from Latin America’ in Robbeets & Johanson (eds), Copies Versus Cognates in Bound Morphology (Leiden, 2012), pp. 187-220.
  7. Carlisle & Beeman, ‘The effects of language of instruction on the reading and writing of first-grade Hispanic children’ in Scientific Studies of Reading 4 (2000), pp. 331-353.
  8. Dutcher & Tucker, ‘The use of first and second languages in education: A review of international experience’ in Pacific Islands Discussion Paper Series, no. 1, (Washington DC, 1996).
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