Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

Monthly Update sign up
Mailing List signup
Search
MENU
American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
Home About Unit Index Archive Book Club Site Search
2. Exploring Borders   



2. Exploring
Borderlands


•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
•  Timeline
•  Activities
- Overview Questions
- Video
Activities
- Author
Activities
- Context
Activities
- Creative Response
- PBL Projects

Activities: Context Activities


Writing without Words:
A Native American View of Culture and the Conquest


Back Back to Context Activities

Codex Boturini

[7801] Anonymous, Codex Boturini [sheet 1] (c. 1521-40?), from Codex Boturini: An Inquiry into the Origin of the Antiquities of America, by John Delafield, courtesy of the University of Oregon.
Questions     Archive

While European writing systems rely primarily on phonetic alphabets, the written records of Native Americans used a combination of phonetic, pictographic, and ideographic transcription. For example, the Sioux recorded their exploits on buffalo hides, Algonquian and Iroquioan peoples used wampum, the ancient Incans used a complex knotting system called quipu, and Mayans often painted and carved their glyphs on their architecture. The Mesoamerican Aztec (or Nahua) peoples tended to preserve records in accordion-style books that were fashioned from animal skin or fig bark (amatl) and kept in vast libraries. After the Spanish Conquest these records were often painted on cloth. Today, these books are often referred to as lienzos, the Spanish word for linen, or as codices, a term that highlights the fact that they were written by hand, rather than printed. Originally the codices were written purely in indigenous scripts, but after the Conquest they were often combined with Nahuatl or Spanish written in the Roman alphabet. An elite class of scribes drawn primarily from Mesoamerican nobility created the codices. When the Spaniards entered the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán in 1519, they systematically burnt the libraries and destroyed the codices, at least in part out of fear of what they contained. The few surviving pre-Conquest records and the six hundred remaining codices, written just after the Conquest, continue to stun readers with their visual and verbal beauty and provide an important counternarrative to the stories told by the Spanish conquistadors.

Aztec histories are another primary resource for understanding indigenous culture and life in New Spain. Scholar Elizabeth Boone has identified three primary genres of Aztec histories: cartographic histories, res gestae, and annals. Cartographic histories such as the Codex Boturini organize Aztec histories around a geographic narrative. The Codex Boturini tells the story of the migration legend of the Aztec peoples as they left their homeland Atzlán ("land or place of wings" or "land of herons") in the present-day southwestern United States in 1 Tecpatl (1064 C.E.) and moved south to finally settle in Tenochtitlán in the Valley of Mexico (around 1325 C.E.). The opening sequence of the codex depicts an archetypal Aztec man and the goddess Chimalma (identified by the round shield attached by a line to her head) sitting on the far left in the Aztec homeland of Aztlán. From here we see the Aztecs leaving by boat in the year 1 Tecpatl (1 Flint) to travel to the cave of Curl Mountain (Colhuacan), where the god Huitzilopochtli was discovered. Footprints mark the direction the people traveled, and tonguelike scrolls ascend heavenward to mark the directions given by the god. This cartographic history differs from Western maps in several key ways: while Aztec maps tend to be relational, participatory, and situational, Western maps from the same period tend to be objective, distanced, and abstract.

A second important genre in Mesoamerican history is res gestae, or "deeds done." These histories focus on the accomplishments of either the Aztecs as a group or an individual great personage. Two important post-Conquest manuscripts that employ the res gestae strategy are Book Twelve of the Florentine Codex and the Lienzo de Tlaxcala. Assembled in the 1540s by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, the Florentine Codex contains a mixture of Nahuatl (the language of the Aztec peoples) and pictographic illustrations describing Aztec society and culture. Book Twelve depicts the deeds of Cortés and the Conquest of Mexico as they were described to Sahagún by Nahuatl-speaking elders and nobility. The book was illustrated by Aztec scribes in a style that reflected a mixture of pre-Conquest manuscript traditions and European illustration convention. For example, speaking is represented by a small, curled speech-scroll moving between people, an icon used in pre-Conquest manuscripts. The Lienzo de Tlaxcala provides an interesting counternarrative to the Florentine Codex. Transcribed in the mid-sixteenth century by Diego Muñoz de Camargo, a first generation mestizo, the Lienzo de Tlaxcala is based on wall paintings depicting the arrival of Cortés and the fall of Tenochtitlán recorded in the homes of Tlaxcalan royalty. These paintings served as a mnemonic device for poets who sang the story of the Conquest. Tlaxcala was a rival city-state of Tenochtitlán; consequently, the narrative lauds the role of the Tlaxcalans, as well as Doña Marina, in enabling the conquest of the Aztec capital.

A third genre in Mesoamerican histories is the annals, which organize their narratives around yearly events, such as payments of tribute and which record the calendar year. Years appear in Aztec writings as icons with a double-bordered square. One of the most common recurrent year glyphs is 1 Tecpatl (1 Flint)-symbolized by a small double circle next to a long oval with a diagonal line (a flint knife). 1 Flint was a crucial year for the Aztecs as it was the year in which many great undertakings began, including the migration from Atzlán. Tribute records such as those found in the Huejotzingo Codex are helpful for understanding the material culture of the Aztecs as well as the transformation from Aztec empire to the encomienda system after the Conquest. To a certain extent, other codices emphasize a temporal progression as well. For example, phonetic year glyphs in squares accompany the travels of the Aztec throughout the Codex Boturini. These glyphs, along with Aztec calendars, reminded the Aztecs of the cyclical nature of time and the recurrence of cycles of conquest and destruction. Thus the Aztecs often recorded the Spanish Conquest not as the end of an era, but merely as a predictable catastrophe that echoed earlier troubles and would be followed by a period of renewal and power.

Meso-American writings are complemented by a rich and beautiful poetic tradition that was preserved primarily through oral transmission. Most Nahuatl (Aztec) poetry can be categorized as epic, dramatic, or lyric. Miniature epics such as "Foundation of Mexico in 1325" provide an intriguing view into life in the Aztec empire and are useful companions to the history recounted in the Codex Boturini. Lyric poems such as "I cry, I am sad . . ." provide examples of some of the broader aesthetic hallmarks of Aztec verse: most importantly, expressive metaphors, the use of parallel phrases in which the second half echoes the first half ("I cry, I am sad"), and the notion of in Xóchitl, in Cuícatl ("the flower, the song"). On the Aztec calendar, Xochiquetzal, the goddess of flower and song, is also the goddess of the arts and symbolized creation, nobility, and life. Through her, songs become a form of spiritual communication of which flowers are only one reminder. Dramatic poetry such as the "Hymn of the Dead" give us insights into the songs that might have accompanied the wall paintings in Tlaxcala or that were sung in Tenochtitlán after the fall. These songs provide a useful parallel to the Sorrow Songs sung by African American slaves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Unit 7). Like African American Sorrow Songs, these poems helped bind a community together and express the traumas of life under colonial rule.

In the twentieth century, Aztec culture and literature have played an important role in the formulation of Chicano nationalism and the style of Chicano poetry. In March 1969, Chicano nationalists drafted "El Plan Espiritual de Atzlán" (The Spiritual Plan of Atzlán). For Chicano nationalists, reclaiming an Aztec heritage is more than a way to acknowledge the long-standing claim of Mexican Americans to Atzlán, the southwestern United States. It is also a way to lay claim to a history of power, aesthetics, and one of the greatest cultures that has ever existed; hence many Chicano writers include references to Aztec history, literature, and culture in their own writings. In Borderlands/La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldúa claims her work is built upon "Tlilli, Tlapalli: The Path of the Red and Black Ink" created by the Aztecs. For Anzaldúa, the Aztecs represent an alternate aesthetic heritage upon which her work can be based. Along with Anzaldúa, Corky Gonzales, Pat Mora, Lorna de Cervantes (Unit 15), Francisco X. Alarcón, and Cordelia Candelaria are only a few of the Chicano/a writers who have placed themselves in this rich literary tradition.

Questions
  1. Comprehension: What are the main genres of Mesoamerican history? What is an example of each? Comprehension: What are some of the genres and hallmarks of Aztec poetry? How was this poetry originally used in Aztec culture? Context: Use the genres of Aztec history to categorize Spanish writings about the Conquest. Do the works of Garcilaso de la Vega, Columbus, de las Casas, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, and Cabeza de Vaca resemble cartographic histories, annals, or res gestae? What do these genres tell us about the focus of history in Spanish American culture? How is this focus similar to or different from Aztec historical values?

  2. Context: Compare the excerpts from the Florentine Codex and the Lienzo de Tlaxcala found in the archive. Who or what is the focus of each work? Through what pictorial conventions do the works develop this emphasis?

  3. Context: How do the pictorial texts featured in the archive compare to European texts in which writing is accompanied by illustrations? Might we consider Samuel de Champlain, who is noted for the "storyboard" quality of his illustrated narratives, to be using a form of pictorial writing? Why or why not?

  4. Exploration: Compare "The Ruin of Mexico in Tlatelolco" to African American Sorrow Songs such as "I'll Fly Away" (Unit 7). How would you characterize the aesthetic of these two traditions? What sorrows does each group express? Where does their hope lie?

  5. Exploration: Compare the view of the Conquest of Mexico presented in the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, the Florentine Codex, the "Hymn of the Dead," and the "The Ruins of Mexico in Tlatelolco" with the Conquest of California by Anglos in the works of María Amparo Ruiz de Burton and John Rollin Ridge (Unit 5). What was the Conquest like for the conquered people in these texts? How are the modes of conquest similar and different?

  6. Exploration: Compare the Nahuatl poetry in the archive with the poems of Lorna Dee Cervantes (Unit 15), Alberto Ríos (Unit 12), and Gloria Anzaldúa. What Aztec influences do you notice in either the style or the content of the contemporary poets?

  7. Exploration: What do pictographic and ideographic writing systems gain from their ability to communicate visually as well as phonetically?

  8. Exploration: How do the pictographic writings of Native Americans indigenous to Mexico and South America compare to the pictographic, autobiographical records composed by North American Indians (see the Core Context "Moving Pictures: Native American Self-Narration" in Unit 8)?
Archive
[3191] Samuel de Champlain, Sketch of Wampanoag Wigwams at Plymouth (1605),
courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.
The Wampanoag, meaning "Eastern people," probably numbered around 12,000 just before contact. They lived in small bands in beehive-shaped huts loosely clustered into villages as shown in this sketch. English settlers in the Plymouth colony originally modeled their dwellings after these highly efficient native homes, but soon abandoned them in favor of "proper" British-style housing.

[5214] Anonymous, Iroquois wampum belt (n.d.),
courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Wampum, usually found in bead form and made from quahog shells found along the southern New England coast, was an important item for exchange and political dealings among Indians. After European settlement, it came to be used as a type of currency.

[6276] Willis Laurence James, I'll Fly Away (1943),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [AFS 7043b1].
This African American Sorrow Song provides an interesting counterpart to the Nahuatl (Aztec) songs about the conquest of Tenochtitlán (Mexico City). Both traditions helped bind a community together and express the traumas of life under colonial rule.

[7125] Anonymous, Florentine Codex, Plate 50 (1500-99),
courtesy of the School of American Research and the University of Utah Press.
Here, the Spanish are shown looting Moctezuma's treasure house. Assembled in the 1540s by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, the Florentine Codex contains a mixture of Nahuatl (the language of the Aztec peoples) and pictographic illustrations describing Aztec society and culture.

[7370] Anonymous, Sheet from the Huejotzingo Codex [4 of 8] (1531),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division.
In 1531, the people of Huejotzingo asked conqueror Hernán Cortés to initiate a lawsuit against the high court of New Spain concerning the unjust use of indigenous labor and tribute. As part of this petition, eight pages of drawings were made on amatl (fig bark); these drawings are known today as the Huejotzingo Codex.

[7561] Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex, Book 12, plate 45 (1500-99),
courtesy of the School of American Research and the University of Utah Press.
This plate shows Spanish soldiers leading Montezuma into the great palace.

[7586] Anonymous, Florentine Codex, Book 12, plate 68 (1500-99),
courtesy of the School of American Research and the University of Utah Press.
This plate is one of five which portray the massacre of participants in the Feast of Uizilopochtli. The Florentine Codex was illustrated by Aztec scribes in a style that reflected a mixture of pre-Conquest manuscript traditions and European illustration conventions. For example, speaking is represented by a small curled speech scroll moving between people, an icon used in pre-Conquest manuscripts.

[7801] Anonymous, Codex Boturini [sheet 1] (c. 1521-40?) from Codex Boturini: An Inquiry into the Origin of the Antiquities of America, by John Delafield,
courtesy of the University of Oregon.
Cartographic histories such as the Codex Boturini organize Aztec histories around a geographic narrative. The Codex Boturini tells the migration legend of the Aztec peoples as they left their homeland Atzlán ("land or place of wings" or "land of herons").

[8015] Anonymous, Lienzo de Tlaxcala [title page] (1890) from Homenjae a Cristobal Colon. Antiguedades Mexicanas; Publicadas por la Junta Colombina de Mexico en el Cuarto Centenario del Descubrimiento de America,
courtesy of the University of Oregon.
The Lienzo de Tlaxcala provides an interesting counternarrative to the Florentine Codex. Transcribed in the mid-sixteenth century by Diego Muñoz de Camargo, a first-generation mestizo, the Lienzo de Tlaxcala is based on wall paintings depicting the arrival of Cortés and the fall of Tenochtitlán recorded in the homes of Tlaxcalan royalty.

[9090] I Cry, I Am Sad (n.d.),
courtesy of La Literatura de los Aztecas, by Angel M. Garibay and Cheyenne Jones, translator.
This lyric Nahautl poem shows some of the most pervasive aesthetic attributes of Aztec verse, including expressive metaphors and the use of parallel syntax.

[9091] The Ruin of Mexico in Tlatelolclo (n.d.),
courtesy of La Literatura de los Aztecas, by Angel M. Garibay and Cheyenne Jones, transllator.
Nahautl poem. The Aztecs had a rich and beautiful poetic tradition that was preserved primarily through oral transmission.


Slideshow Tool
This tool builds multimedia presentations for classrooms or assignments. Go

Archive
An online collection of 3000 artifacts for classroom use. Go

Download PDF
Download the Instructor Guide PDF for this Unit. Go

  • Follow The Annenberg Learner on Facebook

© Annenberg Foundation 2014. All rights reserved. Legal Policy