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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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2. Exploring Borders   

2. Exploring

•  Unit Overview
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Unit Overview: Glossary

Black Legend - A widespread perception (especially popular in Protestant countries) that the Spanish colonizers were barbaric in their treatment of the natives. According to this myth, Spanish conquistadors were driven mainly by a lust for gold, and their claims that they were spreading Christianity in the New World were merely hypocritical justifications for their actions. Bartholomé de las Casas's Brief Relation, intended to spur reform in Spain, contributed to the spread of the so-called Black Legend in Northern Europe. Colonizers from other European nations often used the Black Legend to self-righteously justify their own repression and exploitation of Native Americans by arguing that their methods were more humane than those of the Spanish.

borderlands - The regions on either side of a national border, characterized by their tendency to foster creation and innovation. Because the geographic placement of a national border is always arbitrary and artificial, the zones on either side of the border contradict the notion that people and cultures can be kept separate or distinct from one another. Instead, borderlands are permeable places where traditions interconnect and cultures overlap. They are spaces marked by conflict, violence, and hatred, but they can also produce cooperation, innovation, and hybridity.

Chicano/Chicana - Men and women of Mexican American descent living in the United States. After the United States took possession of California, Texas, and other portions of the Southwest through the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848, Mexicans living in the region were deprived of their property and civil rights. In the late twentieth century, activists in the Chicano movement began to fight against this kind of discrimination. Part of their protest involved reclaiming and celebrating their unique history, language, and mixed Mexican and American heritage.

codex, codices - Historical records preserved by the Meso-american Aztec (or Nahua) peoples in accordion-style books 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 (codex in the singular), 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 these were often combined with Nahuatl or Spanish written in the Roman alphabet. An elite class of scribes drawn primarily from the 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 to provide an important counternarrative to the stories told by the Spanish conquistadors. Because we do not know who wrote, drew, and compiled the codices, they are usually named after the scholars and historians who have explicated them.

conquistadors - Spanish explorers and soldiers who were sent to conquer indigenous populations, claim territory, and establish settlements in Mexico and South America in the sixteenth century. Many conquistadors journeyed to the New World in the hopes of acquiring vast fortunes by exploiting the resources there.

contact zone - Term coined by scholar Mary Louise Pratt to describe the space of meeting between two cultures that had previously been separated geographically and historically. As Pratt puts it, a contact zone is an area in which previously separated peoples "come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict." Although unequal power relations characterized contact zones in the New World, with Europeans usually asserting dominance over native peoples, contact is never a one-way phenomenon. The interactive, improvisational nature of contact necessarily creates subjects who are impacted by relations with one another within a mutually constituted experience.

encomienda - The system of forced tributary labor established by the Spanish in their colonies in Mexico and South America. Conquistadors like Bernal Díaz del Castillo were issued grants which gave them control over native populations who were expected to pay them in food, resources, and labor. While the grantee was supposedly obligated to protect, educate, and respect the freedom of the Indians in his encomienda, in reality the system quickly degenerated into the equivalent of slavery.

Great Chain of Being - According to a common European belief first coined by Aristotle and later adopted by Christian philosophers, the universe was structured according to immutable hierarchies. These hierarchies existed along the so-called "Great Chain of Being," spanning from the dimensions of "non-being" (rocks and minerals) and extending through plants, animals, and man, all the way to God, as the representative of the highest form of "being." Within the category of "man," important hierarchies existed that separated more primitive peoples from more "cultured" or "advanced" societies. The following diagram shows the hierarchies of man as conceptualized in the Great Chain of Being:
Corporeal Man -- Man of Instinct -- Man of Feeling -- Thinking Man

European explorers and conquerors often deployed the Great Chain of Being to explain and make sense of the New World, as well as to justify their pretensions to superiority within it. They tended to structure promotional tracts around the Great Chain of Being, emphasizing the extent to which natural resources were "naturally" at the service of superior men. They also tended to characterize America's indigenous peoples as inhabiting a lower position on the scale of the "hierarchies of man" within the Great Chain of Being.

historia - In Spanish, the word historia means both "history" and "story," highlighting the extent to which any so-called "objective history" is always a subjective story inflected by personal biases and agendas.

lienzo - The Spanish word for "linen," often applied to Meso-american codices.

mestizo/mestiza - Men and women of mixed Indian, European, and African heritage. The mestizo identity has gained prominence in the American Southwest, where mestizos have proudly reclaimed their Native American heritage and identity that often went unac knowledged in the Chicano movement. Mestizo identity is characterized by plurality and inclusiveness.

promotional tract - A detailed account of the natural resources, plants, animals, and native inhabitants of a newly colonized area, intended to encourage immigration and solidify imperial claims. Such tracts were often structured by the notion of the Great Chain of Being.

transculturation - A term coined by Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz that refers to a process in which "members of subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted by a dominant culture." Transculturation emphasizes the agency involved in cultural change, as well as the loss that accompanies cultural acquisition. In these ways, "transculturation" differs from the older terms "assimilation" and "acculturation," which emphasize a more one-way transmission of culture from the colonizer to the colonized, from the dominant to the marginalized. For Ortiz, transculturation was a necessary concept for understanding Cuban and Spanish American culture more generally.

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