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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Exploring Borderlands Exploring Borderlands – Activities

Overview Questions

  • What is a mestizo/a? How has mestizo/a identity and consciousness altered and developed over the past four centuries?
  • What kinds of relationships did European explorers and colonizers have with the Native Americans they encountered in the New World? What stereotypes and conventions did they rely on to represent Indians in their narratives?
  • How did European colonizers use their narratives to mediate their relationships with authorities back in Europe?
  • How do writings that originated in South America, Mexico, the West Indies, and Canada fit into the American canon? Why have writings in Spanish, Dutch, and French been absent from the canon for so long? What responsibilities do we have as readers when we read these works in translation?
  • How do concepts of writing and literacy differ among cultures? How did these differences shape the colonial experience?
  • How does bilingualism affect mestizo/a narratives?
  • What characterizes a “borderland” or “contact zone”? What boundaries are challenged in a border region? How have conceptions of borderlands and contact zones changed over time?
  • What differentiates assimilation, acculturation, and transculturation? Which of these terms seems most appropriate for the colonial experiences described in the texts for this unit?
  • How did the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English approaches to colonizing the New World differ? How did those differences affect European– Native American relationships in different regions of the Americas? How did differences among native cultures in Mesoamerica, Florida, Virginia, the Middle Atlantic, and New France affect contact between Native Americans and colonizers?
  • How did the first European explorers envision the New World? How did their preconceptions affect their experiences in the Americas?
  • Why do early narratives of the New World so frequently invoke the language of wonder? What narrative strategies did explorers and colonizers use to describe their experience of wonder?
  • Most of the texts discussed in Unit 2 can be characterized as belonging to more than one genre. Why do texts that represent border and contact experiences so often combine different genres? What is the effect of this genre blurring?
  • How are early mestizo texts influenced by the oral tradition and pre-Conquest literary styles?
  • What kinds of images of America did the European writers featured in Unit 2 construct to promote colonization and settlement? What kinds of natural resources and environmental factors did they extol in their accounts of the New World?
  • How did European writers justify taking over Native American lands and resources?
  • How are Native American women characterized in colonizers’ and mestizos‘ narratives? What archetypes and legends have developed about relationships between native women and European colonizers?

Video Activities

How do place and time shape literature and our understanding of it?
Video Comprehension Questions: What are borderlands? What boundaries besides geographical ones are challenged in border regions?
Context Questions: How does Cabeza de Vaca’s almost anthropological account of his time among the natives resonate with Americo Paredes’s sociological/anthropological approach to recording the traditional musical and folk traditions of Chicano culture?
Exploratory Questions: How have Native American, mestizo, and mestiza identity changed over the course of hundreds of years of contact and conflict between groups in the U.S./Mexico border region?

What is an American? How does American literature create conceptions of the American experience and identity?
Video Comprehension Questions: What is a mestizo/mestiza?
Context Questions: How might Bernal Díaz’s description of Tenochtitlá have inspired Chicano activists’ ideas about Aztlán and its culture?
Exploratory Questions: How has mestizo culture challenged dominant European American ideas about the origins of America?
What does the term Chicano mean? Where does it come from? How does it differ from the terms Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish American? Which of these terms do you feel is most appropriate for the writers featured in the video and why?

How are American myths created, challenged, and reimagined through these works of literature?
Video Comprehension Questions: Who was Doña Marina, or La Malinche?
Context Questions: How do corridos celebrating the exploits of Gregorio Cortez invoke and rewrite the legacy of Hernán Cortés the Spanish conquistador?
Exploratory Questions: What modes of protest do you think are most effective at enabling an oppressed group to challenge stereotypes and limitations imposed by the dominant culture?

Shared Spaces: Contact Zones and Borderlands

[5615] Anonymous, Disturnell Map of Mexico (c. 1850), courtesy of the Benson Latin American Collection, the University of Texas, Austin.

Gloria Anzaldúa has compared the U.S./Mexico border to an “open wound” that violently splits homes, bodies, and cultures. But while the physical demarcation of the border may be a space of divisiveness and pain, the regions on either side of the border–the “Borderlands,” as Anzaldúa calls them–are vibrant, dynamic places of creation and innovation. Artistic, political, and cultural practices in the borderlands blend pre-Conquest, Indian, and European heritage to form new, syncretic traditions. (In perhaps the best-known example of this syncretism, the unique version of Catholicism found in the American Southwest and Mexico incorporates pre-Conquest Indian beliefs, figures, and symbols into European Catholic rituals and tenets.) Because the geographic placement of a national border is always arbitrary and artificial, the zones on either side of it 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.

When European explorers first landed in the New World, they crossed previously intact boundaries, bringing cultures that had been separated geographically and historically into contact with one another for the first time. Scholar Mary Louise Pratt has coined the term contact zone to describe the space of this kind of meeting. 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. The concept of transculturation usefully expresses the complicated power relations at work within the contact zone. A term coined by Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz, transculturation refers to a process through 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. The concept of transculturation makes clear that different groups living in contact zones do not share the same experience or necessarily see their relationship with one another in the same way. One need only examine the markedly different perspectives on the Conquest of Mexico offered by the Indian-authored codices and European-authored narratives to appreciate the profound disjunctions and misunderstandings that separated indigenous peoples and European colonizers. It is precisely these disjunctions–the presence of multiple, diverse, and often hostile viewpoints–that give rise to the dynamism of contact zones.

Eventually, centuries of war, intermarriage, rape, slavery, and disease created a mixed culture in what had once been the contact zone of the New World. As conquerors and conquered merged, a new mestizo identity (a blending of Indian, European, and African heritage) was created in South America, Mexico, and what is today the southwestern United States.

By the nineteenth century, mestizo culture in northern Mexico was changed dramatically when European Americans began moving into the areas bordering and within Mexico, eventually annexing Texas for themselves. After the Mexican-American War, the United States and Mexico adopted the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), which settled the location of the boundary between the nations at the Rio Bravo (or Rio Grande) River. The new boundary ran through the center of what had once been the Mexican province of Nuevo Santander, separating people who had long thought of one another as neighbors. Unhappy with what felt like an unnatural boundary, people in the region continued to cross the river to trade, travel, entertain one another, and practice their religion.

In the early twentieth century, the United States began to create and enforce stricter regulations in an attempt to control trade and movement over the border. In times of economic hardship, the United States deported Mexican and Mexican American workers, even deporting American citizens of Mexican descent during the Great Depression of the 1930s. (Ironically, the government performed a radical about-face and began encouraging Mexican workers to cross the border when the United States suffered from a labor shortage during World War II.) Despite rigid regulations, people on both sides of the border did and continue to collaborate on resisting and finding ways around the rules that order trade and social relations between Mexico and the United States. The borderlands have always been spaces of subversion, giving rise to patterns of illegal immigration and smuggling. These kinds of challenges to border regulations are recounted and celebrated in the corridos, or border ballads, that are sung in the region (see Unit 5). As the stories recorded in the corridos testify, government regulations can never control the permeability of the borderlands. Music, food, language, fashion, and religious practices unite people on both sides of the border in everyday cultural experiences, and the borderlands continue to be spaces of dynamic transculturation and innovation. The mestizo identity formed within this space is always in flux, reflecting the complexity and diversity of border culture. Contemporary mestizo and mestiza writers like Gloria Anzaldúa strive to represent the breadth and hybridity of life in the borderlands, developing innovative narratives that reflect the decentered, many-sided quality of life in the region. In this way, mestizo identity challenges the artificial boundary imposed by the official border; in Anzaldúa’s words, “the skin of the earth is seamless.”


  1. Comprehension: What is a “contact zone”?
  2. Comprehension: What are “borderlands”?
  3. Comprehension: What is transculturation? Why is it important for understanding the Chicano borderlands?
  4. Comprehension: Historically, what kinds of conflict have been central to the culture of the U.S./Mexico border region?
  5. Context: Listen to some of the corridos in the archive. What values do they espouse? How do they represent life in the borderlands?
  6. Context: When Cabeza de Vaca traveled through what is today the American Southwest, there were no national borders, but he certainly experienced contact, and participated in intercultural trade, with a variety of Indian groups. How might Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative be understood as a prehistory to the culture that would eventually develop in the borderlands? How does the absence of a clear national border make his experience different from that of later inhabitants of the borderlands?
  7. Context: Do a close reading of the photo of the El Paso Barrio. What landmarks attest to the hybrid nature of the neighborhood? To what extent does the photo depict a scene of radical inequality and conflict, and to what extent is it celebratory of the neighborhood’s culture?
  8. Exploration: Why do Americans have such different attitudes toward the Canadian and Mexican borders? Is there a border culture around the Canadian border?
  9. Exploration: What characteristics might some neighborhoods in cities that are not near the Mexican border share with the borderlands? Does a location have to be on an actual national border to be characterized by hybridity, conflict, and cultural and commercial trade?
  10. Exploration: Should the seventeenth-century Massachusetts Puritan colonies be considered contact zones? Why or why not?

[5615] Anonymous, Disturnell Map of Mexico (c. 1850), 
courtesy of the Benson Latin American Collection, the University of Texas, Austin. 
Although the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo officially ended the expansionist Mexican-American War in 1848, disputes continued between the Mexican and United States governments concerning, among other issues, the border of Texas.

[5761] N. Currier, The Battle of Sacramento (1847), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-1966]. 
Americans charge against Mexicans during the battle near Rancho Sacramento, just north of Chihuahua, Mexico, on February 28, 1847. The heroism and forcefulness of the American soldiers contrast with the limpness of the Mexican forces and reflect American biases.

[6387] Jose Suarez, Corrido: Venimos de Matamoros [We Come from Matamoros] (1939), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, American Memory. 
The alternate title for this Spanish-language corrido, which features vocals and guitar accompaniment, is “BanditTrouble on the Rio Grande Border 1915.”

[6587] Walter Barnes Studio, A Young Paredes with His Guitar (n.d.), 
courtesy of the University of Texas, Austin. 
This photograph shows Americo Paredes strumming his guitar. Paredes devoted a good deal of his life to the study of Mexican border ballads, or corridos.

[6708] Judith F. Baca, Pieces of Stardust (1992), 
courtesy of the Social and Public Art Resource Center. 
Baca is an acclaimed muralist whose work is based on the belief that art can be a forum for social dialogue.

[6709] Judith F. Baca, 350,000 Mexican Americans Deported segment from The Great Wall of Los Angeles (c. 1980), 
courtesy of the Social and Public Art Resource Center. 
Since 1976, muralist Baca has worked as the founder and artistic director of the Social and Public Art Resource Center in Los Angeles. She has headed a number of large-scale projects dealing with interracial relations.

[7584] Anonymous, Florentine Codex, Book 12, plate 40 (1500-99), 
courtesy of the School of American Research and the University of Utah Press.
One of a series of plates showing Spanish soldiers marching from Itztapalapan to Tenochitlan. 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.

[7746] Danny Lyon, Young Men of the Second Ward, El Paso’s Classic “Barrio” Near the Mexican Border (n.d.) 
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration. 
Photograph by Danny Lyon for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Documerica project. Lyon, one of the most creative documentary photographers of the late twentieth century, photographed the Rio Grande Valley and the Chicano barrio of South El Paso, Texas.

[7750] Danny Lyon, Chicano Teenager in El Paso’s Second Ward. A Classic “Barrio” Which Is Slowly Giving Way to Urban Renewal (1972), 
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration. 
Another Lyon photo for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Documerica project. Lyon photographed the Rio Grande Valley and the Chicano barrio of South El Paso, Texas.

[7942] José Suarez and Joe K. Wells, Corrido de las Elecciones de Brownsville (1939), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [AFC 1939/001 2610b1]. 
Audio file of a corrido composed by Benino Sandoval, based on the true story of Carlo Guillen, a noted bandit.

[7974] Janjapp Dekker, Sandra Cisneros with Virgen de Guadalupe Boots (n.d.), 
courtesy of El Andar Magazine. 
Here, Cisneros wears boots with pictures of La Virgen de Guadalupe, a vision of the Virgin Mary that appeared to an Indian convert in the sixteenth century.

[9061] N. Currier, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe: Our Lady of Guadalupe (1848), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-2890]. 
This image shows a fairly Anglicized version of La Virgen de Guadelupe, buoyed by an angel.

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

[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.

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 “TlilliTlapalli: 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.


  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)?

[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.

[9090I 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.

Model Women: La Virgen de Guadalupe, La Llorona, and La Malinche as Archetypes of Mexican Femininity

[7124] Anonymous, Florentine Codex, plate 49 (1500-99), courtesy of the School of American Research and the University of Utah Press.

In Mexican culture, female identity has traditionally been structured around three principal archetypes: La Virgen de Guadalupe (a vision of the Virgin Mary that appeared to an Indian convert in the sixteenth century), La Llorona (a woman who, after being spurned by her lover, killed her children), and La Malinche (the Indian woman who served as Hernán Cortés’s translator, negotiator, and mistress during the Conquest of Mexico). While these figures have usually represented a very limited spectrum of possibilities for women, Guadalupe, La Llorona, and La Malinche have also shown themselves to be flexible myths. They have been manipulated and restructured to meet the political and spiritual needs of different cultural moments in Mexican history.

Since her appearance in the sixteenth century, La Virgen de Guadalupe has been one of the most powerful symbols of Mexican national identity and pride. According to a legend first published in 1648, La Virgen de Guadalupe appeared several times in 1531 to Juan Diego, an Indian who had recently converted to Catholicism. She appeared on a hill outside Mexico City and spoke to him in his native language of Nahuatl, instructing him to lead his community in building a shrine to her on the hill. When the bishop of the Catholic Church in Mexico City demanded physical proof of Juan Diego’s vision, the Virgen appeared to him again and told him to gather roses in his tilma, or peasant cloak, and to bring them to the bishop as evidence. When Juan Diego unwrapped his tilma to present the flowers to the bishop, he found the Virgen’s image imprinted on the fabric. The tilma with La Virgen de Guadalupe’s image hangs in the Basilica in Mexico City, where it is an object of pilgrimages and veneration. Today, the image of La Virgen–a young woman with dark hair, an olive complexion, humble downcast eyes, her hands clasped in prayer, and an angel at her feet–is reproduced on everything from T-shirts to candles to bumper stickers to tattoos.

In the colonial era, La Virgen de Guadalupe was celebrated as a long-suffering, loving mother and heralded as a symbol of obedience, forgiveness, and peace. The circumstances of her appearance were cited as evidence of Mexico City’s favored status as an outpost of the Spanish empire. More recently, she has lost some of her passive, colonial attributes and evolved into an emblem of liberation, national pride, and Indian heritage. Mestizo activists have celebrated the Virgen’s ties to Tonantzin, a pre-Conquest Aztec earth mother deity. In their view, La Virgen de Guadalupe is best understood as an amalgamation of Christian and pre-Columbian religious imagery, since she appeared to Juan Diego on a hill that had originally served as the site of a shrine to Tonantzin, wears a cloak decorated with astral symbols sacred to the Aztecs, and has a dark complexion and some Native American facial features. Feminists including Gloria Anzaldúa and Sandra Cisneros have celebrated La Virgen de Guadalupe as a mystical, lifegiving earth mother who symbolizes the power of womanhood and provides an alternative to more patriarchal spiritual figures.

Just as the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe has been manipulated and transformed to accommodate different political and cultural needs, the myth of the female phantom La Llorona has taken on many forms within Mexican culture. Translated as “The Weeping Woman,” La Llorona began as an oral legend about a ghostly woman who can be heard wailing for her lost children. In some versions of the story, La Llorona is doomed to wander and weep to expiate her own guilt for murdering her children. The motivations for the murders range from depression or anger at being abandoned by their father (who is sometimes portrayed as an Anglo), to the need to conceal an illegitimate birth, to a selfish rejection of motherhood. In other versions, she is portrayed as a loving mother who loses her children in a tragic accident or to foul play. She is almost always represented as wandering near lakes and rivers, since in most versions of the myth her children died by drowning. At its most basic level, the story serves as a cautionary tale to keep young children away from dangerous bodies of water. At the same time, it constructs an archetype of failed motherhood and tragic femininity.

In some versions of the La Llorona story, the phantom woman appears in the streets of cities and towns and lures young men into following her, usually with tragic consequences. In these versions she represents a dangerous feminine sexuality, out to punish or destroy male pursuers just as she destroyed her children. Occasionally, La Llorona is conflated with the spirit of La Malinche, who is wailing because she is remorseful about having betrayed the native Mexican people by assisting Cortés. These versions of the myth reinforce stereotypes of women and women’s sexuality as untrustworthy and traitorous.

The fact that La Llorona has been frequently conflated with La Malinche testifies to the symbolic importance of the Malinche legend. Identified as a slave, a princess, a mestiza, a cultural and linguistic translator, a mother, and a traitor, the figure of La Malinche functions as a powerful amalgamation of anxieties about race, gender, class, and nationality. According to Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s account of La Malinche (whom he calls by her Spanish name, Doña Marina), she was born into a royal family but sold into slavery when her mother and stepfather decided her existence might threaten their son’s position as sole heir to their throne. They gave La Malinche to a group of itinerant traders from Xicalango, who then sold her to a Tobascan chief, who in turn gave her as a gift to the conquistador Hernán Cortés. Since she had lived among so many different tribes, La Malinche had an extraordinary facility with native languages. Her rapid acquisition of Spanish made her an extremely valuable asset to Cortés, who called her “mi lengua” (“my tongue” or “my language”) and used her to negotiate with the tribes he encountered on his march through Mexico. She also became his secretary, mistress, the mother of his child, and eventually the wife of one of his officers.

While European explorers’ portraits of La Malinche are mostly positive, Mexican and Chicano writers have traditionally seen her as a traitor who sold out her own people to help Cortés destroy the Aztec Empire and conquer all of Mexico for Spain. Both she and Martín, the mestizo son she had by Cortés, are often viewed with contempt for embracing foreign domination and turning their backs on their native culture. In actuality, La Malinche’s role was probably far less important to the fall of the Aztec Empire than Cortés’s military skills, the Aztec chief Montezuma’s weakness, the military contributions of rival indigenous tribes, and the spread of European diseases that decimated native populations. In any case, La Malinche had been repeatedly sold among tribes as a slave and thus probably did not perceive any particular group as “her people.” Indeed, she may have felt that she was working with Cortés to conquer groups she herself identified as enemies for holding her in slavery.

Despite the facts of La Malinche’s involvement with Cortés and the Conquest, she has functioned for centuries as a scapegoat for the destruction of Native American cultures in Mexico. Writer and critic Octavio Paz, for example, saw La Malinche as the central representative of a negative tradition of subjugation and cultural impoverishment that began with the Conquest. Assigning the pejorative name “La Chingada” (“the violated one”), Paz associated her with a history of shame, violation, and defamation. She is a symbolic reminder that indigenous people were “violated” by Spanish invaders, and that a woman enabled this violation (importantly, the word “malinchista” has come to mean “traitor” in Spanish). In this reading, La Malinche acquires the mythical status of a “Mexican Eve,” who has brought about the “fall” of her people through her own selfishness or heedlessness.

Recently, feminist cultural critics have begun to resist such portraits of La Malinche, both because they are historically inaccurate and because they promote misogynistic attitudes toward women. Instead, they have attempted to rehabilitate the myth of La Malinche in order to celebrate her strength, flexibility, intelligence, and extraordinary skill at mediating between cultures. As a figure of mediation, she provides a model to mestizas, whose identity is built upon balancing a complex, multifaceted heritage. Chicana writer Cherrie Moraga has written a play about La Malinche, and she is a popular and recurrent figure in Chicana poetry.


  1. Comprehension: Why do some critics understand La Virgen de Guadalupe as an amalgamation of Christian and indigenous pre-Columbian religious traditions? What characteristics mark her as a particularly Native American figure?
  2. Comprehension: Why was La Malinche so valuable to Cortés? In what ways did she help him in his drive to conquer the Aztecs?
  3. Context: How does Bernal Díaz del Castillo represent La Malinche in The True History of the Conquest of New Spain? How does his portrayal of her role in the Conquest compare to later representations of her “betrayal”?
  4. Context: Examine the drawings of La Malinche with Cortés in the Lienzo de Tlaxcala featured in the archive. How does the Lienzo portray La Malinche’s work as Cortés’s “lengua” or “tongue”? What other roles does Malinche seem to occupy in the drawings’ representation of her position within Cortés’s army?
  5. Context: Compare the notions of womanhood present in Garcilaso de la Vega’s Florida of the Inca to those at work in the narratives of Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Cabeza de Vaca. What role does each of these authors envision for women in the New World? What sorts of feminine behavior do they valorize?
  6. Context: How does Gloria Anzaldúa’s construction of a “new mestiza consciousness” challenge the traditional archetypes of Mexican femininity?
  7. Exploration: The figures of La Virgen de Guadalupe, La Llorona, and La Malinche have historically structured the identities and opportunities available to Mexican and Chicana women. What kinds of archetypes shape the lives of women of other ethnicities in America?
  8. Exploration: In Sandra Cisneros’s novel Woman Hollering Creek, the creek of the title is named for La Llorona. Why do you think Cisneros makes this reference? How does The House on Mango Street (Unit 16) address the issue of cultural stereotypes about Mexican women? To what extent does it revise or accept these stereotypes?
  9. Exploration: Compare the poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes and Gloria Anzaldúa. How does each revise the myths and ideals that structure Chicana identity?

[1375] Theodor de Bry, The Widows Approach the Chief (1591), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62- 75947]. 
A large group of new widows supplicate their chief, as Spanish soldiers stand in the background.

[7124] Anonymous, Florentine Codex, plate 49 (1500-99), 
courtesy of the School of American Research and the University of Utah Press. 
This plate shows a Spanish soldier looting the treasure house of Moctezuma. The Florentine Codex was illustrated by Aztec scribes in a style that reflected a mixture of pre-Conquest manuscript traditions and European illustration convention.

[7338] Jorge Gonzalea Camarena, Visit Mexico [poster] (c. 1940-50), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, American Memory. 
A pretty young Mexican woman is shown holding out a bowl of tropical fruits in this poster, which was intended to encourage U.S. tourists to vacation in Mexico.

[7368] Anonymous, Sheet from the Huejotzingo Codex [1 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.

[7399] Cortes(?), La Gran Ciudad de Temixtlan (1524), 
courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago. 
This map of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán is often attributed to Cortés. It is European in style, but the map-view contains information suggesting a native source.

[7402] Anonymous, Cortés, Montezuma and Dona Marina, from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala Facsimile (1890), 
courtesy of the University of California, Berkeley, and the Bancroft Library. 
The Lienzo de Tlaxcala employs the res gestae strategy and provides an interesting counterpoint to the Florentine Codex. Here Cortés is depicted with Montezuma and Dona Marina.

[7974] Janjapp Dekker, Sandra Cisneros with Virgen de Guadalupe Boots (n.d.),
courtesy of El Andar Magazine. Here, Cisneros wears boots with pictures of La Virgen de Guadalupe, a vision of the Virgin Mary that appeared to an Indian convert in the sixteenth century.

[9061] N. Currier, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe: Our Lady of Guadalupe (1848), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-2890]. 
This image shows a fairly Anglicized version of La Virgen de Guadeloupe, buoyed by an angel.

Working Wonders: The Experience of "La Maravilla/The Marvelous" in New World Encounters

[7511] Anonymous, Landing of Columbus (c. 1860-80), courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo begins his True History of the Conquest of New Spain with an avowal that he will accurately and authentically describe the conquistadors’ experiences in the Aztec Empire: “That which I have myself seen . . . with the help of God I will describe, quite simply, as a fair eyewitness, without twisting events one way or another.” As Díaz del Castillo’s narrative progresses, however, his promise of full disclosure is troubled at times by his inability to explain or articulate his responses to the radically unfamiliar sights. As he records his approach to the great Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, for example, his powers of description are immobilized by an intense experience of wonder at encountering a spectacle that no European had ever before seen. As he puts it, “We were astounded. . . . Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream. . . . It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen, or dreamed of before.” This experience of astonishment and an accompanying inability to find words to express the experience is characteristic of narratives that depict the first contact between Europeans and indigenous peoples in the New World. As scholar Stephen Greenblatt has claimed, “wonder” is “the central figure in the initial European response to the New World, the decisive emotional and intellectual experience in the presence of radical difference.” Narratives that told of the wonder Europeans felt at encounters with the “marvelous” (a term the Spanish explorers frequently used to represent objects that were radically new or beyond description) could have aspects of horror, pleasure, desire, or fear, but the overwhelming impression was one of amazement and awe.

In narratives of New World exploration, the experience of wonder is triggered by unfamiliarity, and often by a sense of excess, or extreme beauty, or strangeness. The “marvelous” cannot be fit into existing categories of knowledge, leaving viewers almost paralyzed and unable to decide whether they should love, hate, repudiate, or embrace the sight at which they are marveling. When explorers protested that they could not find language to describe the marvelous sights of the New World, those protestations might reflect a sincere loss for words. Nonetheless, such claims could also serve as a useful rhetorical strategy. The discourse of wonder worked at times to represent extreme horror to readers and to dehumanize the natives. Bernal Díaz’s gruesome description of the cannibalistic Aztec ritual he witnessed, for example, uses his horror to convey the barbarity of the native Mexicans. Moreover, expressions of wonder could serve as a means to aggrandize the explorers’ own deeds and experiences. Columbus acted with calculation in promoting his own reputation and the importance of his expedition when he extravagantly claimed in his letters to Spain that the New World was “fertile to a limitless degree,” that the islands he had seen were all “beyond comparison,” and “most beautiful, of a thousand shapes . . . and filled with trees of a thousand kinds.” His final comment, “Española es una maravilla” (“Hispaniola is a marvel”), testifies to the value of what he found and disarms skeptics who might try to detract from his accomplishments. Sometimes, the impulse to promote their discoveries in the New World led narrators to attempt to translate their experiences of wonder into terms of non-wonder–that is, to graft the familiar onto the unfamiliar in order to sell their audiences on the worth of what they found. When Columbus talks about the birds, animals, plants, and resources he found on the islands, he often compares them to their corresponding objects in Europe in order to make his experiences intelligible to his audience. When he writes of hearing nightingales singing on Hispaniola, for instance, he attempts to create a sense of comforting familiarity within the strangeness of the New World: in fact, nightingales are not native to the West Indies, and Columbus could not have heard any singing.

Some exploration narratives displace the experience of wonder onto the natives. Bernal Díaz’s claims that the Indians viewed the in Spanish as “Teules,” or gods, conveys the difficulty the natives had in reconciling the Europeans with any existing conceptions they had of the earthly or the human. Similarly, Samuel de Champlain recounts that a group of hostile North American Indians freed explorer Etienne Brulé because the unfamiliar necklace he wore (and a fortuitous thunderstorm) convinced them he had divine powers. John Smith used his knowledge of writing and navigational technologies to inspire wonder in the Indians he encountered in Virginia. While it is difficult to know precisely what Native Americans felt when they first encountered Europeans, since almost all of the accounts of such moments were written by Europeans, it seems likely that they did experience a feeling of wonder when faced with the radical unfamiliarity of European culture. This sense of astonishment may have been one of the few things the Europeans and the Indians could recognize as something they had in common at the moment of contact.


  1. Comprehension: What kinds of sights were considered “marvels” New World explorers?
  2. Context: Examine the de Bry engravings of Native Americans in Virginia featured in the archive. How do the engravings portray people who were, for European viewers, radically unfamiliar? Do the pictures convey a sense of wonder or do they allow viewers to fit the people depicted into knowable categories? How does the artist make the Indians look more familiar to Europeans? How does he represent their “otherness”?
  3. Context: Compare the descriptions of “la maravilla” (the marvelous) in Columbus and Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s narratives. What are some of the rhetorical advantages of presenting America as marvelous? Whom are the writers trying to persuade and of what?
  4. Exploration: The vision of the Americas as a place of wonder and marvel had important religious implications in that it helped solidify the notion that America was a type of New Jerusalem, an idea that was of particular importance to the New England Puritans (Unit 3). What role do religious associations of the New World play in the writings of the conquistadors? How do these compare to the religious associations at work in Puritan writings?
  5. Exploration: What is the relationship between the experience of wonder and the experience of encountering the “sublime” (discussed in Unit 4)? To what extent has the view of the American landscape and peoples as “marvelous” been crucial to the construction of American identity over time?

[1366] Theodor de Bry, A Chief of Roanoke (1590), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-89909]. 
Full-length, front and back view of a Native American chief, with a river scene in the background.

[2518] Theodor de Bry, The Town of Pomeiock (1590), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-54018]. 
Like many of de Bry’s engravings, The Town of Pomeiock is based on a watercolor by John White, who accompanied Sir Walter Raleigh on his expedition to found a colony at Roanoke. The engraving shows a native town enclosed by a circular pole fence with two entrances.

[2840] John Smith, Illustration from the Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles . . . (1632), 
courtesy of the Robert Dechert Collection, Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania. 
This image shows a scene from Smith’s captivity among the Native Americans of Virginia and his subsequent and legendary rescue by Pocahontas. This event was a central focus of his historical narrative. The full illustration of this panel is available in the American Passages Archive [2839].

[7399] Cortés(?), La Gran Ciudad de Temixtlan (1524), 
courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago. 
This map of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán is often attributed to Cortés. It is European in style, but the map-view contains information suggesting a native source.

[7420] Theodor de Bry, A Weroans, or Chieftain, of Virginia (1590), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-53338]. 
This engraving shows full-length, front and back portraits of a Native Virginian chief holding a bow and arrow. In the background is a hunting scene.

[7511] Anonymous, Landing of Columbus (c. 1860-80), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress. 
This lithograph shows Columbus and members of his crew displaying objects to Native American men and women on shore who seem overcome with curiosity and wonder.

The Romance of Colonization

[7402] Anonymous, Cortés, Montezuma and Doña Marina, from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala Facsimile (1890), courtesy of the University of California, Berkeley, and the Bancroft Library.

In his narrative of his third voyage to the Indies, Christopher Columbus arrived at the conclusion that the western hemisphere is not spherical, but “resembles the half of a round pear with a raised stalk . . . like a woman’s nipple on a round ball.” Columbus’s conviction that he had found the “nipple” of the world in the West Indies is perhaps best understood as a particularly fantastic example of the convention of figuring European exploration in terms of an erotic encounter between masculine, European conquerors and the feminized land and peoples of the New World. The prevalence of gendered language in exploration narratives reveals an operative fantasy of the New World as a “virgin bride,” beautiful, unspoiled, passive, and welcoming. By portraying themselves as “lovers” rather than conquerors, European explorers were able to rationalize their forceful–and often violent and brutal–conquest of American lands as an inevitable sexual consummation, desired by both parties involved. Conflating American land with its native inhabitants, this fantasy of conquest as romance relegates both land and Indians to the status of possessions, objects of value but without agency.

The complicated erotics beneath the rhetoric of colonization becomes most visible in the popular and recurring myth of the beautiful Indian maiden or princess who breaks with her own culture in order to affirm her loyalty to, and love for, a European man. One prototype of this myth is Garcilaso de la Vega’s narrative of Juan Ortiz’s relationship with the daughter of the Indian chief Hirrihuiga. In its celebration of a native woman’s decision to disobey her father and rescue a European captive from execution at the hands of her tribe, de la Vega’s narrative propounds a fantasy of Indian acceptance of white superiority and Indian willingness to give up traditional culture for European culture. Hirrihuiga’s daughter’s name is left unrecorded, thus highlighting her status as a generic and mythic ideal of native compliance.

John Smith’s story of his rescue at the hands of Pocahontas is probably the most famous and most often retold example of the European tendency to figure conquest as romance. The fact that Pocahontas went on to marry a white man, bear his child, convert to Christianity, travel to England, and assimilate to Anglo culture makes her an ideal figure on which to build a fantasy of native assent to colonization. The story of her decision to fling her body between Smith and the Indian executioners’ weapons has become a foundational national myth in the United States. Because it portrays traditional male Native American culture as cruel and barbaric–and glosses over the violence of European conquest by rendering Smith as passive and showing an Indian herself disrupting her tribe’s ritual execution–the story symbolically justifies European destruction of Indian culture. The enduring cultural appeal of this national myth is attested to by the paintings and sculptures of Pocahontas that hang in the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., and the success of contemporary representations of her life, such as Disney’s 1995 animated film, Pocahontas. Crucially, the idealization of romantic relationships between Indian women and their conquerors evades the historical reality that many Native American women were raped, tortured, and murdered by European invaders.



  1. Comprehension: Why did European explorers and conquerors like to portray the New World as a “virgin bride”? What was at stake in their use of this image?
  2. Context: Examine the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century illustrations of Native American youths featured in archive. How are the Indians portrayed? What kinds of physical characteristics do the artists idealize? How do these drawings participate in the mythologizing of New World inhabitants?
  3. Context: How do the cultural myths that surround La Malinche in Mexico participate in, complicate, or challenge prevalent European and European American fantasies of the romance and erotics of colonization?
  4. Exploration: The story of Pocahontas’s rescue of John Smith still resonates in American culture; in 1995, Disney released a successful animated film based on this myth. Why is this story still so appealing to American audiences? How has it been reworked to reflect different values and beliefs in different periods of American culture?

[1369] Theodor de Bry, Florida Indians Planting Seeds of Beans or Maize (1591), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-3186]. 
This engraving shows Timucua men cultivating a field while Timucua women plant corn or beans.

[1371] Theodor de Bry, Exercises of the Youths (1591), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-37992]. 
This engraving shows Native American men shooting arrows, running races, and throwing balls at a target on top of a tall pole.

[1900] John White, The Manner of Their Fishing (c. 1585), 
courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University. 
One of John White’s drawings not taken directly from real life: he shows a dip net and spear (daytime fishing techniques) and a fire in a canoe (used to attract fish at night). White combined disparate New World fishing methods and a mix of species in this and other paintings.

[2467] Anonymous, Pocahontas [reproduction of 1616 original] (c. 1900-1920), 
courtesy of the Libraryof Congress.
Pocahontas, baptized as “Rebecca” before marrying John Rolfe, is shown in her English garb. The original of this painting was by William Sheppard, dated 1616, at Barton Rectory, Norfolk, England.

[2591] Theodor de Bry, A Noblewoman of Pomeiock [Indian Woman and Young Girl] (1590), 
courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University. 
This engraving shows a native woman of the Virginia town of Pomeiock carrying a clay vessel, while a child holds a rattle and a doll. The woman resembles the female figures painted by Renaissance artists like Botticelli.

[3232] John Gadsby Chapman, Baptism of Pocahontas, 1614 (c. 1837), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The Virginia Company instructed its governors to make conversion of the native population to Christianity a prime objective. Pocahontas, daughter of Powhatan, head of the Powhatan Confederacy, was the most famous early convert. She was baptized in 1614.

[5245] Salvador Brquez, Dolores del Rios as Ramona (1928), 
courtesy of the Los Angeles Times
Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona failed to improve treatment of California Indians as she had hoped it would. Instead, the story’s romantic depiction of California’s Hispanic heritage became firmly entrenched in the mythology of the region.

[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.

[7402] Anonymous, Cortés, Montezuma and Doña Marina, from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala Facsimile (1890),
courtesy of the University of California, Berkeley, and the Bancroft Library. 
The Lienzo de Tlaxcala employs the res gestae strategy and provides an interesting counterpoint to the Florentine Codex. Here Cortés is depicted with Montezuma and Doña Marina.

[7429] John White, The Manner of Attire and Painting Themselves, When They Goe to Their General Huntings or at Theire Solemne Feasts (c. 1585),
courtesy of The British Museum. 
Portrait of an Algonquian Indian (either Secotan or Pomeiooc) from Virginia. Elite families and chiefs were elaborately decorated with paint, beads, and quills to signal their status and power. The body markings are painted for specific occasions, rather than permanently tattooed. The pose, taken from sixteenth-century European portraits, emphasizes the importance of the sitter and the occasion.

Creative Response

  1. Artist’s Workshop: Draw your own pictographic representation of an event that has been important in your life, using the codices featured in the archive for inspiration. How will you organize the information you wish to present? How will you indicate the chronology of events? The principal characters?
  2. Journal: Imagine that you are present in the West Indies, Virginia, or Canada when Europeans first land in the area and come into contact with the Native Americans who live there. Write your own account of the contact experience from the perspective of either a European colonizer or an Indian.
  3. Poet’s Corner: Drawing on Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera for inspiration, compose a personal narrative in which you switch between poetry and prose. How does the use of both genres affect your narrative? What difficulties did you encounter in trying to write both poetry and prose in the same text?
  4. Doing History: Using a dictionary of Aztec pictographic and phonetic symbols or Donald Robertson’s Mexican Manuscript Painting of the Early Colonial Period, interpret one of the pieces of pictorial writing in the archive. How does this form of storytelling differ from that Western historiography?
  5. Multimedia Project: Imagine that you have been asked to make a presentation on the role of women in borderlands and contact zones. What archetypes of femininity structure representations of women? How are women redefining their roles in borderlands? Using the American Passages archive and slide-show software, create a multimedia presentation in which you explore the opportunities and limitations women have faced when cultures come into contact and conflict.

Problem-Based Learning Projects

“”How can I get my students to think?” is a question asked by many faculty, regardless of their disciplines. Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional method that challenges students to “learn to learn,” working cooperatively in groups to seek solutions to real world problems. These problems are used to engage students’ curiosity and initiate learning the subject matter. PBL prepares students to think critically and analytically, and to find and use appropriate learning resources.” — Barbara Duch, University of Delaware

  1. Imagine that the parties in conflict during the Conquest of Mexico have decided to resolve their differences by hosting a diplomatic summit rather than using force against one another. Divide into groups representing the various parties involved (Cortés, Doña Marina, common footsoldiers like Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Montezuma, Aztec soldiers, and indigenous tribes who had been previously conquered by the Aztecs). Prepare for the summit by making a list of your concerns and demands; then meet as a group and begin the process of diplomacy. How will you resolve territorial disputes? How will you resolve conflicts over resources? Over religion? How will you form a government that will enable all groups to live peacefully in the region? Should some individuals or groups be expelled from the region? If so, whom? Groups may wish to form strategic alliances with one another to carry their points.
  2. You have been asked to create a museum honoring the life and legacy of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. Form a committee to draw up plans for the museum. Where will you locate it? What kinds of artifacts, images, and information will you feature within it? What points about Cabeza de Vaca’s life will you highlight? Who will be your target audience?
  3. The indigenous people who inhabited Mexico before the Spanish Conquest have decided to bring La Malinche to court to try her for what they see as her traitorous role in helping the Spanish conquistadors. Divide into groups and prepare her prosecution and defense.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


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