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In Their Own Words

New book on 19th century Mexican community proves a written tradition, previously assumed to have ended around the battle for independence, continued beyond.

Research  |  Aug 31, 2017  |  By Kelly S. McDonough
Editor's Note: 

Miriam Melton-Villanueva is an assistant professor of history at UNLV and the author of The Aztecs at Independence: Nahua Culture Makers in Central Mexico, 1799-1832. Her research explores Latin-American indigenous writing and culture. The Aztecs at Independence uses new primary source documents Melton-Villanueva collected from central Mexican Nahua indigenous communities to explore a written tradition previously thought to have ended prior to the Nahua’s 19th century fight for independence from Spain. The book allows readers a glimpse into the Nahua experience from their perspective during a transitional time in their history.

Kelly S. McDonough, assistant professor of Spanish and Portuguese and faculty affiliate for the Native American and Indigenous Studies Program at the University of Texas at Austin, read Melton-Villanueva’s work and shared her thoughts on this contribution to the field.

Melton-Villanueva’s meticulously researched and highly accessible book, The Aztecs at Independence: Nahua Culture Makers in Central Mexico, 1799-1832, takes us down a path we thought to be impossible to trace: a journey toward understanding Nahua life in the 19th century, utilizing sources created by indigenous people themselves. This much-needed book is the result of the author’s surprising discovery, transcription, translation, and painstaking analysis of more than 150 Nahuatl-language testaments that essentially “weren’t supposed to exist,” since the previous general consensus was that Nahuatl-language writing had ceased by the turn of the 19th century.

Melton-Villanueva’s exploration of the civic cultures of ritual and writing in four altepetl (city-states) in the Toluca Valley offers an unprecedented glimpse into the creative ways in which Nahua culture in fact survived and adapted over three centuries of colonization and, later, its independence from Spain.

Demonstrating the interpretive power of New Philological methods for understanding day-to-day human experience through the eyes and language of indigenous people, Melton-Villanueva educates readers about the Nahua’s local cultures of writing through the identification and analysis of schools/lineages of indigenous scribes. Melton-Villanueva’s careful study of the changes and continuities in language use across the collection of texts she used to write this book draws attention to the scribes’ crucial role as multilingual intermediaries—indispensable interpreters of “language, laws, and devotions” (page 65)—between native peoples and Spaniards.

Melton-Villanueva’s work discards any remaining vestiges of the notion that the Nahua passively submitted to Spanish designs. The archival materials following the lives of indigenous men who participated in the fiscalía (the governing body of the parish churches) paint a new picture of indigenous fiscales, previously considered inconsequential assistants to priests. Instead, we find that these indigenous men were important protagonists in church activities, laboring from inside the Catholic institution to carve out a space that supported the needs and survival of their community. Additionally, Melton-Villanueva reveals that not only did the fiscales come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but they also rotated through positions in a highly organized succession, which disrupts an old narrative that framed Nahua culture as dominated by closed elite factions.

Melton-Villanueva also teases out women’s important contribution to indigenous self-determination in the Toluca Valley during this period. Through her astute mining of the texts, Melton-Villanueva shines light on the pivotal role women played in maintaining and adapting ritual both within and outside the home. The book provides evidence that the majority of property holders in the community were women who wove culture-keeping and culture-making into pacts of land inheritance.

One of the major strengths of The Aztecs at Independence is Melton-Villanueva’s refusal to fetishize indigenous continuity or change by discussing only resistance to or only assimilation into dominant culture. Instead, she lets the newly discovered archive tell us about a dynamic community that retained and innovated aspects of its culture as best served it in its specific space and time.