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Historian Terraciano Gears Up for Year as Latin American Institute Director
Photo by Oliver Chien

Historian Terraciano Gears Up for Year as Latin American Institute Director

The "lean, efficient" LAI covers the waterfront of Latin American issues in its programming, and focuses on broad areas of interdisciplinary research. History Professor and interim LAI Director Kevin Terraciano says his own interest in Mesoamerican languages and cultures fits right in.

A leading historian of Mesoamerica and scholar of Nahuatl (Aztec), Mixtec and Zapotec languages, Kevin Terraciano has been looking over two budgets this summer. The first one dates from 1550–64. It's an account book kept in Nahuatl by a single Mixtec-speaking community in what is now Oaxaca, the state in southern Mexico.

A page from the Codex Sierra, 1550-64.

A page from the Codex Sierra, 1550-64. "The manuscript reveals so many changes that occurred in this native community only one generation after the Spanish Conquest. It's a unique window into the past," says Terraciano.

Known as the Codex Sierra, the text is illustrated with pictographs in reds, golds and greens that still "fire off the page." The words and pictures in the accordion-fold codex show what this community spent its money on for the period.

"It's kind of a Rosetta Stone," Terraciano says. "By reading the Nahuatl text you can understand what the pictographs mean."

The other budget that Terraciano has been thinking about is in the making. With former LAI Director Randal Johnson having moved up one floor in Bunche Hall to lead the International Institute on an interim basis, Terraciano has accepted, for one year, the post of interim LAI director.

He expects a fast-paced 2010–11 year with multiple public events per week and more efforts to build partnerships with Latin American institutions. The LAI also oversees three academic centers dedicated to teaching and research on Brazil, Mexico and the Southern Cone region of South America.

"I'm amazed at how active and productive we can be despite the limitations we have," he says. A staff of three, including an outreach coordinator to be hired in the fall, manages all of the LAI's programming for K-12 schoolteachers and the general public, administers fellowships for students, and provides support for faculty members conducting interdisciplinary research across 28 departments and professional schools.

"It's a lean, efficient unit."

Based on faculty interests, the LAI recently identified broad areas to support as it organizes collaborative research, conferences and symposia related to the whole region, Terraciano explains. These include trans-border issues, health issues, creative industries, indigenous languages and cultures, and more.

Terraciano has several current projects of his own, including a study of a 16th-century Mixtec palace known as "la Casa de la Cacica." His work on the Codex Sierra will result in the publication of the first facsimile edition of the document and a new translation into Spanish.

To view pages from the codex, which is housed at the Lafragua library in Puebla, Mexico, visit this website.
The LAI staff also includes the editors and programmers who produce HAPI: the Database of Latin American Journal Articles.