Historian's hard work translates into gold

Kevin Terraciano, professor of history and acting director of UCLA's Latin American Institute, is the 2012 winner of the Gold Shield Faculty Prize.


Terraciano (center) with Gold Shield members Rochelle Ginsburg, Val Maisner and Tanis Harris. Back row: Terraciano's graduate students Fernando Serrano, Miriam Melton-Villanueva, Veronica Gutierrez and Leon Garcia Garagarza.

By Wendy Soderburg for UCLA Today

A UCLA history professor who is a leading scholar in the history of early Latin America has won the 2012 Gold Shield Faculty Prize, given annually by Gold Shield, Alumnae of UCLA.

Professor Kevin Terraciano, who also serves as acting director of UCLA’s Latin American Institute, specializes in colonial Latin American history, especially the indigenous cultures and languages of central and southern Mexico. He is the only known translator of both the Mixtec and Nahuatl (Aztec) languages in the United States, and the only scholar in the world who is working with the Nahuatl, Mixtec and Zapotec languages — three major indigenous languages of Mexico — as they were written in the colonial period.

Terraciano won the prestigious Gold Shield Faculty Prize, which comes with an unrestricted cash award of $30,000, for his extraordinary achievements in research and creative activity and for outstanding teaching and university service.

"As an award-winning historian, Professor Kevin Terraciano is the complete package," said Val Maisner, chair of the prize committee. "He is loved by his students, respected by his colleagues and recognized for his achievements in the field of ethnohistory."

Several of his colleagues and graduate students came to the June 7 Academic Senate Legislative Assembly meeting and watched proudly as Terraciano received the prize from Chancellor Gene Block.

"Kevin exemplifies UCLA’s core values: superb scholarship, pedagogical inclusiveness and an unfaltering commitment to the public good," said Octavio Pescador, coordinator of the Latin American Institute. "His work illuminates the history of one of Mesoamerica’s most ancient and marginalized communities. ... As a polyglot historian, he has enabled the world to hear voices that had been silenced for centuries. I cannot think of a more deserving colleague to receive the Gold Shield award."

Miriam Melton-Villanueva, a new Ph.D. graduate who recently accepted a tenure-track position with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, could barely contain her excitement when her mentor received the award. "I became a historian because of Kevin Terraciano. His unique view of Latin American history inspired me as an undergraduate," she said. "I feel so grateful to Kevin, who mentored and shepherded me through rigorous and challenging methodologies, teaching me Nahuatl in weekly workshops above and beyond his regular teaching/service/research load."

A 2001 winner of the UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award and the Eby Award for the Art of Teaching, Terraciano conducts undergraduate and graduate courses and seminars on such topics as colonial Latin America and the Indians of Mexico. He serves on the doctoral committees of students in early and modern Latin American history, colonial United States, early modern Europe and Africa.

Terraciano is working concurrently on four book projects, including a translation and analysis of the "Codex Sierra," a 16th-century Nahuatl-language book of accounts from Oaxaca. In its use of pictographic and alphabetic text in parallel columns, the codex is an extremely valuable source for the early colonial period.

"It’s an incredibly fascinating text because it’s the record of the expenditures of a community over a 15-year period. They are combining ancient glyphs with references to the new money economy and using Nahuatl alphabetic text," Terraciano explained. "We’ve been given permission by an archive in the State of Puebla to reproduce these images and to do a full study of the manuscript."

The internationally known historian was born into a working-class family in tiny West Warwick, Rhode Island. When he was getting ready to apply to colleges, Terraciano conducted a survey of the best state schools in the nation. UCLA stood out, he said.

"I was attracted to John Wooden’s legacy, because I had read all about John Wooden. And I knew that UCLA and the City of Los Angeles offered so much," he said. "So I came out here, and I really loved it."

Terraciano had originally planned a law career, but changed his mind after he started taking history classes as electives. He had some "incredible" history professors, including E. Bradford Burns, James Lockhart (his dissertation adviser), Geoffrey Symcox, Ron Mellor and Joyce Appleby, to name a few. He ended up receiving his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees from UCLA, all in history.

Terraciano first started learning the Nahuatl language under the tutelage of Lockhart, who also showed him how to use historical records. During his first summer of graduate school, Terraciano conducted his first field research in Oaxaca. While there, he noticed that most people tended to rely on Aztec accounts for a Native-American perspective of the Spanish conquest.

"I wondered whether any other native groups in Mexico [besides Aztec] had similar traditions and also wrote in their own languages," Terraciano said. "Oaxaca was a logical place to look, because it has such a deep and rich ancient past. And there were all of these writings, preconquest writings, from Oaxaca, especially associated with the Mixtecs. And so I ended up finding a gold mine of material, which then became the basis for my dissertation."
Terraciano unearthed hundreds of long-forgotten documents, written by indigenous scribes, which he used to piece together a picture of colonial Oaxaca from the perspective of the Mixtec Indians. Although he was already fluent in Spanish and conversant in Nahuatl, Terraciano taught himself how to read Mixtec in order to understand the materials he was uncovering. Over the course of several years, he has learned the language well enough to translate it. "I do not say I know the language; I say that I’m continuing to learn the language as it was written in that period," he said.

In fact, Terraciano recently returned from a trip to Oaxaca with his wife, Lisa Sousa — a professor at Occidental College and frequent collaborator — and their two children, Isabella, 10, and Vincenzo, 8. Terraciano and Sousa had always gone to Oaxaca by themselves to conduct their research; this time, however, the children insisted on going along. "They heard us give talks at LACMA, and they had all these questions for us afterward," Terraciano said, laughing. "They’re becoming really interested in what we do."

Terraciano was quick to give credit for winning the prize to others.

"I know that these prizes are the result as much from my own accomplishments as from the good will and hard work of my colleagues, both professors and staff, who went out of their way to nominate me and write the letters," he said. "I am very fortunate to have such good and supportive colleagues here at UCLA, beginning with Teo Ruiz, who nominated me, and our incredibly competent chair, David Myers, and staff people like Nancy Dennis, who did so much work in putting together the materials.

"Even if I’m doing great work, if they hadn’t taken the initiative and then followed through, I never would have received this award."