Obituary: James Lockhart (1933-2014)

Prominent scholar of colonial Latin America, ehtnohistory of central Mexico, and UCLA professor passes away on January 17, 2014.

Obituary: James Lockhart  (1933-2014)

Professor Emeritus James Lockhart passed away peacefully in Bakersfield, California on January 17, surrounded by his family, including his daughter and son, Elizabeth and John, and his wife, Mary Ann. Lockhart was one of the most original, accomplished scholars in the field of early Latin American history, and the ethnohistory of central Mexico. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 2012 he received the XIV Banamex Prize for Mexican History in Mexico City. 

James Lockhart was born in West Virginia, where he attended the state university in Morgantown. He enrolled in the Army Language Institute and worked as a translator in post-war Europe, especially in Germany. His gift for learning languages led him to consider graduate study in comparative literature, but he decided to pursue a degree in History at the University of Wisconsin, where he wrote his dissertation on Peru after the Spanish Conquest. This was the basis of his first book, a classic study of Peruvian society in the 16th century. He taught at Colgate, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Texas at Austin before he settled down at UCLA in 1972. After writing two groundbreaking books on Peru, including Spanish Peru (1968) and Men of Cajamarca (1972), he published a collection of letters from sixteenth-century Spanish America with Enrique Otte (1976), which many of us who teach colonial Latin America continue to use in our classrooms. Then he began to shift his attention to Mexico, editing a collection of social historical essays on the various provinces of early Mexico with Ida Altman (1976).

In this period of the mid 1970s, Lockhart went on to pioneer the translation and analysis of archival Nahuatl-language texts from central Mexico, collaborating with various scholars, beginning with Arthur J.O. Anderson and Frances Berdan in Beyond the Codices (1976), and linguist Frances Karttunen, with whom he wrote Nahuatl in the Middle Years (1976) and The Art of Nahuatl Speech (1987), among other things. In 1986, he worked with Anderson and Berdan again to publish a selection of rare Nahuatl-language minutes written by the nobles of the municipal council or cabildo of Tlaxcala in the 16th century. Lockhart detoured from his work on Nahuatl to lend his expertise on Peru and Mexico to a state-of-the-field textbook, titled Early Latin America (1983), which he wrote with Stuart Schwartz. In the 1980s he compiled the raw material for his magnum opus, The Nahuas After the Conquest (1992), which won multiple book prizes from the American Historical Association, the Conference on Latin American History, and the American Society for Ethnohistory. He sandwiched his award-winning book with two other books, Nahuas and Spaniards and We People Here, which appeared in 1991 and 1993, respectively. And then he doubled back to his days in Lima to publish a revised second edition of Spanish Peru in 1994. A few years later, he reflected on some of his earlier writings in a volume titled Of Things of the Indies (1999).

In the course of three decades, Lockhart became one of the world's leading experts on the Nahuatl language, as it was written in the Roman alphabet from the mid-16th to the early 19th centuries, and the founder of what one esteemed colleague called the "UCLA School." He edited a Nahuatl book series published by the UCLA Latin American Center and published several more books on the topic with Stanford University Press, including a very useful guide on how to read Nahuatl (Nahuatl as Written) and a translation and analysis of Horacio Carochi's 17th-century Arte de la lengua mexicana, both published in 2001. He collaborated with Lisa Sousa and Stafford Poole to produce a translation and analysis of the Nahuatl-language story of the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe (1998). He worked with Susan Schroeder and Doris Namala to publish a translation and analysis of a colonial-era "diario" of Mexico City, written by the prolific Nahua annalist, don Domingo de San Antón Muñón Chimalpahin Quautlehuanitzin (2006). In addition to many books on the Nahuatl language and culture that bear his name in their titles, he contributed to numerous other works published by authors who benefited immeasurably from his expertise, energy, advice and insistence. His intellectual contributions to the fields of history and ethnohistory are too profound to summarize here.

Lockhart mentored dozens of graduate students in History, Latin American Studies, and other departments before he retired from UCLA early in his career, in 1994. His many students wrote dissertations on a tremendous variety of topics, and are now teaching in colleges and universities throughout the United States. After retirement he moved from his house in Santa Monica to his cabin in Pine Mountain, California, where he continued to publish several books, to co-chair dissertation committees, to help others publish books and put together online projects, and to work with scholars and students around the world by mail and internet--until the last few weeks of his life. Many of us continued to work with him on projects until the very end, when his mind was as sharp as ever but his body began to give out. He was willing to work with anybody who was serious about learning Nahuatl, from students and colleagues at institutions worldwide to independent scholars and inmates in California state prisons.     

There were many sides to Jim that are not reflected in his many writings. He was very fond of Renaissance music and enjoyed playing the lute, vihuela, mandolin, recorder, and classical guitar with family and friends. He also found joy in woodworking and was good enough at it to craft his own furniture and musical instruments. He and Mary Ann enjoyed hosting parties at their house in Santa Monica for doctoral candidates, serving red wine in little hand blown green and blue glasses. He liked basketball, and would translate Nahuatl while watching the Los Angeles Lakers and the UCLA Bruins on TV.  He was an avid hiker who appreciated nature, and with Mary Ann became an active member of the Sierra Club.  Most of all, he loved to teach anyone who was eager to learn, and his genuine enthusiasm for knowledge and generosity was contagious. He will be missed, to say the least, but Jim and his brilliant work will never be forgotten.

by Kevin Terraciano
Director, Latin American Institute
History, Professor