Indigenous history of the Spanish colonial era

An interview with Kevin Terraciano

Kevin Terraciano describes how he became interested in the indigenous history of colonial Mexico, his current research and the digital Florentine Codex project that he cofounded at the Getty Research Institute.

Indigenous history of the Spanish colonial era

Kevin Terraciano, director of the Latin American Institute and professor of history at UCLA. (Photo: Oliver Chien/ UCLA.)

UCLA International Institute, June 19, 2020 — UCLA historian Kevin Terraciano, director of the Latin American Institute, sat down recently with Bryan Pitts, assistant director of LAI, for an interview.

How did you become interested in Mesoamerican languages and cultures? What drew you to study the period following the Spanish Conquest?

I came to UCLA as an undergraduate when I was 17 from a small town in New England. I was a first-generation student and my parents couldn't help me with tuition, so I did a nationwide search of the most affordable universities and I discovered the University of California. I chose UCLA over Berkeley because of John Wooden; I had done a book project on "They Call Me Coach" when I was in the 6th grade.

UCLA historian E. Bradford Burns (1933-1995). (Photo: Professor Rosa Maria Pegueros, University of Rhode Island. ) At UCLA my roommate Jorge Reyes told me that I had to take a course with Professor
E. Bradford Burns. I knew by that time that I wanted to study history, but I knew little about Latin America. I took a course with Prof. Burns on Central America in 1982 that changed my life. He was such an inspiring teacher, and the course was so timely and powerful.

I continued to study history at the University of London, on the UC Education Abroad Program, and returned to do an honors thesis with Prof. Burns on Nicaragua, for which I won two awards. By that time I knew I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in history, but I needed to figure out where and what I would study, exactly.

Eventually I moved to New York, where I studied Spanish literature at NYU and worked in the library of the Port Authority of NY and NJ (in Tower 1 of the former World Trade Center), before taking a job in the library of the American Museum of Natural History. I was fascinated by the museum's collection on Mesoamerica.

I began to focus on the preconquest and colonial periods of Latin America, thinking that I could combine my knowledge of European history with an interest in indigenous cultures. For that topic, professors with whom I spoke said that I should go to UCLA to work with James Lockhart, who was working on translating Nahuatl texts to write a history of the Nahuas or Aztecs of Mexico, based on his translation of hundreds of sources written in the colonial period. I realized while in New York that he was famous for this work, but I never had a chance to take a course with him as an undergraduate.

So I came back to UCLA in 1987 and began to work especially with Lockhart, who immediately invited me to learn Nahuatl with other students in his office and at his house.


UCLA historian James Lockhart (1933–2014). (Photo: Kevin Terraciano.)

Your earlier research was on another indigenous Mexican group, the Mixtec. How has that early research informed your understanding of the Nahua after the Conquest?

When learning Nahuatl, I wondered whether other groups used the alphabet to write in their own languages. Some work had been done on Yucatecan Maya. I asked Jim Lockhart (he insisted that we call him Jim), and he said he didn't know of any other languages that were written, but he imagined they were to be found if someone looked.

I thought that if the existence of preconquest writing traditions had facilitated the adaptation of alphabetic writing in Mesoamerica, then the Oaxaca region would be a logical place to look for texts because the Mixtecs and Zapotecs had ancient writing traditions — on stone, deerskin, ceramics and cloth. Several famous preconquest codices came from the Mixtec region of Oaxaca. I noticed that none of the studies of those groups used native-language documents.

The summer of my first year in the doctoral program, I went to the national archive in Mexico City and several archives in Oaxaca, searching for documents written in native languages. I ended up finding enough Mixtec-language documents to warrant another trip. After several trips, I founds hundreds.

These sources were the basis of my dissertation, which became an award-winning book.* Learning Nahuatl with Jim gave me the courage to learn another language, to understand how colonial-era dictionaries and grammars worked and to use all available resources.

Soon after I accepted a teaching position at UCLA in 1995, I started studying Colonial Zapotec with Pamela Munro (linguistics) and other colleagues and students. We continue to meet weekly to translate Zapotec-language documents from Oaxaca that my spouse, Lisa Sousa (Occidental College, who also worked with Jim) and I found in Oaxaca, and now we have started to work with copies of the many Mixtec documents that fill two filing cabinets.

All the while, I could not give up on Nahuatl, the best documented indigenous language of the Americas and the most widely written Mesoamerican language in the early modern period. I continue to work with Nahuatl texts and founded the Nahuatl language program at UCLA in 2015.

Image from the Codex Sierra Texupan. Courtesy of Biblioteca Histórica José María Lafragua de la Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, Mexico. I've just completed the translation and analysis of a 62-page Nahuatl manuscript, with parallel pictographic text, from the early colonial period, called the Codex Sierra. I am publishing a facsimile of this codex with the University of Oklahoma Press, which will be out next year.** Jim was helping me with the translation when he passed away suddenly in January of 2014.

At the same time, I have been studying and publishing on the Conquest of Mexico since the Contested Visions exhibition at LACMA that Ilona Katzew began to organize in 2010. The Spanish-led war invasion of Mexico Tenochtitlan is by far the best-documented event in the history of the early Americas.

I am interested in how different groups of people remembered and imagined the war over time, and why the conquest remained so controversial. This is one of the few historical events for which we have so many indigenous accounts, both pictorial and alphabetic texts. Most of the texts are written by Nahuas.

Tell us a little bit about the Florentine Codex. Who wrote it and for what purpose? Why is it so important?

The Florentine Codex is the most impressive manuscript produced in the early modern Atlantic world. Its 12 books, bound in three volumes, contain nearly 2,500 pages of Nahuatl and Spanish text in parallel columns, with about 2,500 hand-painted images made by Nahua artists.

Image from the Florentine Codex. Courtesy of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence, and by permission of MiBACT. The manuscript is "encyclopedic" in that it attempts to articulate the sum of what was known about the Nahua world in a pictorialized book form. Its format and sequence of 12 books align with the hierarchical organization of classical and medieval compendia, progressing from the realms of the divine and celestial to human matters, flora and fauna and the mineral world. Only Book 6 on rhetoric and Book 12 on the conquest break with this sequence.

Dozens of Nahuas contributed to the collection of knowledge and the production of texts and images over the course of three decades, from the 1540s to the 1570s. They worked under the supervision of a Franciscan friar, Bernardino de Sahagún, at the Colegio de Santa Cruz — the first European college founded in the Americas in the 1530s — in what is now Mexico City. It took Arthur Anderson and Charles Dibble 30 years to translate the Nahuatl into English,*** but it remains an understudied text.

Tell us more about the work that you and the Getty Research Institute have carried out recently to make the Codex more accessible to a global audience.

My colleagues Kim Richter (Getty Research Institute), Jeanette Peterson (UC Santa Barbara) and Diana Magaloni (deputy director, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and program director, LACMA Ancient Art of the Americas ) and I are co-founders of an initiative to digitize the manuscript and to create an open-access website that presents high-resolution images, transcriptions and translations of the Nahuatl and Spanish texts into English.

The GRI is partnering with the Laurenziana Library in Florence, where the codex remains since it was brought there around 1580. It is a treasure, recognized as such by the UNESCO World Heritage Foundation. The Seaver Foundation and Getty Trustees have provided funding to support a team of technical experts and scholars who are working on the long-term project.

Former GRI Director Thomas Gaetghens and new director, Mary Miller, a distinguished Mesoamerican scholar, have given valuable support to our efforts, led by Kim Richter and her amazing staff. Many of the participants have UCLA roots: Kim, Jeanette and I all received our Ph.D.s from UCLA. The new website will be launched in 2021–22.


Image of Hitzilopochtli from the Florentine Codex. Courtesy of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence, and by permission of MiBACT.

We are also publishing a volume focused on Book 12 of the codex, which addresses the Spanish-led invasion of Mexico in 1520–21, entitled “Nahua Visions and Voices of the Conquest of Mexico” (Getty Research Institute, forthcoming). I am contributing several chapters to that volume.

Recently you co-edited a volume that brings together an interdisciplinary group of scholars to discuss the Florentine Codex. What are some of the new insights that the book brings?

Jeanette Peterson and I co-edited a volume on the codex in 2019, titled “The Florentine Codex: An Encyclopedia of the Nahua World in Sixteenth-Century Mexico” (University of Texas), based on a conference that we had at UCLA and the Getty Center in 2015. This is the first volume to pay extensive attention to the many images in the work and to analyze how the manuscript consists of three texts: Spanish, Nahuatl and pictorial.

We've become aware that the Spanish translation overseen by the friar Sahagún often departs from the original Nahuatl, and how the artists who added the images did not simply illustrate the text, but drew on their own pictorial conventions of writing to convey content and meaning that is not always articulated in the alphabetic texts.

Most importantly, we have shown that Sahagún was more compiler than author of the work — that the many Nahuas who participated in the project produced the knowledge that it preserves. Contributors to the volume include experts from Mexico, Europe and the U.S.

Today, as COVID-19 ravages the world, we have seen our own lives upended in myriad ways. The Florentine Codex was written as an epidemic ravaged Mesoamerica, one of many in the century after the Conquest. What role did the epidemic have in the generation of the Codex?

In the introduction to that volume, published at the end of last summer, I wrote:

It is difficult to imagine the sense of urgency and anxiety that Fray Bernardino de Sahagún and his team of indigenous scribes and artists felt as they struggled to complete the final edition of their encyclopedia of Nahua culture and language known today as the Florentine Codex. They toiled inside the cloistered walls of the Colegio de Santa Cruz in Santiago Tlatelolco while family, friends and some of their own group succumbed to disease.

The manuscript was completed during a smallpox epidemic that broke out in August of 1576 and lasted more than two years, decimating about half the indigenous population of the region. They hurried to complete an encyclopedic account of a culture, a people that Sahagún confessed he thought was on the verge of extinction. He says as much in the prologues to the books. He remembered how he buried 10,000 people 1545, when an equally deadly plague swept through the city. He succumbed to the illness and almost died that year. The situation could not have been more dramatic. 


An illustration of disease in the Florentine Codex. Courtesy of the Biblioteca
Medicea Laurenziana, Florence, and by permission of MiBACT.

A royal decree forced Sahagún to complete and send the manuscript to Spain. He sent it with a trusted friend, who apparently brought it to Ferdinando I de' Medici in Rome, a cardinal who became Grand Duke of Tuscany. 

The duke brought the manuscript with him to Florence, where it was deposited in the family library that Michelangelo had designed. If it had gone to Spain, it is likely that the Inquisition would have destroyed it, for it contained ample information on sacred Nahua beliefs and practices. Apparently, Sahagún sent an earlier version with the viceroy who returned to Spain; it is lost, probably destroyed. The friar and his team never knew what happened to either manuscript.

The Nahua authors and artists never knew what happened to the masterpiece that they created, never received any recognition for the work that they did. The manuscript was promptly shelved for nearly 400 years before it came to the attention of scholars. The Nahuas were incredibly talented writers, artists and scholars who remain anonymous in many ways. We know some of their names: Antonio Valeriano of of Atzcapatzalco, Martín Jacobita of Tlatelolco, Pedro de San Buenaventura and Alonso Vegerano of Cuauhtitlan.

Perhaps now with COVID-19 we can begin to imagine what it must have been like for those Nahua scholars working in the college who were trying to finish their magnum opus in the midst of chaos and despair. Yet nothing can compare today with the way that indigenous people were affected by the epidemics of the colonial period. The indigenous population declined by about 90 percent over the course of a century. Mexico's population did not reach its preconquest level again until the 20th century. 

What are some of the most important issues facing the descendants of the Nahua in Mexico today? How does the past that you study reverberate in the present?

Nahuas today are survivors of five centuries of exploitation, marginalization and prejudice. Many live in communities where their ancestors have lived since time immemorial. Many others have been forced to migrate in recent decades from rural areas to cities and to the north in search of work. As many as one-third of farmworkers in California are indigenous people from Mesoamerica.

They are still here, despite Sahagún's greatest fear. There are about one million Nahuas in some 20 parts of Mexico, in addition to several million indigenous people who speak more than 200 native languages. And that's just Mexico. Mesoamerican cultures and languages, especially Nahuatl and Maya, extended to Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica).

What sorts of initiatives are you carrying out, both at the Getty and through your position as director of the Latin American Institute, to promote knowledge of indigenous languages and cultures at UCLA and in Southern California?

Since fall 2015 the Latin American Institute has collaborated with the Instituto de Docencia e Investigación Etnólogica de Zacatecashttp://www.revitalization.al.uw.edu.pl/eng/Page/Partners_-_IDIEZ (IDIEZ) in Mexico to provide Nahuatl language instruction, combining distance learning with on-site teaching. IDIEZ trains native-speakers of the language from the Huasteca region of Veracruz to teach their own language. We share costs with Stanford University when our classes meet together via Zoom.


Eduardo de la Cruz (right), an IDIEZ-trained Nahuatl instructor at UCLA, with Luz Maria de la Torre (left),
UCLA's instructor of Quechua — an indigenous language of the Andes. (Photo: Kevin Terraciano.)

LAI has sponsored the courses since 2015, first with Title VI funds (through 2018), and then with its own funds. I co-taught the courses in the first three years as Instructor of Record (for no teaching credit) in my capacity as LAI director and founder of the program at UCLA. I continue to serve as Instructor of Record and participate in the courses when possible.

But the four Nahuatl teachers, two men and two women —-Sabina and Bety, Eduardo and Abelardo — are the real teachers. More than a hundred students (undergraduate and graduate) have taken these classes in the last five years.

We now cross-list these courses between Spanish & Portuguese (Indigenous Language of the Americas), Chicana/o Studies and International Area Studies. We initially offered three introductory courses (M5A-C), then added three intermediate courses (M15A-C) the following year, and finally, three advanced courses in 2017–18, so that now we offer nine courses to UCLA undergraduate and graduate students, including a few students from other UCs. Students who complete the first series can satisfy the UCLA College of Letters and Science foreign-language requirement. 

Before the stay home order, we used to meet in the media lab room of Powell Library, Monday through Friday; now we connect from home. With Stanford, the University of Utah and UC Berkeley, we also organize and sponsor pedagogical workshops and conferences and support the creation of instructional materials and syllabi. Finally, we arrange campus visits for the instructors.


Flyer for 2020 Nahuatl conference. Image is of a feast, from the Florentine Codex. Courtesy of the Biblioteca Medicea
Laurenziana, Florence, and by permission of MiBACT. 

UCLA has organized three Nahuatl conferences in the last three years; we were organizing a third for May 1–2 at UCLA and the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles, but the virus forced us hold a webinar on May 28 instead, which attracted more than 1,200 viewers on Zoom and Facebook.

One of the Nahuatl instructors is also involved in our Getty Florentine Codex project. Eduardo de la Cruz did an audio recording of Book 12 for the interactive website, and he's contributing to our volume on Book 12. This final book of the Florentine Codex is by far the lengthiest indigenous account of an encounter and with Europeans, written in Nahuatl in 1555 and translated loosely into Spanish, with 160 illustrations. 


Eduardo de la Cruz reading book 12 of the Florentine Codex for the Getty Research Institute's future interactive website
De la Cruz will also be a contributor to the forthcoming “Nahua Visions and Voices of the Conquest of Mexico.” (Photo: Kevin Terraciano.)

Eduardo is also writing a summary of Book 12 in modern Huastecan Nahuatl. He presented the summary to his community in Veracruz and recorded their responses. Nobody in his pueblo, including Eduardo, knew of the Florentine Codex before our project.

Finally, LAI has a robust outreach program, led by Verónica Zavala. One of her many jobs is to work with K–12 teachers in LAUSD to bring content on Latin America into the classrooms at all levels. She organizes an annual summer workshop for 20 teachers on a different topic every year. This year we're partnering with the Getty's outreach program to organize a workshop on the Florentine Codex.

We're thinking carefully how we can introduce this magnificent text to children in the public schools of Los Angeles, where some 75 percent of students are of Latin American descent. We're trying to bring our research and teaching at UCLA straight into the schools of our community.

* “The Mixtecs of Colonial Oaxaca” (Stanford, 2001), received the Wheeler-Voegelin Award from the American Society for Ethnohistory for the best book published in the field of ethnohistory in 2001, the Cline Prize from the Conference on Latin American History for the best book on the Indians of Latin America published in 2001 and 2002 and the Bolton-Johnson Prize (honorable mention) from the Conference on Latin American History (American Historical Association) for the best book on the history of Latin America published in 2001.

**“The Codex Sierra: A Nahuatl-Mixtec Book of Accounts from Colonial Mexico” (University of Oklahoma Press, forthcoming in Spring 2021).

*** Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble published the first full translation of the entire Florentine Codex, plus an introduction and index, with the Unvierstiy of Utah Press over the period 1955–1982.