The Learned Ones: Nahua Intellectuals in Postconquest Mexico

Kelly McDonough

The Learned Ones: Nahua Intellectuals in Postconquest Mexico (2014), challenges two profoundly colonial and ahistorical myths of Latin American indigenous peoples since European contact: the myth of indigenous intellectual degeneration, and that of limited participation in the written sphere of cultural expression. As counter-narrative, I identified and analyzed a series of Nahua intellectuals and their texts—grammars and dictionaries, local histories, political speeches, laws, short stories, personal testimonies, and drama—drawn from a nearly five-hundred year period. Whereas my book responds to a nascent global interest in the nature of indigenous knowledge production and writing, it is one of the few to treat the Latin American context, and it is the first of its kind to systematically address Nahua engagement with the written word from the early Colonial period through the present day.

The indigenous intellectuals whose writings and life experiences I discuss offer examples of how Nahuas took up the pen as agents of their own discourses and agendas. They include Antonio del Rincón, one of the few indigenous men to be ordained as a Jesuit priest during the early colonial period and the first indigenous person in the Americas to write a grammar of his native language; don Juan Buenaventura Zapata y Mendoza, a seventeenth-century elite Nahua statesman who wrote the history of his altepetl (city/state), Tlaxcala; Faustino Galicia Chimalpopoca, the Nahua polymath, who left his mark on the nineteenth century as a staunch defender of indigenous land rights and as a scholar of Nahua texts; doña Luz Jiménez, the only published female Nahua prose writer to date, whose short stories and testimonio provide a window into assimilative education for Indian children at the turn of the twentieth century; Ildefonso Maya Hernández, the prolific playwright and cultural promoter whose open-air theater and painted books outline a project of language and cultural recovery/revitalization; and Sabina Cruz de la Cruz, Victoriano de la Cruz Cruz, and Refugio Nava Nava, all present-day Nahua intellectuals who contributed Nahuatl-language statements or think-pieces specifically for this book. These individuals and their work alert us to fact that, contrary to popular belief, Nahuas have continued to think, produce, transmit, and interpret knowledges beyond European contact and conquest. They also demonstrate that along with oral, embodied, musical, and painted modes of expression, Nahuas appropriated and adapted alphabetic writing in order to assess and influence the world around them.

As a practice of decolonial methodologies, I workshopped the texts in my study with Nahua researchers and students, some of whom were encountering Nahua intellectuals and their writing for the very first time. The majority of the texts I have worked with have also been contributed to a curriculum development project for native and non-native speakers of Nahuatl in Mexico. In this way, this project has been aligned with the cultural and linguistic recovery/revitalization projects of Nahua people, and suggests methods of collaborative research related to indigenous thought and writing with an emphasis on what I call “the four ‘Rs’”:

  1. recovering examples of the dynamic trajectory of Nahua intellectualism and writing since conquest;
  2. “restorying” Mexican and Nahua history: repopulating the history of Mexico with indigenous perspectives; including alphabetic writing in the history of Nahua knowledge practices (along with other oral, embodied, and material practices)
  3. repatriating: returning cultural heritage sources to Nahua communities today through collaborative work with Nahua researchers and students
  4. revitalizing: providing sources and space for Nahua intellectual work today

Learn more about the book The Learned Ones. Nahua Intellectuals in Postconquest Mexico here 

Kelly S. McDonoughKelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Spanish & Portuguese



DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.
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