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The Nahuas After the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth Through Eighteenth Centuries.

The impact of conquest and colonization upon indigenous peoples within Latin America is mostly written using Iberian produced documents faute de mieux. In central Mexico, the speakers of Nahuatl or the Nahuas, as James Lockhart designates them, adopted the Latin alphabet and European forms of writing rapidly and produced a large corpus of documents which until the last two decades was virtually ignored by historians and other specialists. Lockhart examines the society and culture of the Nahuas through an inventive use of primarily notarial documents written in Nahuatl by mostly Nahua scribes. Other sources include literary or artistic texts, paintings or plans, land titles, some of the texts commissioned by the Spanish, and finally annals, particularly the richly informative text by Chimalpahin.

The term Nahua is used to specify a common cultural and linguistic heritage but not a political entity which the terms Aztec or Mexico might erroneously represent. The Nahuas, although linked by language and culture, were often sworn enemies and also mostly perceived their entities as deriving from distinct origins. Although, some of these units were connected by imperial ties, military alliances or political domination, they did not represent an incipient state nor any kind of political solidarity at the time of the Spanish conquest.

Both historians and anthropologists of colonial Mexico have grappled with the process of change within Nahua society and since the monumental work of Charles Gibson The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule, most have accepted a certain resilience of indigenous structures. Lockhart is conscious of building upon this tradition yet by using Nahuatl documentation, he is able to present the Nahuas on their own terms rather than mediated through the presuppositions and prejudices of the Spanish. He hones and perfects the analysis of this process of adaptation and presents much more precise information regarding the transformations of Nahua culture. Indeed, some of Lockhart's conclusions are at variance with Gibson, particularly his notion of the continuation of social hierarchies in Nahua society well into the eighteenth century. This view contradicts the previous accepted notion of a levelling of indigenous society and the loss of the top layers of elite native organization.

The Nahuas adjusted to Spanish society more often than not on their own terms, according to Lockhart, and meshed their own structures into Iberian modes and patterns. Even some manifestations, which on the surface seem totally within the realm of Europe, have Nahua underpinnings. For example, the murals of the convent of Malinalco which seem to represent a European vision of the garden of Eden contain both a Nahua song scroll and themes which are manifestly derived from Nahua symbols and philosophy. Lockhart deals with this pattern of change and continuity within different themes. The book is divided into eight chapters dealing with: the altepetl ("ethnic state"), the household, social differentiation, land and living, religious life, language, ways of writing, and forms of expression. The sections stand on their own and could be read out of sequence but studied in order they build the image of change which Lockhart develops.

Lockhart posits a three stage schema to explain the process of transformation which the Nahuas underwent. In the first stage, ranging from the arrival of Cortes in Mexico (1519) to about 1540 or 1550, Lockhart noted few innovations and despite the upheaval of the arrival of the Spanish and military conquest, he characterizes this period as one of "relative stasis." From the end of this first period to the middle of the seventeenth century, the author notes more widespread transformation and a reorganization at the local level. The beginning of this period corresponded to the first generations after the conquest. During this phase, the Nahuas began to borrow Spanish words as well as Iberian concepts, techniques or even organizational modes. Finally, Lockhart proposes a third stage, in which another round of reorganization took place. This final round of transformation began at about 1649-50 but its results are still relevant for speakers of Nahuatl today. In this third phase, Spanish and Nahua ways fused into a new cultural manifestation. The persistence of Nahua forms of thinking within texts which on the surface seem exclusively Iberian shows this amalgamation of cultures. These stages can be perceived in each of the sections Lockhart explores although they are seen most clearly in his discussion of language and writing.

Although Lockhart necessarily peppers his text with Nahuatl terminology, he gracefully provides explanations for the nonspecialist and his clarifications are so coherently presented that this book should be accessible to a wide audience. Lockhart is extremely deft in his handling of the data and elegant in his prose. His inventive use of information derived from notarial documents seems to bring alive the Nahua way of thinking.

Although on the surface, this book may seem oriented to the specialist, it should be of interest to anyone working with indigenous peoples and especially those studying the conquest of aboriginal peoples by European powers. The corpus of Nahuatl documents which Lockhart mines so richly may not exist elsewhere with the exception of the Maya civilization and thus it may be hard to replicate such a lush and fruitful study yet it may have implications for other civilizations.
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Author:Lipsett-Rivera, Sonya
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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