Recently I had a discussion with a young Anglo boy who'd read my Cradle chapter book. I needed to know how a story filled with Azteca lore would come across to a non-mexicano. What impressed me most was his fascination with a mythology he'd never heard of. Like many USicans who have flawed or minimal awareness of the advanced civilizations that existed in Mesoamerica and the Andes.
The news that the Vatican Library had begun digitizing thousands of ancient manuscripts doesn't excite me, at least. Unless it results in thousands of Mayan and Aztec codices reaching the world's peoples. That's not likely to happen.
In 1562 in Yucatan, Bishop Diego de Landa wrote: "We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction."
Following his creed of one-god-to-rule-them-all, Landa systemically led an inquisition eliminating the libraries, librarians, scribes and almost all fluency in reading and writing of Mayan literature.
Aztec, Náhuatl, Mexica and related works in central Mexico fared no better. From Mexicolore: "Amoxtli or amoxtin (plural) is the Náhuatl (language of the Aztecs) word for book. According to sixteenth century sources, the Aztecs had vast libraries that explored many different subjects from family histories, to religious books. The Spanish conquistadors, who conquered the city of Tenochtitlan in 1521, rejected many aspects of Aztec culture and destroyed these libraries and their contents because of their non-Christian subject matter."
There are two known, surviving pre-Hispanic Aztec codices.
The Codex Borbonicus and the Tonalamatl Aubin.
Imagine if there were only two extant, ancient Roman manuscripts. Or Chinese. Or Islamic. Or only two ancient Greek manuscripts survived all the conquests. If you can imagine the vacuum of scientific and engineering knowledge, of prose and poetry, of history and memoirs the world would have with only two Greek manuscripts, then you might be able to gauge the travesty that befell mestizo descendants of Mexico. To me, it's unfathomable, a word perfectly fitting this monumental loss.
Despite its southern neighbor, U.S. institutions have little reason to honor, respect or spread knowledge about Mesoamerican traditions, heritage or achievements. Other than as museum exhibits or fodder for a Disney-type-distorted movie by Mel Gibson.
USicans learn the constellations according to Classical Europe, but nothing about Maya explorations and mapping of the heavens. Because the Maya libraries were burned.
The Greek alphabet is used in our science and math, but Maya glyphs and Náhuatl terminology have no place in U.S. culture. Partially because their science was totally removed from history. And all their astronomy charts, destroyed. Then there's just handfuls of their poetry. Music sheets? Medical journals? Ja.
So in which country are the ancient Mesoamerican cultures honored? Respected, passed on to their children and students? Mexico, that relies on pyramid-tourism to prop its economy? That might've once been true, but….
"Dinorah Lejarazú is a modern-day scribe who lives and works in Mexico City. She’s been meticulously reproducing Mexican codices by hand for many years and her work is of fine quality. Several of her codices are on permanent exhibition in the National Anthropology Museum in the capitol. You’d think she would have gained widespread recognition. Think again.
"Amazingly, there’s no acknowledgement in the Museum of Anthropology to Dinorah as the painter of the facsimile codices on display. Worse, a few years ago she donated 200 hand-drawn copies of the Codex Boturini to the Mexican Ministry of Education (SEP) for use in schools. She heard nothing more until, to her utter astonishment, a friend alerted her to a radio advert offering (her) copies of the Codex for sale (to tourists) in the Anthropology Museum shop. Upset, she immediately recovered them: they have languished ever since in a cupboard in her house.
"In Mexico every single initiative that we hear of to enrich the country’s history curriculum bites the dust for lack of institutional support. Dinorah’s negative experiences appear to be the tip of the iceberg; many Mexican schools that call themselves ‘bilingual’ turn out to be that in name only; over 100 native languages have died out since the Conquest.
"When we met Dr. Miguel León-Portilla (August 2010), he told us from his own experience of the most blatant discrimination received by indigenous communities trying to find support from government for education/language/literacy projects. Everyone we spoke to confirmed that, since the notorious education reforms of 1994, whole generations of Mexican children are growing up with virtually no awareness of the high civilizations that make up their rich past. This is shameful and a sad indictment, after 200 years of independence, of the priorities chosen by successive Mexican governments (including the present one)."
"Like ancient scribes, Dinorah remains passionate about her work. She has studied the art of the Aztec/Mexica tlacuilo or scribe. Her son is a scholar with CIESAS (a key Mexican research centre) who has researched and published important studies of ancient Mexican codices."
So which country would you least expect to be supporting the acquisition and furthering of Mesoamerica?
"Dinorah uses the finest materials to create her facsimiles--animal skins (calf today since it’s illegal to use deer skin in Mexico) that must be painstakingly scraped and then coated with stucco (very thin plaster) to ‘hold’ the ink, pigments and colors that she sources from around the world. Before starting work on a codex, Dinorah offers a simple prayer or dedicatio, and encourages Mexican school children to do the same, as a mark of respect for pre-Columbian traditional beliefs."
"She heard of Mexicolore’s work in British schools teaching Aztec/Mexica culture and with extensive use of replica codices. She asked her grandson to retrieve from a shed a suitcase-worth of over a hundred of her reproduction codex pages, all drawn in black-and-white on amate bark paper--the same ones she had offered to Mexican schools in 1992 - and donated them to Mexicolore as a resource for primary schools studying the Aztecs in England.
"In the face of this generosity and goodwill, we can’t help feeling that it’s ironic, infuriating, and disheartening to realise that, by all accounts, we are doing so much in England, with scant resources, to bring Mexico’s Aztec/Mexica past to life for thousands of children."
If you want to support Dinorah's art and even purchase her work, you can contact her through Mexicolore. If you want your kids to learn about Classical Mesoamerica, I suppose you could enroll her in British schools. Explore Mexicolore's website for info on the Aztecs; their Maya component was only recently initiated and is still being compiled. If you are a mesoamerican descendant who wants to learn and spread knowledge of your ancestors, there are books, recent ones from tejano David Bowles--The Smoking Mirror: Garza Twins; Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry; or Mexican Bestiary. Readers of this column should suggest more.
[The description of present-day Mexico's treatment of its historical past is from Mexicolore. I have no personal knowledge or experience of what is going on. Anymore than I can vouch for Mexicolore, although I've relied on their website for much information. And none of this absolves England's colonialist history. They do need to give the Egyptian relics back to the people of Egypt. And chingos of other parts of the world.]
It is apparently up to us, the descendants of the ancient American civilizations to widen the world's knowledge about the pyramid-builders, stargazers and poets who works were burned. Through scholarly works, through fiction, with fantasy and fable, we will never do enough to erase the crimes and sins of the Spanish priests, soldier and administrators.
Pero, si no nosotros, entonces quién?
RudyG, a.k.a. speculative fiction author of some works about our mesoamerican heritage