Interview with Justyna Olko and Agnieszka Brylak, authors of “Defending Local Autonomy and Facing Cultural Trauma: A Nahua Order against Idolatry, Tlaxcala, 1543”


Justyna Olko is director of the Center for Research and Practice in Cultural Continuity at the Faculty of “Artes Liberales” of the University of Warsaw. She specializes in the ethnohistory and linguistics of Mesoamerica, with a focus on Nahua language and culture, and is actively involved in the revitalization of Nahuatl and other endangered languages. She is author of several books, including Insignia of Rank in the Nahua World (University Press of Colorado, 2014).

Agnieszka Brylak is an associate professor in the Institute of Iberian and Ibero-American Studies at the University of Warsaw. Her areas of interest are language and culture of pre-Hispanic and colonial Nahuas and, particularly, worldview, religion, and festivals and performances in Mesoamerica and New Spain. She is author of several research papers published in international journals (including Ancient Mesoamerica and the Hispanic Research Journal). 

You can read their article “Defending Local Autonomy and Facing Cultural Trauma: A Nahua Order against Idolatry, Tlaxcala, 1543” in HAHR 98.4.

1. How did you come to focus on Mexico as an area of research?

AB: My interest in Nahua culture arose in 2001 when I was spending my summer holidays in Canada. A friend of mine, whom I met there and who was of Mexican origin, showed me how the shades on the Moon, visible from the Earth, have a form of a rabbit. Then, one year later I began studying in the Institute of Iberian and Ibero-American Studies at the University of Warsaw and during my very first class, which by coincidence was on pre-Columbian history and cultures, I heard the Aztec myth on the creation of the Sun and the Moon in Teotihuacan. According to it, two gods sacrificed themselves and reappeared in the sky as two celestial bodies but the Moon was shining as brightly as the Sun, even though it should have not. To remedy this, the other gods grabbed a rabbit, threw it at the Moon, and made it look the way it looks today. This sacred narrative from Central Mexico changed my life forever and immediately I decided to focus my research on pre-Hispanic and colonial Mexico.

JO: My interest started when I was still a child, around 10–11 years old. It was then when for very romantic reasons I became interested in pre-Columbian cultures. In the light of the literature available at the time, these were poorly studied, exotic cultures. Throughout my years at secondary school and university, I remained resolved to study the pre-Hispanic cultures of America. I completed an interdisciplinary program but obtained my master’s degree from the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Warsaw. After graduation I went to excavate ancient Maya centers out in the Guatemalan jungle and very quickly realized that it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do, that these research methods were limiting the questions I could ask and, even more, the range of answers I wanted to obtain. Therefore I turned to iconographic and written sources and gradually from preconquest to colonial Mexico as my main research area.

2. How did you become interested in learning Nahuatl as part of that research, and why did you feel this was important?

AB: I have always been told that language is one of the portals leading to a better understanding of culture, so once I made up my mind on studying the Nahuas, learning Nahuatl was a logical next step. Fortunately, at the University of Warsaw, there was a class of Classical Nahuatl that I could take. It was taught by Justyna Olko, and this is how we met and started to work together.

JO: From the beginning of my studies I was fascinated by the Aztec language: Nahuatl. I took an introductory course in the language, freshly organized at the university in 1995. Later I learned German for the sole purpose of getting a scholarship to Germany, to what was then the only center in this part of Europe offering systematic Nahuatl classes. After that I continued learning on my own, working with my students (I have been teaching Nahuatl at the University of Warsaw since 2000!) and analyzing original sources. I left archaeology far behind when I started studying the Nahuas and their written texts. I became fascinated by the extensive and rich corpus of written sources produced from the moment the Europeans arrived (the oldest dated document in Nahuatl is the very one discussed in our HAHR article: a 1543 decree against idolatry from Tlaxcala) all the way to the early nineteenth century. This literary tradition flourished for several centuries. But during work on my doctorate, I reached a point when I knew that focus on this textual corpus also wouldn’t be enough.

I have long been fascinated both by pre-Hispanic civilization and by the clash of very different cultures that came with the conquest and its long-term consequences. Usually researchers focus on one period or the other. The Spanish conquest seemed an artificial dividing line to me, and I decided to ignore it as a time limit for my research. This decision was at the center of my doctoral dissertation on the anthropology of costume and insignia of power before the Spanish conquest and afterward, of course without ignoring the consequences of, for example, the introduction of Spanish elements of clothing or cultural changes. Later on, when I started to work on cross-cultural transfer and language change, I realized that the colonial period is yet another limitation on understanding cultural processes more fully. I decided to extend my focus up to present-day Nahua language and culture. I wanted to explore various regional, local trajectories, attempting to reconstruct microrhythms and macrorhythms over a long period of time. I was strongly inspired by James Lockhart’s work in language and culture change in the colonial Nahua world. However, he worked exclusively on colonial sources and believed that the modern language was doomed to extinction and wasn’t as worthy of study as its colonial version. We differed on that point and had many heated disputes about it, but he ultimately acknowledged the legitimacy of my attempt to combine research on early and modern Nahuatl into one cohesive project and was curious to see the results. That was when I decided to learn to speak variants of modern Nahuatl. However, at that time I hadn’t yet questioned the paradigm that asserted that the old Nahua culture no longer existed, that cultural continuity had been broken. But then I left the safe haven of archives, the world of beautiful documents, and was finally able to see what the reality was like. I realized it was now that the language was struggling with its biggest problems and facing the greatest challenge in its history. Despite liberal laws in Mexico on minorities and ethnic languages (all the country’s native tongues have enjoyed the status of “official” languages since 2003), there is ongoing ethnic discrimination and an accelerating shift to the national language. As a historian I hadn’t realized this. Language and culture evolved and changed but preserved their integrity. The core of Nahua culture continues to be transmitted and replicated in the language. I have realized that you cannot study Nahua culture by treating it as an abstract entity, because it involves living people who were and still are the object of multifaceted discrimination, who face cultural and linguistic annihilation. As a researcher, I could neither remain indifferent nor continue to treat Nahua speakers as nothing more than objects of research.

Image from the Huexotzinco Codex (1531). Public domain

Along with other collaborators, especially the members of the Instituto de Docencia e Investigación Etnológica de Zacatecas, we decided to include indigenous researchers in projects being carried out in collaboration between institutions in both Mexico and Poland. The collaboration has aimed to create a space for indigenous reflection that has a real-term social impact, leading to change, empowerment, and discussion. Along with John Sullivan and in collaboration with the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico, we started to hold workshops for speakers of Nahuatl on reading the texts of their ancestors—colonial texts in Nahuatl—because this is not taught at Mexican schools. It is knowledge locked away in an “ivory tower,” reserved for researchers. The result is that today’s Nahuas don’t even know that their ancestors used an alphabetic writing system for their own needs—such as defending their rights in the colonial period. Contemporary Nahuas are often convinced that writing was a tool of Spanish domination. Together we discuss and interpret these old records in modern Nahuatl. The participants are moved because they can read texts by their ancestors for the first time. They grow up being led to believe in a supposed dividing line between the great cultures of the Aztecs and Maya and the “dirty Indians” who speak a language not considered real and legitimate because it is a mixture of Spanish and local dialects. Our joint work gives them a sense of pride in who they are. All of this is part of the development and promotion of “participatory historical culture.” I believe this helps decolonize ethnohistorical research and promotes positive attitudes toward language and historical identities for modern indigenous people in the context of language revitalization. Texts such as the 1543 Tlaxcalan document—which we read collectively in the AGN in October this year with some 40 speakers of Nahuatl—provide examples of colonial agency and can inspire present attitudes and capacity to act with regard to linguistic and cultural heritage.

We also publish books in Nahuatl for community members, including literature and dictionaries, and distribute them for free in Mexico. The latest picture dictionaries for Chicontepec (Veracruz) and Contla (Tlaxcala), produced by two indigenous researchers, Abelardo de la Cruz and Eduardo de la Cruz, and a Polish researcher, Joanna Maryniak, has a historical component meant to show native children their roots. The dictionary is written in Nahuatl and aims to embrace an indigenous perspective. I am also involved in similar language revitalization and empowerment projects with endangered languages in Poland, such as Wymysorys and Lemko

3. Your article centers around a 1543 document from Tlaxcala, Mexico. How did you first come across this document? And when did you first realize its significance?

JO: The document was brought from the archival query in Tlaxcala by our team member of the 2012–17 Europe and America in Contact ERC-funded project along with pictures of other sixteenth-century Tlaxcalan documents. Its transcription and translation were also published in the recent catalog of the Historical Archive of Tlaxcala, but without any mention of the document’s unusual status or date. Then Agnieszka Brylak started to work on the transcription and translation of the document as part of her work with the ERC-funded project. We were very lucky to find this document among the larger sample. When she shared with me her first attempt at transcribing and translating the document, I was struck by both its content and date: I had not seen anything that early before. After a search I confirmed that it was the earliest dated document I could find. I wrote to James Lockhart to let him know about the find in late October 2013. He admitted to being suspicious at first, but then he agreed with my tentative conclusion that it was “indeed the earliest Nahuatl document of Tlaxcala of any kind that I know of” and sent us his “congratulations on the find!”

Regarding the content of the document, my first superficial reading was very different from the final interpretation. It took quite a long time to understand the document’s historical circumstances and possible function for the native nobility in Tlaxcala. As I undertook historical “detective work,” Agnieszka scrutinized the ritual content of the text, comparing it meticulously to inquisitional documents and to what we know about preconquest religious practices. Our joint work on the document’s historical, sociopolitical, and ritual dimensions created the present essay.

4. What tips would you have for scholars hoping to engage in collaborative scholarship, such as a cowritten article?

AB: My experience from the past years, which I spent working in various research groups, convinced me that a collaborative scholarship is one of the best ways of studying, especially in the case of such complex and multilayered material as encapsulated in the 1543 document from Tlaxcala (even though, paradoxically, it barely occupies one page!). Only by combining and balancing various perspectives and joining expertise in different fields was it possible for us to recover the probable original context and use of the manuscript we submitted to the analysis. So, my tip for scholars hoping to engage in a similar scholarly  enterprise would be not to postpone it for too long. Put some care into developing your network of contacts, discuss your ongoing projects with your colleagues or professors. Sharing ideas and looking at the same issue from different points of view helps you to surmount the barriers created artificially by academic disciplines and allows you to deal with it at methodological crossroads.

5. If a reader wanted to discuss these issues and use this article in an undergraduate class, are there any other readings (primary or secondary source readings) that you would recommend it be paired with?

AB: I would definitely recommend reading this article together with the documents from early inquisitorial processes, such the ones against Martín Ocelotl, Andrés Mixcoatl and the Tetzcocan governor don Carlos Ometochtzin. Also, the compilation The Inquisition in New Spain, 1536–1820: A Documentary History (2012), prepared and translated by John F. Chuchiak IV, is an excellent textbook for both students and teachers who want to read more on accusations of idolatry in colonial Mexico, raised not only against the indigenous people but also against mestizos and Spaniards.

6. Read anything good recently?

AB: While working on the topics of idolatry, witchcraft, and sorcery I came across the 2003 book by Charles Zika, Exorcising Our Demons. Magic, Witchcraft and Visual Culture in Early Modern Europe, which I found entertaining and at the same time extremely insightful. It combines the analysis of alphabetic texts and visual representations and ingeniously disposes of some common myths concerning European popular culture. However, for the readers willing to disconnect for a while from the academic discourse, I would always recommend a series of short fantasy stories The Witcher by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski.

Top image: Working on an original Nahuatl document, Archivo Histórico de Tlaxcala (© Justyna Olko).

Author photos: Justyna Olko (© Miroslaw Kazmierczak and University of Warsaw); Agnieszka Brylak courtesy from department page.

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