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Response to Review of Annals of Native America: How the Nahuas of Colonial Mexico Kept Their History Alive

It is always a pleasure to have one’s work reviewed by a fellow scholar who is equally at home with the material. In this case, I have the further pleasure of finding myself in conversation with one who also shares my interest in bringing studies of Mexico’s indigenous peoples before a wider audience than such studies normally attract. Indeed, it is the latter issue that forms the crux of Professor Restall’s gentle critique. It was clear to him as a reader that the author desired accessibility – but far less clear that she had actually achieved it.

I would submit that herein lies the great challenge of our generation, if we consider ourselves scholars of some part of the Global South. No longer are we content – or expected to be content – with writing fine-grained studies of peoples of far-away lands and times which few people will ever read. The Global South is now supposed to be in dialogue – literally and figuratively – with more powerful segments of the world. And yet this is easier said than done. When I write about colonial North America (as I sometimes do) I can refer off-handedly to indentured servitude or the Virginia House of Burgesses and assume that an educated English-speaking audience will understand; not so if I mention the Audience of Mexico, or the encomienda system, or even native tribute. I find that when I mention even to highly educated audiences that indigenous people in Mexico used the Roman alphabet to transcribe oral performances in their own language, I am met with blank stares and must back up a considerable number of steps. It thus becomes profoundly difficult to speak at a high level about early Mexico and yet be fully understood by a non-specialist audience.

Our problems in this regard are less severe than they once were. I recently had cause to read the contemporary reviews of Charles Gibson’s seminal work The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule (1964). I was stunned to find that a number of scholars simply couldn’t understand him, although his prose was, to my mind, entirely clear. One writer grumbled, ‘It is not possible to avoid being somewhat bewildered by the multitude of formidable Mexican names that are scattered in unnecessary profusion throughout the text itself’.(1) I am grateful that I do not live in an era when I will be accused of including ‘unnecessary’ words in Spanish or Nahuatl! And yet even though the world does now acknowledge the right of such words to be present, we have not yet found a way to render broad audiences comfortable with them when they come in profusion.

Restall does offer some specific suggestions – the inclusion of a map, for instance, or a section of the introduction explaining the New Philology. I do wish I had included both. And yet I think the fact remains that even if I had, only colonial Mexicanists would ever have been entirely comfortable with the work. I suppose I believe that we must keep gamely trying – advertising our studies’ relevance with broad titles, writing without excess numbers of subordinate clauses, keeping the glossary up front. Sometimes we must and will write books and articles meant only for our closest peers, and sometimes we will write books meant only for undergraduates. But I believe we must not give up on writing works that can at least speak to some extent to other types of scholars. That the book has won a number of awards would seem to indicate that it has taken a step in that direction. We can but try!

Notes

  1. John Outwater, ‘Review of The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule’, Technology and Culture 6, 2 (1965), 274–6.Back to (1)