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The Aesthetic Dimension and Individual Creation in Prehispanic Nahuatl Poetry

Lorena del Carmen Rodas-Ramírez, Fellow 2006–2007

Prehispanic peoples who spoke Nahuatl seem to have developed a complex approach to artistic creation through their poetry. Such creation mirrors to a large extent the intricate and in many cases contradictory nature of the society from which it arose. In contrast with other Pre-Columbian languages, Nahuatl—the primary language of central Mexico—comprises a group of texts transcribed after the Conquest using the Latin alphabet. These texts known as cantares are compiled in two major collections: Cantares mexicanos and Romances de los Señores de la Nueva España.

Although scholarship regards these Nahuatl texts as poetry, the most important research has not come from the field of literature but rather anthropology, history, and linguistics. Most scholars devoted to the study and interpretation of Latin American literature have shown virtually no interest in a literary approach to these texts.

For this reason, one of the main objectives of my dissertation is to explore the question of whether or not this corpus has artistic value and to establish the place and importance that it deserves within the history of Latin American literature. In addition, I intend to tackle problems of orality and writing, and of the origin, date, and authorship of the texts – issues that have been a major source of controversy during the past twenty years.

The present project relates to the second chapter of my thesis which focuses on the reception of the cantares through time: how, by whom, and for what purposes they have been appropriated, the manner in which their appreciation and valuation have changed through different historical and ideological periods, and the role they played in the configuration of a Mexican national identity.

At Dumbarton Oaks, I have been able to take a close look at the manuscripts and works of Spanish missionaries, indigenous chroniclers, and European, native, and criollo scholars who mentioned the cantares at various historical periods and/or devoted their attention to these poetic texts through the centuries. The examination and comparison of these sources, particularly the ones written from the 19th century onwards, have brought to the surface—and to my own attention—some unexpected revelations. The chief one is the fact that the passionate debates on the origin and dates of the cantares that have developed during the last two decades are rooted in the various ways in which Mexican scholars and intellectuals have dealt with their indigenous past, and the role it has played in the building of a national identity. Moreover, since some of these works have included not only alphabetical writing but also glyphs and painted images, I have had the opportunity to expand my research into some of the most recent theories in the field of cultural studies that question, redefine, and amplify Western traditional concepts such as writing. These theories become vital if we expect to approach the cantares from broader and more inclusive perspectives.