The most recent issue of Ethnohistory entitled “Colonial Mesoamerican Literacy: Method, Form, and Consequence,” is “overstuffed with expertise and insight, corpulent with many lifetimes of immersion in indigenous languages and cultural traditions,” journal editor Matthew Restall writes in the Preface. This special issue edited by Kathryn E. Sampeck includes ten articles in history, anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, literature, and art history. The articles illustrate how all kinds of symbolic communication are part of the matrix of literacy and broadens the notions of canonical colonial writing by showing that formulaic texts were in fact variable and entrenched in local dialects and history. Topics include scribal variation and interaction, pictorial texts, Mayan translations of European astrological texts, change in literacy and literature in Guatemala, Maya medical incantations, and alphabetic literacy. The issue also includes a color image gallery to complement the articles.
If you find this interesting, you may also wish to read our books, which focus on literacy in colonial Latin America. In The Cord Keepers, the distinguished anthropologist Frank Salomon breaks new ground with a close ethnography of one Andean village where villagers, surprisingly, have conserved a set of these enigmatic cords to the present day. The “quipocamayos,” as the villagers call them, form a sacred patrimony. Keying his reading to the internal life of the ancient kin groups that own the khipus, Salomon suggests that the multicolored cords, with their knots and lavishly woven ornaments, did not mimic speech as most systems of writing do, but instead were anchored in nonverbal codes. The Cord Keepers makes a compelling argument for a close intrinsic link between rituals and visual-sign systems. It indicates that, while Andean graphic representation may differ radically from familiar ideas of writing, it may not lie beyond the reach of scholarly interpretation.
Frank Salomon continues his investigation into Andean literacy in The Lettered Mountain. In this book, he and Mercedes Niño-Murcia expand notions of literacy and challenge stereotypes of Andean “orality” by analyzing the writings of mountain villagers from Inka times to the Internet era. Their historical ethnography is based on extensive research in the village of Tupicocha, in the central Peruvian province of Huarochirí. The region has a special place in the history of Latin American letters as the home of the unique early-seventeenth-century Quechua-language book explaining Peru’s ancient gods and priesthoods. Granted access to Tupicocha’s surprisingly rich internal archives, Salomon and Niño-Murcia found that legacy reflected in a distinctive version of lettered life developed prior to the arrival of state schools. In their detailed ethnography, writing emerges as a vital practice underlying specifically Andean sacred culture and self-governance. At the same time, the authors find that Andean relations with the nation-state have been disadvantaged by state writing standards developed in dialogue with European academies but not with the rural literate tradition.
In Beyond the Lettered City, the anthropologist Joanne Rappaport and the art historian Tom Cummins examine the colonial imposition of alphabetic and visual literacy on indigenous groups in the northern Andes. They consider how the Andean peoples received, maintained, and subverted the conventions of Spanish literacy, often combining them with their own traditions. Indigenous Andean communities neither used narrative pictorial representation nor had alphabetic or hieroglyphic literacy before the arrival of the Spaniards. To absorb the conventions of Spanish literacy, they had to engage with European symbolic systems. Doing so altered their worldviews and everyday lives, making alphabetic and visual literacy prime tools of colonial domination. Rappaport and Cummins advocate a broad understanding of literacy, including not only reading and writing, but also interpretations of the spoken word, paintings, wax seals, gestures, and urban design. By analyzing secular and religious notarial manuals and dictionaries, urban architecture, religious images, catechisms and sermons, and the vast corpus of administrative documents produced by the colonial authorities and indigenous scribes, they expand Ángel Rama’s concept of the lettered city to encompass many of those who previously would have been considered the least literate.