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Ethnohistory 48.1-2 (2001) 361-363

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Book Review

A Guide to Confession Large and Small in the Mexican Language, 1634

A Guide to Confession Large and Small in the Mexican Language, 1634. By Bartolomé de Alva. Edited by Barry D. Sell and John Frederick Schwaller with Lu Ann Homza. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999. x + 174 pp., editors’ introductions, illustration, bibliography, index. $40.00 cloth.)

Don Bartolomé de Alva was one of any number of native intellectuals living in or near Mexico City during the first half of the seventeenth century. A descendant of the royal house of King Neçahualpilli of Tetzcoco, yet a mestizo by birth, don Bartolomé’s family enjoyed titles, privileges, and wealth tracing from the precontact era. His brother, the famous historian don Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, held prestigious positions as a political official and court interpreter. Both men were bilingual and biliterate and seemingly moved between Spanish and native Nahua milieus with ease. However, one cannot help but wonder about the circumstances that provoked don Fernando, as an official representative for the Nahuas, to write his histories only in Spanish for a non-native readership. On the other hand, his younger brother’s social circle, it appears, was that of Hispanic clerics; yet he wrote in Nahuatl, the lingua franca of native Mexico City.

Don Bartolomé was a college graduate and a Catholic priest, and as part of his ministry in 1634 he wrote and published a Spanish-Nahuatl guide to confession to help clerics with incomplete knowledge of Nahuatl to get a sense of what they were to do and say. Ostensibly it was to refine the Nahuatl terminology used in older native ecclesiastical treatises, and it was to help the priests root out idolatry and achieve a "purer form of Christianity" (12). Concerns about idolatry, of course, were ongoing, but they also served to justify the church’s mission in the Americas. Indeed, Padre Alva knew just what to look for, and these insights are in large part what make this book so interesting, for they are telling of continuities of ancient religious practices more than one hundred years after the first Spanish invasion.

Alva furnishes both a long and an abbreviated guide to be used during [End Page 361] Lent. Essentially, his Guide to Confession follows the medieval canon for the sacrament of penance and includes Nahuatl translations of the Nicene Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ave Maria, the Salve, the Ten Commandments, and the Seven Sacraments. The book begins with an admonition regarding one’s spirituality and then proceeds with prescribed questions and answers for the prospective confessant. But laced into the translations of the Latin and Spanish theological formulae are queries about such things as dream quests and the consumption of hallucinogens. Other worries include the natives’ worship of chalchiuitl (precious stones) in their homes and their funerary rites, such as when breast milk was stored in a reed or sprinkled over the grave of a dead child. Nor could worship of Tlaloc and other deities (Ahuaques), with offerings of candles, copal incense, and food, be condoned. Moreover, Nahuas failed to confess their big sins, and instead enumerated only little ones. Now they were to use kernels of dried corn to reckon their many transgressions to reconcile themselves with the Catholic Almighty.

The absence of equivalent theological concepts in Nahuatl was always a challenge for translators; for example, for the Christian hell, Alva offers Mictlan (Place of the Dead), or Atlecalocan (Place without a Chimney), or Apochquiahuayocan (Place without a Smoke Vent). The Guide places the burden on the confessant for just about every possible misdeed, and the Nahuas are harangued repeatedly about the consumption of pulque, wine, and other intoxicating beverages. Alva’s scholia reiterate particular problems.

There are three editors with their respective introductions to Alva’s Guide: John Frederick Schwaller brings together just about all that we can possibly know of the history of the Alva/Alva Ixtlilxochitl households; Barry D. Sell treats the Nahuatl-related ecclesiastical incunabula of New Spain...


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