- Beyond the Lettered City: Indigenous literacies in the Andes by Joanne Rappaport, Tom Cummins, and: The Lettered Mountain: A Peruvian village’s way with writing by Frank Salomon, Mercedes Niño-Murcia
Both of these works examine practices of literacy among communities that have often been described as illiterate. The protagonists of Joanne Rappaport and Tom Cummins’ Beyond the Lettered City—the Muisca, Pasto and Nasa peoples of the northern Andes—have been typically described as cultures that “lacked” writing prior to the Spanish conquest. They are assumed to have remained “illiterate” throughout much of the colonial period. In this view, literacy was a technology mastered only by the native nobility and by a small group of native scribes, while the majority of indigenous peoples remained on the margins of the literate world.
Similarly, the main actors in Frank Salomon and Mercedes Niño-Murcia’s The Lettered Mountain, the present-day inhabitants of San Andrés de Tupicocha, a peasant community in the Peruvian province of Huarochirí, have a long history of being portrayed as inheritors of a historically “oral” culture, who, up to today, remain only marginally literate. Such assumptions about the Andes have been based, in part, on studies that demonstrate low rates of book ownership, limited access to the printed word in rural Andean villages and on a narrow definition of writing as “spoken language that is recorded or referenced phonetically by visible marks.”1
In their historical ethnography of writing in Tupicocha, anthropologist Frank Salomon and sociolinguist of literacy Mercedes Niño-Murcia have exploded these assumptions. Looking beyond the book and the printed word as the marker of literacy, they encounter a community whose internal literacy practices, both historically and currently, largely take manuscript form. Despite the community’s relatively small library, and the scant number of households that hold more than a few printed works, Tupicocha’s local archive is filled to the brim with manuscript books: administrative records, account books, minutes of community meetings and records of communal work projects. Based on fieldwork conducted by both authors in Tupicocha between 1994 and 2006, this study is largely about this community’s relationship with these texts. It is an ethnography of their grafismo; their “habits and orientation in using scripts” (28). This means studying the events surrounding their production, as well as analyzing the content, structure and properties of these texts, several of which are reproduced in Spanish and English translation within this volume. In this solidly researched work, Salomon and Niño-Murcia demonstrate that writing is fundamental to Tupicochan society. This is a village where “any communal activity is by definition a literacy event; if a group event occurs and is not written down, it is almost as though it never happened” (47). This community not only engages with writing on a regular basis, but continually employs writing to create and organize community life.
Anthropologist Joanne Rappaport and art historian Tom Cummins have likewise demonstrated that the “lettered city” in colonial Spanish America was not the exclusive domain of a handful of educated elites or letrados, as Angel Rama2 would have it. Writing in the vein of Elizabeth Hill Boone and Walter D. Mignolo’s Writing without Words (1994),3 Rappaport and Cummins argue for a broad, almost borderless interpretation of literacy: a literacy that is “constituted by the interaction of... multiple alphabetic genres, visual representations, architectural forms, and legal conventions” (256); a literacy that permeated daily life, being experienced both visually and bodily. They argue that literacy had wide ranging effects for Andean society as a whole, generating extensive cognitive and ideological transformations as northern Andeans engaged with “European symbolic systems” (254). All members of society, regardless of whether they had mastered alphabetic writing, participated in literacy events. Our authors suggest that the northern Andean who witnessed a corregidor ritually kiss a royal decree, who called upon a...