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Reviewed by:
  • Anna M. Nogar
McDonough, Kelly S. The Learned Ones: Nahua Intellectuals in Postconquest Mexico. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 2014. 260 pp.

An essential addition to the growing field of Mexican indigenous studies, The Learned Ones: Nahua Intellectuals in Postconquest Mexico breaks ground not only for the important recovery work it accomplishes, but also for the dialogue Kelly McDonough establishes as fundamental to the interlocution of indigenous language and knowledge. Throughout this outstanding text, McDonough enacts a unique ethnographic approach that juxtaposes first-person, contemporary Nahuatl-language text with superb literary and historical research covering over five centuries of Nahua intellectual production.

This ambitious book accomplishes two important objectives. The first reconstructs a continuous intellectual tradition of indigenous Nahua knowledge from the sixteenth century to the present day. In the chapters treating this topic, McDonough examines the Nahua linguistic work of indigenous Jesuit priest Antonio del Rincón (1566–1601); Tlaxcalan community histories created by seventeenth century intellectual Juan Buenaventura Zapata y Mendoza; the politically complex career and writings of Faustino Galicia Chimalpopoca (1822–77); Luz Jiménez's (1897–1965) testimonial texts and personal recounting of the Mexican Revolution; and the writing, performance, and art of Idelfonso Maya Hernández (1936–2011).

Interspersed between these chapters are shorter entries comprised of Nahua-language accounts of indigenous language suppression and recovery shared by Refugio Nava Nava, Victoriano de la Cruz Cruz, and Sabina Cruz de la Cruz (English-language translations accompany). McDonough provides further context for contemporary Nahua language engagement through her exploration of the IDIEZ Project (Zacatecas Institute for Teaching and Research in Ethnology) in which she notes the institute's pivotal role as an "advanced degree program at [End Page 723] a university in Mexico that utilizes indigenous language and/or cultural values as the vehicle and framework to study that language and culture" (61). The Learned Ones's unique organization and content are the outward manifestation of a reflective process McDonough elaborates and contextualizes in the chapter on Luz Jiménez. McDonough explains in the chapter the bridging principles that guided her research, describing Reading Circles in which she and indigenous readers collaborated in reading Nahua texts: "Reading Circles were a space to begin a practice of dialoguing with and learning from a people that have traditionally been talked at and written about" (27). This posture of interchange and mutual learning characterizes The Learned Ones, and is the book's extraordinary and paradigm-shifting contribution to the field.

The longer chapters on indigenous intellectual production are equally perceptive and important. McDonough's enumeration of Nahua works and producers demonstrates her command of the field, and she makes the material eminently understandable for a broad readership. In her analysis of Jesuit priest Antonio del Rincón and his Arte mexicana (1584), McDonough reframes our understanding both of Rincón and his understudied linguistic text. One of few ordained indigenous men of his epoch, Rincón authored the first grammar of an American indigenous language written by a native speaker. McDonough incisively reveals not only the uniqueness of Rincón's subject position, but also the rare achievement of his intellectual work: contrastive linguistics executed in the European humanistic tradition, although "in the hands of the native speaker, Nebrija bends to Nahuatl" (51).

In the book's second chapter, McDonough explains how Don Juan Buenaventura Zapata y Mendoza's seventeenth-century Nahua-language Historia cronológica de la noble ciudad de Tlaxcala reasserted Tlaxcalan noble autonomy and historical memory at a time when changing colonial politics eroded the altepetl's imperial exceptionality. She convincingly argues that Zapata y Mendoza's text reveals a "vivid firsthand record of the Tlaxcalan elite's nuanced understanding of the relationships among colonial politics, religion and the law" (64), and shows that the document itself enacted for Tlaxcalans their historical political agency and rights.

The study of politician Faustino Galicia Chimalpopoca is a particularly welcome intervention, for as McDonough notes, nineteenth-century Mexico is "rarely considered a hotbed of Nahua intellectual activity" (89). As McDonough explains, this perception exits due to political policies that eliminated the category of "indigenous" for Mexican citizenry, and to the declaration of Spanish as the Mexican Republic...


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pp. 723-725
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