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40  2 The Pre-Columbian Past as a Project: Miguel León-Portilla and Hispanism Ignacio M. Sánchez-Prado And the problem is that man, perplexed, does not succeed in grasping the indigenous being. His image becomes faint, his being is oscillating and blurry; mystery beats behind his pupils and, in every bend of his world, hidden, the enigmatic, double-faced sign of his profile appears. —Luis Villoro. Los grandes momentos del indigenismo en México (110) Defining the state of the Nahuatl literature studies prior to the 1950s is simple: they were nonexistent. In his classical essay “Visión de Anáhuac,” for instance, Alfonso Reyes regrets that the system of the poetry of the ancient Mexicans was lost and that the only thing remaining is a group of fragments recorded by the Spanish, fragments that, in Reyes’s opinion, do not give account of the poetry as an activity in Pre-Columbian times (13). Even as late as the 1940s, in his landmark history of Latin American literature Literary Currents in Hispanic America , Pedro Henríquez Ureña completely omitted any mention of Pre-Columbian literature and began his account with the Conquest. These two examples, coming from some of the most prominent advocates of Latin American culture, are only random illustrations of the enormous ignorance scholars had of ancient indigenous culture. This ignorance, needless to say, is even more overwhelming when one considers that many of those scholars claimed the indigenous past as a fundamental part of “our identity.” The situation today is quite different, as we find that the discipline has grown enormously in the past fifty years, in which, starting almost from scratch, it constructed and institutionalized something we might call “Pre-Columbian knowledge.” The primary figure responsible for this shift is Miguel León-Portilla. *MoranaFinalPages.indd 40 12/1/04 7:12:55 PM THE PRE-COLUMBIAN PAST AS A PROJECT 41 Based on the seminal works of Ángel María Garibay, León-Portilla has written a considerable number of books and essays which provides the foundations for the study of the scarce and complex textualities that compose the corpus known as “Nahuatl literature.” His contributions range from the paleography of manuscripts to the construction of a theoretical apparatus used to approach the form, content, and context of the “texts.” He is also one of the founders of the most important academic institution in the field (the Seminar on Nahuatl Culture at the National University of Mexico, created in 1957) and of the most important publication in the field (Estudios de cultura náhuatl, a 32 year-old journal published by the Seminar). Moreover, León-Portilla is recognized as one of the most outspoken advocates for indigenous causes, which has earned him membership in and awards from many important institutions in Mexico and abroad. In short, the core of the discipline is centered on the work of this man and the critical school he has founded.1 In the following pages, I will analyze the Hispanist and nationalist foundations of Nahuatl literary studies as represented in León-Portilla’s work. This articulation revolves around three approaches to the Nahuatl question: The recovery of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún’s methodology, the modern appropriations of Bartolomé de las Casas’s advocacy of Indian causes (including its consequences in the constitution of a national discourse in Mexico and in the use of Pre-Columbian culture in contemporary identity politics), and the role of Spanish language in the construction of the relationship between the national project and the specific agendas of the indígenas, addressing particularly the role of the Spanish language as lingua franca amongst the different ethnic groups. These three topics, I believe, fairly represent the essential problems established both at the conceptual and ideological levels of León-Portilla’s project and the way in which this project reflects on the objects of study and ideological agendas surrounding Nahuatl literature. The first half of the twentieth century in Mexico can be characterized as a very active ground for discussing the nature of both national and LatinAmerican identities. From the fertile intellectual activity of the “Ateneo de la Juventud” to the somewhat inane discussions on the nature of national literature, the culture of the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath produced considerable national awareness, and the intellectual need to define the “imagined community” at the foundation of the new Mexican State.2 The relationship between indigenismo...


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