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MLN 116.2 (2001) 419-452

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Expanding Ethnicity in Sixteenth-Century Anahuac:
Ideologies of Ethnicity and Gender in the Nation-Building Process

Thomas Ward

Una sociedad se define no sólo por su actitud ante
el futuro sino frente al pasado . . .

Octavio Paz, Las trampas de la fe

It is common knowledge that ethnicity has played an important role in defining nations. This was certainly true during the sixteenth century when Spain and Portugal were expanding their empires and creating subclasses of people who were of non-European origin. Unfortunately, because the terms ethnicity and nation both evoke multiple meanings, it is difficult to understand the relationship between these two categories. Happily the twentieth century has fostered much research on the nation and the impact of ethnicity upon it. 1 Furthermore there has been much progress in the task of decolonizing what Adorno has called "historical literary scholarship" (Adorno, Guaman Poma 3). Others such as Pastor (3) have advanced techniques for "demythifying discourses." Since Gibson, a path has been created which has shown us how to treat native and mestizo 2 [End Page 419] sources with the same dignity and respect as was previously afforded to the Spanish chroniclers. 3 Recent theory on transculturation, heterogeneity, hybridization and multicultural awareness shed light on the process which occurs when men and women of different ethnicities come together. 4 This research can help us to understand more objectively the complex "shock" which occurred when Spain and Anahuac (the Aztecs) were violently thrown together to build a new society. In the pages that follow I will attempt a rereading of a number of sixteenth-century chronicles (plus one from the seventeenth). I will offer a step by step analysis of how the workings of mestizaje took place and how the roles of men and women differed in this process.

Smith (20) differentiates three perspectives on ethnicity. For some "it has a primordial quality." For others it "is situational," and for still others, it is "a type of cultural collectivity." From these three attitudes we can conclude that ethnicity is fluid in time and space, related to the perspective from which it is contemplated. The same is true with our complex understanding of the nation. The meaning of the term "nation" has been hotly debated since the publication of Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities in 1983. Yet again it is Smith (40) who provides a good working definition of a nation, "a named human population sharing a historic territory, common myths and historical memories, a mass, popular culture, a common economy and common legal rights and duties for all members." Smith (40) distinguishes between etnia and nation. With the former "the link with a territory may be only historical and symbolic," while the latter "possess territories." While the ethnic groups who inhabited the Anahuac Valley at the time of the conquest would not completely satisfy Smith's twentieth-century requirements for nationhood, they did in fact share common territory, myths and history. They could also be described as being a "named human population." These groups could be understood as nations or protonations. And in fact [End Page 420] they were viewed as nations by some sixteenth-century chroniclers, both Spanish and mestizo.

The term "nación" became more common as the sixteenth century matured. When Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1492?-1584) comments on his experience, he refers to Tlaxcalan or Cholulan political/social structures as towns (112a, 116a), cities (152a, 156a), provinces (113a) or "comarcas" (138a). 5 He calls those places by their proper names, Cempoal, Tlaxcala or Cholula. The people from such entities could be "los de Cempoal" (126a), "los de Tlaxcala" (119a), or "los de Cholula" (155a). He even notices religious differences between different peoples, commenting how the different provinces each had their own deity (196a). The different districts were ruled over by "reyezuelos," little kings (286a). In the earlier Guatemala manuscript Díaz had written that "kings" ruled over provinces, not nations (285b). In general Díaz avoids the term "nation." A review of Cortés...