- Locating Early America
On a trip to Mexico City a few years back, I made the requisite pilgrimage to the Museo Nacional de Antropología. Actually I went twice, first as part of an NEH summer seminar focused on Aztlán, the mythico-historic homeland of the Aztec people, then a second time on my own, to understand how stories of nationhood use a native subject. The Museo Nacional, which opened in the 1960s, showcases treasures from across Mexico, although the floor plan clearly favors the Sala Azteca—the room devoted to Tenochtitlan, the empire sacked by Hernan Cortés and the spongy foundation of today’s capital city.
Most of the museum has two floors, the first to showcase historic artifacts and the second (less-trafficked) floor for ethnography. But the Sala Azteca has no second story. Tenochtitlan, by architectural logic, lives within a timeless present. Gray granite walls stretch from floor to ceiling. High on the inside wall, selections of Nahuatl poetry, translated into Spanish, admonish: “This is your glory / This is your mandate / hold these principles to the present / and never forget them.”1 The famed Calendar Stone, set alongside a photograph of Porfirio Díaz, looms over the center-rear third of the room. One has to wait to snap a picture in front of the Calendar Stone; it is a national icon, endlessly reproduced, purchasable in gift shops from Cancún to Juarez, long featured on the deep green jerseys of Mexico’s perennially disappointing football squad. The Sala Azteca uses one historic group to speak for a broader, unstable political unit. If the Aztec-Mexica represent all Mexico, then the capital, the heart of the Distrito Federal, represents an equally glorious—if less bloody—Tenochtitlan. Despite the constant ring of protest in the Zócalo, the statehouse square just a few miles down the Paseo de la Reforma, the national museum sounds a message of unity. And this political fiction starts from a map. At the threshold of the Sala Azteca is an [End Page 765] inlaid floor map that outlines Mexico’s present-day boundaries. As we enter the room, we step onto a white marble platform then over this graphic argument, set in black tile.
The same slip, of native for nation, recalls Barbara E. Mundy’s fantastic contribution to Early American Cartographies (2011), a collection of essays that follows a 2006 Newberry Library conference. Mundy gave a keynote at that conference, and her essay here provides a model for reading maps as cultural artifacts from the colonial period through the nineteenth century and into the present. Mundy concedes that the “question of indigenous peoples” in the “national territory” falls beyond her scope, but the implicit agenda is precisely what makes her inquiry so compelling. Starting from the Atlas geográfico, estadístico é histórico de la República Mexicana (1858), published after a painful territorial loss to the US, she works backward, sifting archaeologically, to recover indigenous practices. Most of the Atlas geográfico is devoted to the 31 Mexican states. Near the end of the volume, however, appear two indigenous texts, including the Mapa de Sigüenza, which chronicled the Aztec migration from Aztlán. On one hand, the Atlas geográfico and its industrial-era equivalents (exhibition halls, railroad maps, and so on) were used by Porfirio Díaz and his ilk to shore up political boundaries. On the other hand, the Mapa de Sigüenza and similar hand-painted lienzos serve as living documents, accepted in court disputes today and still used in community processions, continuing to “destabilize ‘normative’ history and geography” (380).
While unpacking the “ambivalent modernities” in an imagined nation (388), Mundy cites a favorite theoretical conceit of Mesoamericanists, Michel de Certeau’s “spatial stories” (Practice of Everyday Life ) Place implies stability, as Certeau argued in the early 1980s; space is place in motion. As...