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  • The Learned Ones: Nahua Intellectuals in Postconquest Mexico by Kelly S. McDonough
  • Daniel Nemser
McDonough, Kelly S. The Learned Ones: Nahua Intellectuals in Postconquest Mexico. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 2014. 280 pp. ISBN: 978-08-1653-421-0.

If Ángel Rama's La ciudad letrada (1984) secured the place of the intellectual in the field of Latin American literary and cultural studies, until recently indigenous intellectuals have been largely overlooked. This is partly a consequence of the enduring conceptual association of indigeneity with orality and in opposition to the written word. Yet the proliferation of Nahuatl texts in colonial Mexico indicates that this assumption could not be further from the truth. This is the point of departure for Kelly S. McDonough's fascinating study, which traces the political and cultural significance of Nahua intellectualism from the colonial period to the present day.

The Learned Ones is divided into five main chapters, chronologically organized and each focused on the life and work of a different figure. Chapter 1 considers the Jesuit Antonio del Rincón, one of the few non-European priests to be ordained in sixteenth-century New Spain. Comparing Rincón's Nahuatl grammar to others written [End Page 211] by Spanish friars, McDonough foregrounds this native speaker's unique contribution to a categorical description of the language and, consequently, to the colonial project of evangelization. His grammar was the first to include phonological aspects like contrastive vowel length which, though nearly imperceptible to non-native speakers, could radically alter the meaning of phrases – an indigenous man might be told, for example, "to cut off his hands and drink, as opposed to washing his hands and bowing his head" before sitting down to a meal (54). Another colonial writer, the Tlaxcalan noble Juan Buenaventura Zapata y Mendoza, is the focus of chapter 2. His annals history recorded important events in the polity, above all the activities of the indigenous municipal council. By the seventeenth century, when Zapata wrote, the political and economic privileges that had been awarded to Tlaxcala for its early alliance with Cortés were coming under increasing pressure. Zapata's manuscript captures this context of crisis and the authorities' ultimately unsuccessful struggles to defend these special rights through public spectacles emphasizing their pre-Hispanic noble lineage, loyalty to the crown, and true conversion to Christianity.

In chapter 3, McDonough transitions to the period following political independence in the nineteenth century. As an attorney and administrator versed in both colonial and national law, Faustino Galicia Chimalpopoca worked to defend indigenous lands from expropriation at a time when colonial protections had been dismantled under the formal equality of "citizenship." He also collected, transcribed, and translated numerous Nahuatl texts from the colonial period, from ecclesiastical manuals to historical annals. Although his political affiliation with the Second Empire made him controversial, McDonough insists on the importance of these curatorial efforts, without which many Nahuatl sources available today would have been lost. Chapter 4 considers one of the few published female Nahua writers, Luz Jiménez. Most famous for her work as a model for Diego Rivera, Jiménez also collaborated with anthropologists like Fernando Horcasitas, narrating traditional Nahua folktales as well as her testimonio of growing up in Milpa Alta during the Mexican Revolution. Importantly, McDonough centers Jiménez as an active participant and knowledge producer in her own right, rather than a "ready-to-order source for extraction" (133). Finally, in chapter 5, McDonough turns to the playwright and artist Ildefonso Maya Hernández, with whom she conducted a series of interviews before his death in 2011. His play Ixtlamatinij ("the learned ones," from which McDonough draws her title) stages the intimate conflicts wrought by cultural assimilation as well as the multiple forms of discrimination that Nahuatl-speakers have continued to face into the twenty-first century.

Breaking up these main chapters are short personal narratives written in Nahuatl by some of the indigenous scholars with whom McDonough collaborated, including Refugio Nava Nava, Victoriano de la Cruz Cruz, and Sabina Cruz de la Cruz. The inclusion of these pieces is one example of the "decolonizing methodologies" that are at the heart of the project. Another is...


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