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  • The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlan, the Life of Mexico City by Barbara E. Mundy
  • John K. Millhauser
The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlan, the Life of Mexico City. By Barbara E. Mundy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015.

Visit Mexico City and you will eventually arrive in the Zócalo, the enormous plaza at the city's historical center. Prominent buildings reinforce the political and religious power of the city over the last six hundred years. Here, the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, is exposed as a foundation of Mexico City, steps away from the Catedral Metropolitano and the Palacio Nacional. However, when you step outside of this historical enclave and are confronted by the overwhelming size of Mexico City, a narrative of conquest and replacement—political, religious and cultural—is hard to avoid.

In The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlan, the Life of Mexico City, Barbara Mundy carefully outlines an alternative to this narrative of complete replacement. Mundy contends that histories of Mexico City are often built on the assumption that its Indigenous trajectory ended with the Conquest. In contrast, she argues that, over the course of the sixteenth century, Indigenous residents made Tenochtitlan an integral part of Mexico City through their memories, lived experiences and spatial practices. Mundy acknowledges that the continuity of Indigenous culture, politics and economies is already well documented, but she points out that "to date, no one has focused extensively on the role of indigenous peoples in shaping the built environment and lived space in sixteenth-century Mexico City" (15). Her approach is a welcome addition that advances our knowledge of Mexico City, specifically, and colonial history more broadly.

The book follows a chronological sequence loosely bracketed by the founding of Tenochtitlan in the fourteenth century and the establishment of Mexico City as a seat of colonial power over the sixteenth century. Mundy convincingly establishes continuities in the spaces and spatial practices between Tenochtitlan and Mexico City. She shows how the leaders of the Aztec Empire legitimized their power by manipulating the built environment and spatial practices such as controlling the flow of water (flood prevention and aqueducts) and creating symbolic resonance between the body of the leader and the spaces of the city through processions and monuments. These strategies persisted after the Conquest through the actions of Indigenous leaders who maintained roles in the administration of the city's infrastructure, population, markets, economy, religious life, and growth.

Mundy adeptly employs specific objects and documents (often focusing on one or two in a chapter) to disentangle the actors who vied for control of the spaces of Mexico City and the places where they focused their efforts: the tianguis (market), the tecpan (government palace), churches and processional routes. This rhetorical device is one of the book's strengths. Mundy builds on her expertise in the close analysis of maps, performances and artworks related to Mexico City. Not only does she offer insightful reinterpretations of well-known representations of the city's spaces, but she draws new connections from sources less obviously related to spatial practices, such as Aztec sculptures and feather paintings. Importantly, Mundy expands our corpus of sources by presenting previously unpublished or poorly published documents, like a map of the tianguis of Mexico (1580s), the Codex Osuna (1565) and the Genaro Garcia 30 documents (1554). More than eighty full-color images accompany the text and help the reader follow along as Mundy traces the histories of important places and draws out the unique qualities of each item by examining the history of its production, use and reception.

Mundy undertakes an ambitious theoretical reorientation toward the study of colonial spaces. In the introductory chapter, she establishes the central role that the spatial turn in social sciences will play in her work. She draws on scholars of everyday life, such as Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau, and of social memory, such as Maurice Halbwachs and Paul Connerton. Everyday life scholars help her to reveal Indigenous agency through the lenses of the built environment, representations and conceptions of space, spatial practices and lived experience. Her discussion of the historical context of everyday life scholarship is especially illuminating, especially in terms...

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