- Alva Ixtlilxochitl's Native Archive and the Circulation of Knowledge in Colonial Mexico by Amber Brian
In the last two decades, several highly significant Nahuatl-language texts produced during the seventeenth century have been brought to light and now appear in English translation, representing major contributions to our understanding of prehispanic and colonial Mexico (Arthur J. O. Anderson and Susan Schroeder's Codex Chimalpahin volumes 1-2, and Camilla Townsend's Here in This Year: Seventeenth-Century Nahuatl Annals of the Tlaxcala-Puebla Valley are fine examples). As this ongoing scholarship increases our understanding of native intellectual projects and makes them more accessible, new questions arise. How, for instance, did indigenous knowledge circulate within colonial society, and in what ways did it shape the broader intellectual landscape? Amber Brian tackles these questions in Alva Ixtlilxochitl's Native Archive and the Circulation of Knowledge in Colonial Mexico. In the process, she contributes substantially to our understanding of colonial epistemologies and the distribution of knowledge in New Spain.
Grounding her study is the seventeenth-century transfer of mestizo intellectual don Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl's collection of native manuscripts to the creole letrado don Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora. Brian breaks sharply with historians interpreting the exchange as a "one-way appropriation" of native knowledge by creole patriots seeking to articulate a distinctive Mexican identity (10). She advocates instead for the dynamic, complex nature of knowledge transfer, identifying interpersonal relationships and exchanges as cornerstones of "a more nuanced and vibrant image of colonial intellectual life" in New Spain (10). Ultimately Brian argues that knowledge in colonial Mexico was constructed collaboratively across social and intellectual spheres. It was deployed, furthermore, by individuals occupying [End Page 253] distinctive social positions and according to the discursive structures prevailing at "particular epistemic moment[s]" (38).
Social and epistemological contexts are important leitmotifs informing the author's discussion of knowledge production and exchange. Alva Ixtlilxochitl had privileged access to native informants as well as an impressive collection of alphabetic and pictorial manuscripts at his disposal when writing his histories. That he chose to disseminate knowledge derived from those sources in Spanish according to European discursive norms need not be interpreted as evidence of his identification with Spaniards, as some scholars have averred. Rather Brian suggests it is indicative of how he "used his bicultural vantage point to make the stories derived from native sources relevant to the Hispano-Catholic context in which he lived and worked" (80). Thus Brian enjoins us to understand Alva Ixtlilxochitl in reference to his specific social context—as an intermediary straddling the indigenous and Spanish cultural worlds—and to interpret his work "within the terms of its own epistemological moment" (39).
Throughout, Brian defies facile categorizations and seeks to dismantle binaries. She considers the model Ángel Rama proposed in The Lettered City (La ciudad letrada, 1984), for example, to be a "dichotomous theory" (7). According to Brian, Rama's interpretation of a colonial society marked by antagonism between educated (white) elites and a non-literate (native/casta) populace ignores indigenous intellectuals as well as cultural intermediaries like Alva Ixtlilxochitl. Brian proposes instead that "the lettered city is founded on … exchange and dialogue" and is the reflection of "various sorts of relationships and collaborations rather than a dichotomy" (8). Likewise, she assigns little if any significance to Alva Ixtlilxochitl's biological categorization as mestizo. "Recognizing the importance of the particular over the categorical," she identifies his specific social positioning between the Nahua and Spanish spheres "as the defining feature of his mestizo histories" (80).
This book should be commended for its excellent scholarship, particularly its superb primary source analysis. Two examples are worth noting. In chapter three, Brian invokes her deep knowledge of the works of Renaissance humanists to illuminate how Alva Ixtlilxochitl couched indigenous knowledge firmly in European discursive forms but also twisted them "against the grain of the empire to create a discourse of critique" (105). In chapter one, Brian identifies a passage in Alva Ixtlilxochitl's Historia de la nación chichimeca that...