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  • Lyric Intelligibility in Sor Juana's Nahuatl Tocotines
  • Caroline Egan

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz's Inundación Castálida (1689) contains two short pieces that incorporate the Nahuatl language. These tocotines, as they are designated, appear in sets of villancicos composed to celebrate the feast of the Assumption in 1676 and the feast of San Pedro Nolasco in 1677. The fact that Sor Juana wrote these two brief texts employing the indigenous Mexican tongue has generated great interest and a range of scholarly opinions about her abilities in the language and her views on the racially and linguistically diverse society of New Spain in the seventeenth century. However, one question that has received relatively little attention in this animated discussion is the extent to which these tocotines engage critically with earlier Spanish attempts to compose verse in Nahuatl. This line of inquiry proves particularly relevant given that the tocotines penned by Sor Juana share an important feature with the works of sixteenth-century friars who appropriated local musical traditions for their missionary activities: both revolve around the possibility of mutual intelligibility in a colonial context. Nevertheless, as this essay will propose, there is a crucial difference in their approaches: while early friars sought to create mutual understanding through song, the Nahuatl tocotines composed by Sor Juana in the late seventeenth century appear to subtly reflect and ironize the limits of such lyric intelligibility.1 [End Page 207]

As said above, the tocotines discussed here appear in compositions known as villancicos, popular forms that originated in the Iberian Peninsula, and whose appearance in Mexico coincided with the imposition of Christianity, the Spanish language, and European musical forms (Estrada Jasso 1: 89). While villancicos could reflect secular or sacred themes, Andrés Estrada Jasso notes the predominance of the sacred in New Spain, and speculates that this tendency reflects the Spanish desire to convert native populations (1: 60). An oft-cited example of the conjunction between the villancico form and indigenous Christianity is the record made by Fray Toribio de Benavente (Motolinía) of a 1538 Tlaxcalan performance of a mystery play on the fall of Adam and Eve, which concluded–the Franciscan reports–with a villancico that lamented the decision of Eve to eat the forbidden fruit (I.15; 240). The late seventeenth-century villancicos authored by Sor Juana are also concerned with sacred themes, prepared on request in order to commemorate particular saints and feast days in Mexican cathedrals (Tenorio 55-56). These sets of villancicos combine a variety of compositions distributed in three "nocturnes," which corresponded to the divisions in Matins. It is in the third nocturne of the villancicos composed for the Assumption in 1676 and those composed in honor of Nolasco in 1677, where Sor Juana incorporates indigenous and mestizo voices. In the Assumption villancicos, certain "Mejicanos alegres" sing to the Virgin in Nahuatl (v. 74); in the Nolasco villancicos, an indigenous man speaks in a combination of Spanish and Nahuatl.2

That Sor Juana chooses to incorporate Nahuatl into two sets of villancicos is both conventional and innovative. On the one hand, it reflects the multilingual play often found in ensaladillas, typical components of villancicos (Estrada Jasso 2: 98). As Martha Lilia Tenorio points out in her extensive study of the villancicos by Sor Juana, the use of different racial and linguistic types–or rather, she notes, literary stereotypes–was a central feature of the ensaladilla in both Spain and the New World. For this reason the Nahuatl tocotines constitute, Tenorio concludes, "juegos lingüísticos heredados, utilizados con efectos cómicos, sonoros, de contraste, que no necesariamente reflejan una ideología o una visión social" (62). Still, there is a specificity in Sor Juana's use of Nahuatl that cannot quite be captured in the notion of a "juego lingüístico heredado," of traditional or inherited wordplay–and Tenorio [End Page 208] herself remarks that "aún cuando Sor Juana es tradicional, no lo es convencionalmente" (65). If villancicos penned in the Iberian Peninsula and New Spain often incorporated languages like Latin, Portuguese and Basque, as well as the inflected Castilian of African populations, there is something contextually different about the...


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