- Tlacaelel Remembered: Mastermind of the Aztec Empire by Susan Schroeder, and: Annals of Native America: How the Nahuas of Colonial Mexico Kept Their History Alive by Camilla Townsend
The books under review represent the dominant contemporary approach to ethnohistorical studies of the Basin of Mexico region of Mesoamerica and its largest indigenous population, "Nahuas." Many readers will know that conglomeration of linguistically and culturally related peoples as "Aztecs." After briefly discussing nomenclature, I describe and evaluate both books in light of that approach, the New Philology, and ask what readers interested in indigenous studies, conquest, and colonialism in other parts of the world might take away from these books.
The term "Aztecs" has been used since the nineteenth century to describe related ethnicities in central Mexico in the two centuries before Europeans arrived who spoke the Nahuatl language; the conquest-based empire created by three predominant ethnicities (Mexica of Tenochtitlan, Tetzcoca of Tetzcoco, and Tepaneca of Tlacopan); or the Mexica of Tenochtitlan and its sister-island city of Tlatelolco. Many ethnohistorians, especially those whose research covers the colonial period, prefer the term "Nahua," popularized by James Lockhart,1 referring to Nahuatl-speaking peoples of the basin region and beyond. Here I use the term "Nahua" in that broad sense and particular ethnonyms for specific ethnicities, which were often coterminous with kingdoms (or city-states) with urban centers and dispersed surrounding populations. Such units were called altepetl, headed by a supreme ruler or tlatoani and constituted key political centers in late preconquest central Mexico.
Hernan Cortés and his followers conquered the largest such altepetl, Tenochtitlan, the huey or "great" altepetl in 1519, bigger and more powerful than any other. Susan Schroeder describes how Tenochtitlan came to have great political power by narrating the history of its ruling dynasty through the story of a key political figure [End Page 250] related to it, Tlacaelel. This man advised three generations of tlatoani, five in total, but never himself ruled. Half-brother of the first ruler named Moteuczoma, Moteuczoma Ilhuicamina, Schroeder argues that it was Tlacaelel more than any of the five rulers he advised—as cihuacoatl ("female serpent," second-in-command and leading advisor to the ruler)—drove the Mexica to dominate basin politics. She asserts he reshaped Mexica religious practices to place a greater emphasis on mass human sacrifice as both ideological underpinning to and product of warfare, conquest, and empire building. Schroeder develops this argument across an introduction and four chapters. But in describing sources, Schroeder points to, but does not completely resolve, a puzzle raised by the range of texts that deal with Mexica political history.
In her focus on texts written or heavily influenced by indigenous authors, Schroeder exemplifies New Philology scholarship highlighting indigenous-language sources, their historical linguistic study, and indigenous roles in contact and conquest.2 What are the texts on which Schroeder relies? In the first chapter she explains her heavy reliance on the writings of three men; one was Diego Durán, a Dominican friar, whose Historia de las Indias de Nueva España e Islas de la Tierra Firme (written around 1581), provides the clearest Spanish-language narrative of Tlacaelel, his life, and governing activities. Other chronicles discuss Tlacaelel, one of which is closely related to Durán's Historia. Hernando Alvarado Tezozomoc, a grandson of the second Moteuczoma—ruler when Cortés arrived—spoke Nahuatl fluently, but his most voluminous work, the Crónica mexicana, completed around 1598, was written in Spanish though with elements of Nahuatl syntax, rendering the text challenging to decipher. It has long been thought that both authors, Durán and Alvarado Tezozomoc, derived their chronicles from an earlier Nahuatl-language text, the so-called "Crónica X." This idea explains similarities in chronology, organization, and content of the two texts, even though the writing styles differ as do specific points of...