Over the course of the sixteenth century in Mexico (New Spain), alphabetic writing replaced pictography as the chosen form of written expression in indigenous communities. A new social role, that of the native language escribano (notary), emerged, eventually to become a principal cultural broker in the colonial period. Despite the indigenous escribano’s importance, his origins and the source of his authority within the native sphere are poorly understood. This article offers a close reading of a corpus of hybrid pictographic-alphabetic documents, written in Nahuatl and created between 1553 and 1572 in the indigenous cabildo (town council) of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. Within this important body, escribanos appear early in the documentary record; it was within the established indigenous ecosystem of governance that escribanos first found a niche.
Here, pictography flourished, as did performances unique to the indigenous sphere. The corpus reveals how escribanos worked side by side with indigenous tlahcuilohqueh, or painters, who drew on a long-established tradition of manuscript painting and cartography to create property maps. These maps adhered to established codes, both social and visual. Initially preeminent in itself, the work of the tlahcuilohqueh came to supply meaning and public authority to the work of the escribano in this crucial formative period.