Indigenous Intermediaries: Networks of Multilingualism and Community in Colonial Latin America

AHA Session 86
Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Huron Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
John F. Schwaller, Potsdam (State University of New York)
Yanna P. Yannakakis, Emory University

Session Abstract

In the late colonial and early national periods in Latin America, indigenous peoples faced increasing assaults on their languages.  Colonial officials asserted royal decrees that Spanish should be the dominant language of Spain’s colonies.  Despite attempts to limit their languages, indigenous peoples far from New Spain’s or Guatemala’s administrative centers continued to produce documentation resulting in a lacuna of documents written in their native tongues. 

In urban centers such as Mexico-Tenochtitlan, locales dominated by a Spanish institutional and cultural presence, indigenous peoples lived a compartmentalized yet bifurcated and multilingual existence, straddling Spanish and indigenous worlds on a daily basis and creating multiple networks of both horizontal and vertical relationships. It is at such zones, such as eighteenth century Mexico City, that natives, both indigenous leaders and commoners, became go-betweens, persons who moved in and out of the Spanish and indigenous worlds, functioning often as bilingual or multilingual intermediaries. Though the extant record displays the ubiquitous use of Spanish by Nahuas, especially by the end of the colonial era, that documentation also points to the continued use of native languages, in many instances, off the record. Native intermediaries, including scribes, priest’s assistants, and other local community leaders, provided expert testimony or translated documentation from indigenous languages into Spanish for submission to legal proceedings, depicting the internal dynamics of the communities of the multilingual as well as the monolingual Indians.

In areas where the Spanish presence was weak, the indigenous masses remained monolingual.  Nevertheless, in regions with multiple indigenous ethnicities like Oaxaca and Guatemala, elite native leaders became go-betweens who negotiated for themselves and for their communities in both the Spanish and in the indigenous worlds as bilingual intermediaries.  In K’iche’ centers in Guatemala, elite go-betweens translated K’iche’ documents into Spanish for submission in legal proceedings.  These documents illustrate how the intermediary functioned to support corporate indigenous structures by maintaining native practices both within and beyond community levels in multiethnic and Spanish dominated regions.  The organization of Guelaguetza, a tradition of exchange and reciprocity in Oaxaca, created networks that were both horizontal and vertical.  Zapotec men and women exchanged labor and currency with people inside their communities as well as with people outside their communities.   The social and political consequences of the pre-Columbian indigenous tradition of Guelaguetza show the importance of indigenous networks between communities and individuals within the parameters of the colonial society. 

Tlaziuqueh (Nahua diviners) and badi (Otomi diviners) of sixteenth century Mexico exchanged and transmitted ritual as intermediaries of the sacred between Nahua and Otomi communities. The employ of either Nahuatl or Spanish as a lingua franca to transmit and translate practices of divination provides a referent for each epoch of ritual transmission in the longue durée.  The papers for this panel fit well into the theme of “Community and Networks” as intermediaries built networks for multi-cultural and extra-communal interaction and exchange. 

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