El Libro de Los Difuntos: Recording Death during the Epidemic of 1634 in Huexotzinco

Friday, January 4, 2019: 11:30 AM
Salon 7 (Palmer House Hilton)
Tara Malanga, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
The devastation of the native populations of the Americas has been documented in numbers and examined using the words of the Europeans who watched it. The extent to which we can know how the Native Americans themselves felt about these waves of epidemics is limited, due to a lack of alphabetic writing by indigenous peoples in the early period, but in the Nahuatl-speaking communities of central Mexico the people quickly incorporated alphabetic writing in their own language into every aspect of their lives. Their writings provide a window through which we might glimpse their thoughts and feelings about disease and death. One such source is a Nahuatl-language burial registry from the town of Huexotzinco entitled El Libro de los Difuntos or the Book of the Dead.

El Libro de los Difuntos kept a consistent record of the deaths in that parish from 1619 to 1640, during a deadly outbreak of whooping cough. This is remarkable not only because it is more consistent than many European records of the time, but was also kept unwaveringly during an epidemic, when keeping such records was more difficult. This record, unlike many other death records, includes the deaths of pipiltzin or children and by nature was not reserved for the noble classes, but was specifically for the purposes of the common class of Nahuas, setting it apart from its European counterparts. This practice in itself tells us something of how the Nahuas understood death. We can see waves of epidemics coming through and taking many lives before moving on to another region, only to return after a time to take a new batch of victims. The devastation can be felt in sheer quantity of entries but also there is hope when the scribe pauses on a Sunday to write "no one’s child died today.”

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