February 20, 2004

California Mixtecs Glimpse Their Past In Ancient Manuscripts

By Eduardo Stanley

FRESNO, CA — When the Spanish arrived in Latin America, part of their conquest campaign involved destroying the culture of indigenous people. One aspect of this cultural holocaust in Mexico was the burning thousands of ancient books called “codices,” in which indigenous people recorded their history, myths, ceremonies, economic systems and daily life.

For some Mexican immigrants to this agricultural Central Valley area, the codices are a revelation, boosting pride in their roots. For researchers, the Mixtec Indian immigrants are a potential goldmine, providing a new generation of increasingly educated persons who still speak the Mixtec language, and might some day provide keys to deciphering Mixtec manuscripts.

“There is a movement of resurgence of the indigenous identity and consciousness — immigration has a lot to do with it,” says anthropologist Dr. Bonnie Bade, an anthropologist at California State University San Marcos, who studies Mixtec culture. Although their lives and communities have lately been shaped by the disruptions of migration, both in their home Oaxaca region of Mexico and the United States, the recovery of historical memory has helped the Mixtec culture grow more robust, say specialists familiar with them.

Their valued codices did not always demand the global respect they do today. The so-called Nuttal Codex, a lengthy history of the Mixtecs, was sent to Rome during the 15th century. Catholic Church authorities declared, “The document was probably intended for the amusement of children but was so foolish that it could only bore them.”

In a moment that typified the coming together of the immigrants with their ancient history, Binational Indigenous Oaxacan Front recently organized a talk here on the codices by Dr. Bade, aided by handouts. In the audience were some of the 60,000 farm laborers hailing from Oaxaca in the area. “I am Mixtec, but I wasn’t aware of this part of our culture, and it makes me feel proud,” said laborer Fausto Sánchez, 35, a resident of Arvin.

“The codices are proof that they pertain to an ancient, sophisticated, creative culture that constitutes a true historical and cultural wealth,” Bade said later.

Continent-wide, the population growth rate of indigenous groups is higher than that of non-Indians. The bonfires set by clergymen that burned books across the Americas in the wake of the conquest, destroying most codices, impede study of the cultures that continue to influence large regions of the continent.

Seven Mixtec codices were saved from the conquistadors, however, including the Nuttal Codex. They were sent to Europe by the first conquerors as gifts and proof of the existence of the New World. Once there, the codices changed hands as they were borrowed, lent and presented as gifts.

Written in a kind of hieroglyph by native priests, the codices were made primarily out of deer hide and coated with lime, giving them a white color, on which text was drawn with ink made from plants and seeds. Mixtec communities no longer maintain their pre-Columbian writing traditions.

Some in the Fresno audience expressed indignation that only one of the seven codices — the so-called Colombino — remained in Mexico. The others are in European institutions.

Deciphering the codices is a difficult task. In ancient Mixtec society, only the upper class had access to the written language. Today, many Mixtec in Oaxaca, and some here, remain illiterate.

“It is you, the new generations, who can change things,” Bade told the Central Valley audience in Spanish, which most speak. “The majority of the investigations are in the hands of Europeans or Americans, but there needs to be greater participation by people who speak the Mixtec language, like you.”

Several young people appeared inspired by the talk and pictures, expressing a desire to engage in new research. Currently, only one Mixtec, Gabina Aurora Perez, a Oaxacan, is known for her participation in deciphering the codices. Perez teamed up with her husband, a Dutch scholar, to work on the codices, and currently lives in Holland.

In Mexico, social stigmas and a political bias against the indigenous mean Indians may not tout or even identify strongly with their ancestry. For indigenous Mexican immigrants in the United States, that is changing. In the Central Valley, individuals may identify themselves as Mixtec, or as members of other Oaxacan groups, such as Zapotec or Triqui.

The spark for a strengthened indigenous movement in the Americas came with the 500-year commemoration in 1992 of the Spanish conquest of the Americas. But now immigration is a factor, because newcomers to the United States may become involved with identity and native pride groups in a way they never did at home.

Stanley (nuestroforo2001@yahoo.com) is a freelance writer based in the San Joaquin Valley. He hosts the bilingual “Nuestro Foro” weekly radio program on KFCF in Fresno, Calif.

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