Study of a mutilated map: Indigenous cartography out of context

Alex Hidalgo

Histories of Indigenous maps from early colonial Mexico have traditionally focused on the study of pictorial illustrations and the meaning of lines and symbols used to express place, geography, and objects. But the analysis that has resulted from this line of inquiry traditionally centers on the way Nahua, Mixtec, Zapotec, and Maya painters incorporated or rejected Western ideas and culture, as well as on how they gradually lost or preserved Mesoamerican pictorial strategies over time. Inevitably, a history of displacement emerges at the end of the sixteenth century that sees Indigenous mapping enter into full decline, reappearing on occasion (generally without much success) in a cheap version of its former self to help mitigate encroachment. The map of Our Lady of the Rosary, an eighteenth-century depiction of lands of the Mixtec town of Santa María Atzompa in the Valley of Oaxaca, fits neatly into the latter category. Except that beyond its original use as a record designed to help establish territorial boundaries, the map continued to feature in the cultural, social, and political spheres of the town well into the twenty-first century when it disappeared from view. This talk reframes the discussion of Indigenous cartography by considering the way maps move through time. What can the various lives of a handmade eighteenth-century map tell us about archiving traditions, ritual, and social memory? What does the mobility of the map reveal about the history of jealousy, anger, and retribution? How do market forces and aesthetics shape our understanding of Indigenous knowledge?

Map of the Lands of Our Lady of the Rosary

Map of the Lands of Our Lady of the Rosary. Unknown creator. Santa María Atzompa, c. 1750s.

The map depicts a series of boundaries associated with land administered by a religious confraternity of the town of Santa María Atzompa in Mexico’s Valley of Oaxaca. Carefully detailed churches and buildings that applied three-dimensionality helped situate a series of boundary markers, or mojoneras, in a circular pattern around the edges of the cloth. The cartographic elements hint at Indigenous craftsmanship but the map enjoys a very different pictorial aesthetic compared to earlier examples, such as the Map of Tapalcapan and Tlalmanalco described below. Together with another painted map and a book of land titles tracing the ownership of an estate belonging to Atzompa during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the record formed part of the modern-day towns historical records. The two maps and the book of titles disappeared from view after a contested election divided local power brokers in 2008.

Map of Tapalcapan and Tlalmanalco

Map of Tapalcapan and Tlalmanalco. Unknown. Tlalmanalco, c. 1600s.

Indigenous maps made in central and southern Mexico usually entered the public record to facilitate claims to land. Nahua, Mixtec, Zapotec, Maya, and Spanish patrons commissioned maps from Indigenous painters to petition and regulate land, to dispute boundary claims, to seek social privileges, and even to supply geographical information for royal efforts to account for Spain’s vast holdings in the New World. The map of Tapalcapan and Tlalmanalco not only forms part of this tradition, but it allows us to see the format in which individuals, authorities, corporate entities, and missionary orders used maps before modern archivists, collectors, and thieves removed them from their original dockets. Oriented east, the map followed pictorial conventions tied to Mesoamerican visual traditions, including the use of footprints to designate movement, as well as European ones such as the inclusion of celestial bodies to designate cardinal directions. The alphabetic glosses that appear on the map reflect the intervention of scribes and officials when they inspected a map to legitimate its content.

Alex Hidalgo is Associate Professor of Latin American History at Texas Christian University with an interest in archives, New World print and manuscript culture, ethnography, and the history of cartography. He is the author of Trail of Footprints: A History of Indigenous Mapmaking from Viceregal Mexico (University of Texas Press, 2019) and he is currently at work on his second book, Mexican Soundscapes of the Colonial Era. Hidalgo’s research has received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford Foundation, the Fulbright Commission, and the Library of Congress and he is currently a junior member of the Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography at Rare Book School.