THE INDIAN REPUBLIC OF LETTERS AND THE CREOLE ARCHIVE

Fernando de Alva was a Creole who in the 1610s realized that he was an Indian too. In the wake of the reshuffling that followed the conquest some descendants of the Texcocan ruling elites managed to secure a estate in the far away town of Teotihuacan, one that Alva’s mother, herself the mestiza daughter of a Spaniard and an Indian, inherited. The legitimacy of the mestiza-cacique rule in Teotihuacan came under challenge by a competing indigenous lineage with alleged greater claims. Land and authority rested on the ability to demonstrate clear descent from the Aztec lords of Texcoco. Alva was one of dozens of individuals with fluid identities who had assembled collections of indigenous histories in Central Mexico. To be sure, each surviving city-state had its own peculiar version of origins, migrations, and legitimate ruling elites in archives with codices in ancient pictographic and logographic scripts. Alva tapped into these collections to ascertain the rights of his mother to the lands and labor of the Indians of Teotihuacan. In the 1640s, a new legal challenge emerged, this time within Alva’s family over which of the sons and grandsons of the dead caciqua had primogeniture rights. Again, Alva’s archive helped settle the conflict in court. In a world in which all aspects of governance and distributive justice required individuals to submit petitions, one could only get ahead by carefully curating family and community records. Indigenous and Spanish families alike filed petitions of rewards; thousands submitted petitions to secure coats of arms of their own design. Every petition consisted of dozens of probanzas — documents and witnesses shoring up the credibility of family claims. Only those who kept archives could expect rewards, regardless of whether the records were forgeries. There was a vast Indian Republic of Letters organized around the cultivation of city-state and family archives. Amber Brian’s Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s Native Archive and the Circulation of Knowledge in Colonial Mexico zeroes in on two of these collectors-archivists: Alva and Carlos Sigüenza y Gongora.

Sigüenza, a Creole, inherited Alva’s pictographic and alphabetical codices. Brian’s most important contribution is to demonstrate the intimate connections between the early seventeenth century Alva archive and Sigüenza’s late seventeenth century one. Since the historiography has created the fiction that the Creole and Indian archives served alleged antithetical political and cultural agendas, the ties between Sigüenza and Alva have remained largely misunderstood. Alva became an interpreter in specialized Indian courts, gaining unparalleled access to indigenous documents of numerous communities. Alva became a pan-city-state antiquarian, capable of drafting histories of the valley as a whole. Alva’s first son, Juan, inherited the caciqua of Teotihuacan’s estate along with his father’s archive. Sigüenza, on the other hand, was a minor cleric, living off the annuities (capellanias) of an Indian hospital and earning an income writing institutional histories on commission. The two met around paralegal work surrounding indigenous courts. Juan de Alva was defending the right of his younger brother, Diego, to inherit their grandmother’s estate. Sigüenza helped them and in exchange got Alva’s fabled archive and an annuity on top. As soon as Juan died, Diego severed all relationships and recovered the land supporting Sigüenza’s annuity. The archive, however, remained with Sigüenza as he went on to become an astrologer-cosmographer and lowly professor of medical mathematics at the University of Mexico. Brian demonstrates that Alva and Singüeza were in fact intellectual twins. Both sought to transform the history of Aztec Mexico into the classical pagan, Neoplatonic antiquity of the Catholic Republic of Mexico. Brian demonstrates that Alva also documented the Indian origins of the miracle of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Alva’s genealogy transferred wholesale into the creole archive via Sigüenza’s writings.

Brian’s book is the first step toward documenting the Indian Republic of Letters of the Spanish American Baroque, a sprawling republic that yielded such jewels as the Huarochiri Manuscript and the Popol Vuh. This republic also produced calendars, cosmographies, natural histories, and astrological treatises now buried in local archives and ecclesiastical courts. Brian touches in passing many of the codices Alva collected, each with genealogies as convoluted as those of Alva’s and Sigüenza’s writings. The list is long: the Codies Xolotl, Quinatzin, and Tlotzin; the account of the conquest of the Chichimec by Francisco Sandoval Acaxitli; the account of death of the Purepecha Tangaxoan in Michoacan (including the criminal trial for murder against Nuño de Guzman ); the petitions of Calzonci’s descendant Constantino Bravo Huitzimengari; the writings of Alfonso Izhuezcatocatzin and his daughter doña Bartola. If the recent publications of David Tavarez’s The Invisible War: Indigenous Devotions, Discipline, and Dissent in Colonial Mexico (2011) and Peter Villella’s Indigenous Elites and Creole Identity in Colonial Mexico, 1500–1800 (2016) are any indication, the intellectual history of the learned Indian Republic of Letters will thankfully keep shattering all our Black Legend stereotypes.

Review for Isis of Amber Brian’s Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s Native Archive and the Circulation of Knowledge in Colonial Mexico (Vanderbilt University Press, 2016)