Every year from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, America celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month, recognizing the influential contributions of Latino and Hispanic Americans in American politics, culture and community. Making up about 18% of the American population, Hispanic and Latino Americans play a large role in making America the “melting pot” it is recognized as today.
This October marks the 30th anniversary of the recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month at Stony Brook University. In celebration of this month, the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature, Humanities Institute, the Latin American and Caribbean Studies (LACS) Center and the Office of the Provost have worked together to create a series of events organized to highlight the culture, language and history of ancient and colonial Mesoamerica. Professor Paul Firbas said that these events were important in order to “remember or commemorate what happened 500 years ago in 1519, when a few hundred Spaniards left Cuba to explore the shores of Yucatán without really knowing what they would encounter – without really knowing that what they encountered was actually one of the most sophisticated societies in the world.”
On Oct. 2, the Humanities Institute hosted an event entitled, “Mexico 500+: Indigenous and Global Cultures in Colonial Mesoamerica.” The event started with a lecture held by Rutgers University professor Camilla Townsend. Townsend’s lecture, “Indigenous Historians in Colonial Mexico,” was an animated and engaging description of her study on sixteenth-century indigenous Nahuatl traditional storytelling. Townsend discussed the preservation of culture and history among the Aztec people and dissected their relationship to the European colonizers, while speaking both English and Nahuatl, the 500-year-old Aztec language and culture of the central valley of Mexico.
Townsend engaged and humored her audience, often manipulating her accent and the tone of her voice to demonstrate the possible dialogue exchanged between the Nahuatl people. Throughout the lecture, she explained that the history of indigenous Mesoamericans was preserved and recorded through performance, symbols, art, word-of-mouth and eventually through text as the young Nahuatl adopted the Roman alphabet and were able to transcribe the accounts of the Nahuatl people that survived the Spanish invasion of the Yucatán Peninsula. Townsend encouraged the audience to consider the fact that the European translations of the Nahuatl testimonies were distorted as the indigenous people “were not speaking in order to illuminate Spaniards or to argue with them. They were recording, arranging and analyzing their history in their own linguistic and cultural terms, within their own frame of reference, for their own prosperity.”
Lastly, Townsend explained that rather than “artifacts from the colonists and the colonized,” the preserved works of the Nahuatl “are keys to understanding indigenous political notions and they constitute proof that many things we scholars wanted to believe were in fact true [about the advanced societies that existed in colonial Mesoamerica].”
Following Townsend’s impressive lecture, a panel was held, giving Brown University’s visiting assistant professor Iris Montero the platform to share a lecture centered around this theme: “Rethinking the Writing of Mexican History.” Montero introduced “more-than-human” stories and their role in shaping Mexican history. Speaking to the audience and presenting images, much like the colonial Nahuatl people, Montero explored the importance of hummingbirds in indigenous Mesoamerica and why interspecies entanglement was so common in storytelling at the time. She went on to reveal that the significance of the hummingbird is just as prevalent in Latin America today as it was in the age of the Aztecs. Hummingbirds and the idolized gods worshiped by the Aztecs were representatives of luck and good fortune in travel and love; they are used today as symbols of protection and the importance of humanitarianism.
Just as Firbas stated, sharing the stories of the indigenous Mesoamericans was a wonderful way to acknowledge and celebrate the impact of the indigenous people of Mesoamerica and the relationship that developed between them and the European colonizers.