The Nahua Woman in the Franciscan Imaginary

Rebecca Overmyer-Velázquez
Christian Morality in New Spain: The Nahua
Woman in the Franciscan Imaginary
Rarely is the impact of conquest on the colonizers so clear as in this essay about the
Florentine Codex, a compilation of historical and ethnographic information
about the Aztecs assembled by the Franciscan Bernadino de Sahagún. Produced
at the behest of the o≈cials of his order, the Codex reflects the attempts of the
colonizing Catholic Church to gather knowledge about the peoples whom it
hoped to convert. Book 10, which is the focus of this essay, illustrates how crucial
gender ideologies—and especially the control of female sexual behavior—were to
the colonizing project in New Spain. It also demonstrates in rich detail the
collision of two cosmologies: that of the Nahua, which privileged ‘‘gender parallelism,’’ or complementarity between the sexes, and that of the ruling Spanish
church, which emphasized the morally transgressive nature of women. The
Franciscans actively targeted Nahua women’s bodies as sites of behavioral reform, which they saw as the pathway not just to conversion, but to redemption as
well. In addition to illustrating how the sexual ideologies of ecclesiastical colonialism were conceptualized, this analysis of Book 10 reveals the very real struggles and disillusionment that Sahagún was subject to as he repeatedly overlooked
the complexities of indigenous society in his attempts to impose his evangelical
project on the Nahua.
The Florentine Codex (also known as the Historia General de las
Cosas de la Nueva Espana or A General History of the Things of New
Spain) is an encyclopedia of Aztec beliefs and practices compiled
in colonial Mexico during the second half of the sixteenth century.∞ In
twelve books this work details the spiritual and secular lives of the people
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68 Rebecca Overmyer-Velázquez
commonly known as the Aztecs, increasingly referred to as the Nahua,
the dominant cultural/linguistic group in the Central Valley of Mexico.
Book 10, entitled ‘‘The People,’’ describes such categories of society as
nobility, commoners, and ethnic groups, as well as the kin relationships,
occupations, and daily social life of women and men. Like the other
books of the Historia, Book 10 is the result of work initiated by Fray
Bernardino de Sahagún in 1558 at the request of the provincial of the
Franciscan order in New Spain.
Sahagún arrived in New Spain in 1529 and began training young
Nahua noblemen to collaborate with him in his e√orts to convert the
indigenous population to Christianity. The friar became a master of the
Nahuatl language spoken by the majority of peoples in central Mexico,
while his young collaborators became fluent in Spanish and Latin and
proficient at writing Nahuatl in Latin script. The purpose of the work was
to provide priests and other Spaniards with a detailed description of
Nahua culture, especially its religious practices and beliefs, in order better
to recognize ‘‘idolatry’’ in everyday colonial life and attempt to stamp it
out forever. Toward that end, Sahagún prepared an outline of topics to
examine, created a questionnaire, and, with the help of the young Christianized Nahua noblemen in his employ, asked the elder noble leaders of
the communities of Tepepulco and Tlatelolco how they lived before the
Spaniards arrived in 1519. The text of each book was arranged in two
columns: Nahuatl on the right and Spanish translations and illustrations
on the left. Throughout this process, Sahagún worked closely with the
Nahua men he had trained and, because the friar wrote only in Spanish,
the younger men played a crucial role in creating the codex.≤
Book 10 is explicitly informed by a Christian emphasis on a good/evil
dualism; thus, for every category of person (niece, nobleman, sorcerer,
weaver, etc.), she or he is described first in terms of ‘‘good’’ qualities and
then in terms of ‘‘bad’’ qualities. The ‘‘inimical [hostile; malevolent]
woman’’ was the nemesis of Sahagún and helped to represent, for him,
the reason behind the failure of the Christian mission in New Spain. Her
construction in Book 10 reveals the severe dualism of a late medieval
Catholicism careful to clarify the distinction between good and evil. In
their zeal to make this distinction, the friars in New Spain continued at a
metaphysical level what they had already partly accomplished at a material level: the destruction of Nahua religious life. The Catholic worldview
manifested in Book 10 serves this destruction by eliminating complicated
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Christian Morality in New Spain 69
Nahua conceptions of the human relationship with the cosmos as one
that is interdependent, ambiguous, and precarious, yet in balance. It replaces, or at least attempts to replace, these conceptions with exclusive,
hierarchical categories of good and evil, God and devil, male and female.
As a result, these ‘‘new’’ Christian categories served to deny the power and
authority traditionally held by Nahua women, whose status in Nahua
society was not understood or valued by the Spaniards. (It is nevertheless
true, of course, that Nahua women were excluded from most positions of
overt religious and political power, both before and after the conquest,
much like their Spanish counterparts.) This text, then, is one of the first
articulations in Spanish America of the contact and conflict of two very
di√erent worldviews, a conflict whose outcome—in religion, the triumph at least of an external Spanish form—left Nahua women the obvious losers.
Nahua women in this period were able to make independent decisions
about their lives, most of which unfolded in rural areas far from Spaniards
and direct Spanish influence. But over time, the introduction of Catholic
ideology (as well as related theories of law and politics) facilitated the
erosion of the practices and memories of a time when the role of women
was conceived in very di√erent terms.≥ This process of erosion, I contend,
began in the sixteenth century with such colonial religious literature as
the Historia, among other media, in which Nahua moral tropes were used
to explain and translate Christian concepts in Nahuatl. Thus, the women
in Book 10 are overwhelmingly portrayed as excessive in terms of sexuality, appearance, and intoxication and related to decenteredness and
deception, all of which, in the Nahua worldview, refer to chaos and immorality. Although these are tropes of a distinctly Nahua morality, the
emphasis in Book 10 on excessive female sexuality distorts their original
significance and points to a Christian preoccupation with virginity and
chastity. While women are also described as ‘‘good’’ and men as ‘‘bad’’ in
this text, the qualitative di√erences between women and men are significant, and the consistent negative association of women with a dangerous
and disruptive sexuality is strikingly Christian.
throughout his comments on Book 10, Sahagún repeatedly refers
to two Nahua ‘‘traits’’ that serve as explanations for the failure of the
missionary project. The one for which he condemned the Indians, both
female and male, most strongly was excessive sexuality; the second was
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70 Rebecca Overmyer-Velázquez
deception. For Sahagún, the climate of New Spain exacerbated the inherent lustfulness of the people; their deceit in keeping their ‘‘former’’ ways
was proof of how little they were to be trusted. But the friar did not simply
mistrust the Nahua. The familial relationship developed by Sahagún and
other friars with their converts encouraged strong feelings of personal
betrayal among the former when they witnessed their Indian charges
‘‘relapse . . . into idolatry.’’∂ These relations also permitted mendicant
violence. Sahagún’s explicit association of the Nahua with licentiousness
served to reinforce the preoccupation in Book 10 with dangerous sexuality. To put it another way, the contrasting representations of women
and men in Book 10 underscore the Franciscan’s disillusion and increasing
sense of his betrayal by the Indian people.
For the Nahua, however, sexuality and the role of women before the
Spanish invasion were conceived in di√erent terms from those brought
by Spanish missionaries. Nahua morality emphasized moderation in all
things, from personal appearance to drug use and expressions of sexuality.
For a woman to be made up and dressed well, for example, so long as she
was not done up excessively, was not immoral for the Nahua; it was, in
fact, a sign of self-respect. Immorality was defined as tlatlacolli, a word
that refers to something damaged and is characterized by the disruption
of order and the promotion of decay and randomness. Entropy—cosmic,
social, and individual—was the essence of immorality.∑ Similarly connected to immorality was the distinction between the center and the
liminal and dangerous periphery. The earth was slippery because life was
inherently precarious and close to chaos and the abyss. To preserve itself,
human life had to stay within the ordered center. Movement into and out
of ordered space was, therefore, morally fraught, and the act of movement
was equated with the immoral deed. Both women and men were told to
behave well to avoid being cast out to wander among strangers. In sum,
Nahua immorality was equated with stupidity or madness; to be moral
was to act with common sense and do what was obviously desirable.∏
The basic dilemma of human existence in Nahua culture was the need
to live in balance between order and chaos. The goal was to establish and
sustain the order, continuity, and stability required for social and cultural
survival while taking just enough fertilizing energy to ensure biological
survival.π ‘‘Negative’’ forces were essential parts of the cosmos, and chaos
was as necessary as order. In fact, order was always believed to be temporary, with chaos lurking on the periphery. The stress was on the moveDownloaded from
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Christian Morality in New Spain 71
ment of the cosmos, not on a permanent structure or static hierarchy of
being, which preoccupied Neoplatonist Scholastics like Sahagún. Among
the Nahua, then, opposites complemented each other; out of disorder
came order and out of death came life. This dialectical dualism, typical of
Mesoamerican thought, is irreducible to discrete polar opposites. In contrast, Christianity most often asserted unity by denying, not incorporating, the second element of a pair (usually characterized as the evil of sin
or, in medieval Christianity, the devil).∫ Thus, Christianity’s dualities
were always in conflict, refusing resolution into a whole.
The complex nature of femaleness and maleness was not abandoned in
daily social life, even though women’s and men’s roles were strictly defined. Susan Kellogg uses the phrase ‘‘gender parallelism’’ to describe the
structure of the relationship between women and men in Nahua society,
in which each gender occupies separate but parallel social structures. Although this parallelism does not ensure gender equality, it expresses the
high value placed on women’s roles and the belief that the genders complemented each other.Ω After an infant’s birth, a midwife bathed the child
and buried the girl’s umbilical cord near the hearth, while the boy’s was to
be buried on the battlefield. This ritual reflects each gender’s primary
activities. In contrast, both girls and boys were sent to schools, and
women and men could be administrative authorities in local, neighborhood, and religious associations. Women did all the household work,
including spinning, weaving (a sacred Nahua art), cooking, performing
daily religious rituals, and caring for children, but they also worked in
temples, markets, schools, and craftworkers’ organizations. They were
considered autonomous beings, not the dependents of men.∞≠ Nahua
women, then, had at least limited access to power and authority in all
spheres of life, a fact that tended to outweigh the importance of gender
hierarchy because women’s roles were equally necessary. The importance
of women in society paralleled the cognatic system of descent, in which an
individual traced her or his descent equally from female and male antecedents and in which women and men inherited property. (The right of inheritance was shared by Spanish women as well.) The basis for this parallelism was the Nahua emphasis on complementary duality, which stressed
both the contrasts and merging of di√erences into a larger unity.∞∞
This idea of gender parallelism also a√ected expressions of Nahua
women’s sexuality. The friars, following logically from a belief in a rigid
good/evil dichotomy, preached moderation but with an emphasis on
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72 Rebecca Overmyer-Velázquez
avoiding pleasure.∞≤ Like Christ and the devil, the soul and the body
fought each other, with the result that the self was always divided and
never in balance, as the Nahua conceived it. The friars were more interested in sexual abstinence than in maintaining equilibrium, and this had
an impact on women in particular. An example of the Christian disregard
for Nahua complementarity and balance is Sahagún’s characterization
of the complicated Tlazolteotl as ‘‘another Venus,’’ explicitly associated
with the morally transgressive Eve. Fray Juan de Torquemada was blunt
in his similar identification of Tlazolteotl with Venus: ‘‘For a goddess of
loves and sensualities, what can she be but a dirty, filthy, and stained
Consequently, Franciscans like Sahagún favored a constricted life for
women. They urged parents to tell their daughters not to go out in
public, not to laugh, and not to enjoy themselves. Girls, furthermore,
were not to look or smile at men, and were to rush when out of the house.
Franciscans exhorted Nahua women to model their lives after saints’ lives
and criticized noblewomen for their love of fine clothes, telling them to
live as Saint Clare did, who shaved her head and wore only a hair shirt.∞∂
Virtuous Christian women, according to the friars, had no hair, never
looked at anyone, and never went outside. This was hardly a Nahua ethic
of moderation. Kellogg claims, ‘‘One of the most potent forces for change
in indigenous women’s lives during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a religious ideology that laid a new stress on female honor and
Christian virginity was explicitly associated with women, and priests
encouraged women to stay in the house while men provided for the
family, even though this was not feasible for the vast majority of the
Indian population. There was no word for ‘‘virgin’’ in Nahuatl, however.
The closest terms were ichpochtli and telpochtli, which applied respectively
to young women and men past adolescence but not yet of adult status, the
age at which one married and established a family. This adult status had
nothing specifically to do with a person’s sexual status. But Sahagún
repeatedly praised Mary’s virginity in his sermons, and told the young
woman who was no longer a virgin, ‘‘ ‘Already the tlacotecolotl [the
Devil] carries you about . . . now you already pertain to the promiscuous
women. . . . Now you are just equal to filth.’’∞∏ Men were to be responsible
for observing religious rites in the household and at church. This ideology of purity and enclosure subverted the possibility of women’s holding
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Christian Morality in New Spain 73
formal authority. Instead, young Spanish women, ‘‘enclosed . . . behind
twenty walls’’ (according to Fray Geronimo de Mendieta), were held up
as examples for Indian women who supported their families with work
outside the home.∞π Clearly, while the ideal of female enclosure was applied to all women, it was practical only for noble daughters, the specific
targets of this rhetoric, not nonelite women who had to work to survive.
Nevertheless, even the status of nonelite women was a√ected after the
invasion. Many of the institutions in which women had participated with
some authority disappeared and parallel institutional structures for both
genders began to weaken as traditional religious, political, and economic
structures collapsed.∞∫
in 1576, a year the plague ran rampant in Mexico City, Sahagún was
hurrying to finish the Spanish translation of his monumental Historia
before the Crown o≈cials he was expecting soon would come to seize it
from him once and for all. Royal cedulas had been issued which demanded
the confiscation of all manuscripts and their delivery to royal o≈cials.
This was a complete reversal of former Crown policy that had encouraged
the production of an historia moral, a project strongly supported by Juan
de Ovando, president of the Council of the Indies. When Ovando died
and the Tridentine decisions were implemented in New Spain, few writings concerning ‘‘the superstitions and way of life these Indians had’’ were
safe.∞Ω This time, Sahagún was a palsied old man who relied entirely on
the younger Nahua men he had trained in Spanish and Latin to act as
translators and copyists. He was able to pay them for their work after five
years, between 1570 and 1575, during which all his funds had been cut o√,
thanks to Fray Rodrigo de Sequera, a fellow Franciscan well placed in the
Inquisition who had appreciated the potential value of the Historia in the
work of Christian conversion. After a year spent collecting his writings
that were scattered throughout central Mexico in 1570, Sahagún took
two years to compile and translate the Historia’s twelve books. Ironically,
after Father Sequera took the Historia to Spain with him, saving it from
royal censors, Sahagún never saw the manuscript again. He continued to
wonder about its existence until he died.
Something had gone terribly wrong for mendicants like Sahagún who
had spent half a century preaching Christianity among the Indian peoples
in New Spain. The millennial promise signaled by the arrival of the first
mendicants to arrive after the Spanish invasion in 1524, the Franciscan
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74 Rebecca Overmyer-Velázquez
Twelve, was now, more than fifty years later, totally unfulfilled. War, slavery, overwork, and disease had wiped out huge numbers of indigenous
people, the very people Sahagún had hoped would carry on the work of
Christianization far into the future. Worse still, the linguistic and ethnographic work of Spanish Christians such as Sahagún revealed that Indians who had managed to survive Spanish domination had also retained
their spiritual beliefs despite the presence of the friars among them. The
earlier Franciscan belief that the Indians of New Spain were innocent
children simply in need of Christian instruction had evaporated and been
replaced by the dour conviction that these children, if they were still
children, were willfully disobedient and completely in thrall to the devil.
The Historia was written in response to this perceived crisis.
Sahagún’s comments in the Historia reveal his deep disappointment
with the turn of events. He writes: ‘‘We can take it for granted that,
though preached to more than fifty years, if [the Indians] were now left
alone, if the Spanish nation were unable to intercede, in less than fifty
years there would be no trace of the preaching which had been given
them.’’≤≠ It was in his interest to paint as bleak a picture as possible, for he
was appealing to the Spanish king to intercede in favor of the mendicant
project of conversion. This was a particularly turbulent period for the
Franciscans. Between the 1560s and the 1580s, the order was rent by feuds
between creoles and peninsular Spaniards and the increasing tensions
between anti-Indian and pro-Indian factions. Attacks on the order by the
Crown and episcopate, combined with an increasing worldliness that
openly exploited the Indians, reduced morale among the friars.≤∞ After
1550, the monarchy favored the secular over the regular clergy, a favoritism clearly expressed in 1574 with the Ordenanza del Patronazgo, which
formally initiated the replacement of regulars by secular priests. (Earlier,
the Council of Trent had decreed that all clerics with parochial powers
were to be under episcopal control.) ‘‘From the royal point of view the
regulars had accomplished their purpose and the time had come to establish the orderly, traditional episcopal hierarchy everywhere.’’≤≤
In the midst of this changing political situation, Sahagún blamed the
Nahua. He was unequivocal that the friars had been deceived and that the
indigenous were incorrigible sensualists. In other words, there was no
possibility, in Sahagún’s thinking, that the Indians could be complex
human beings as the Nahua understood human nature, human beings,
that is, as always at the mercy of a capricious world. Instead, the FrancisDownloaded from
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Christian Morality in New Spain 75
cans had placed all their millennial hopes on a people they initially believed were entirely without guile and entirely ‘‘good’’ despite the Indians’ having been misled by the devil and his minions. The only other
possibility for Sahagún, convinced as he was that the world was structured in terms of good and evil, was that the Indians lacked goodness and
were therefore evil and could not be trusted.
His comments on Book 10, however, are a fascinating example of a
dualistic logic unable to reconcile apparent oppositions. Sahagún idealized preconquest Nahua society for its ability to regulate behavior and
prevent excessive sexuality, yet he bemoaned the inherent licentiousness
of the Nahua that went unchecked in the colony. He criticized colonial
Spanish secular society for its depredations but nevertheless blamed native drunkenness for pervasive social decay. He praised the native ability
to replicate European arts and crafts but felt betrayed by the deception
they practiced behind their mimetic religious mask. Thus, Sahagún was
unable to articulate what he knew was the uncertain relationship between
mimicry and deceit. He scorned Nahua religion but had high praise for
the Franciscans’ attempt to imitate the Nahua tradition of raising children
in temples under religious supervision.≤≥ For Sahagún, the destruction of
the Nahua religious/social system could not be a cause of the social decay
in colonial Indian society because this religion was thoroughly demonic.
While he connected Christianity with the state and moral society (he
understood, in other words, that religion and the state worked together),
in his discussion of Nahua religion he made no such connection.≤∂
Sahagún believed that the inculcation of Christian belief and behavior
was the only way e√ectively to combat the excesses of sexuality and idolatry. Early in the colonial period, the Franciscans built colleges and strictly
raised Nahua boys who had been taken from their families. They sent
Nahua girls to convents, where some learned to read and write.≤∑ Looking back in 1576 on these moribund institutions, Sahagún waxed nostalgic for the days when indigenous children were roused to prayers and selfflagellation. The Franciscans taught the sons of Nahua nobility to read,
write, and sin, while they taught the sons of commoners only Christian
doctrine. Within a short time, the friars were able to assemble both
groups of boys, and together they demolished Nahua temples ‘‘so that no
vestige of them remained.’’≤∏ According to Sahagún, boys were especially
useful in this task. They acted as spies on village preparations for Nahua
religious festivals, and often as many as one hundred boys would lead the
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76 Rebecca Overmyer-Velázquez
friars to these festivals, where they attacked, bound, and dragged the
participants to the college to be punished until they repented. ‘‘And so
they came forth therefrom [sic] instructed in Christian doctrine and punished, and the others learned a lesson from them and dared not do anything similar.’’≤π This process was repeated frequently, and it is clear from
the text that Sahagún was impressed with how the people feared these
children, even when the boys were few in number.
Decades later, Sahagún regretted that the boys no longer lived among
the friars, who were no longer able to sequester and discipline idolaters.
Indeed, Sahagún believed feasts, orgies, and native singing were performed openly because Christian priests did not understand their demonic meaning. Family members persecuted and killed his boy spies
when they discovered that the young men had informed on them.≤∫ The
awful power of Spanish Christianity in the New World that Sahagún
celebrated turned parents against children and children against their own
parents and traditions, and reflected an ambivalence between power and
tenderness that was ‘‘mirrored in the ambiguity of power and love in God
and Jesus Christ.’’≤Ω Sahagún did not understand these boys, however; he
wrote that it was not many years after the college started that the friars
realized they had been deceived. He stressed that with plentiful food and
tenderness the boys ‘‘began to feel a strong sensuality and to practice
lascivious things.’’≥≠ This immense doubt Sahagún feels about the success
of the Christian project reappears. On the one hand, he longed for the
time when the Franciscans were apparently in control (though he was all
too aware that they were not), but, on the other hand, he gravely mistrusted the very people on which he would have to rely to reconstruct
those heady days (‘‘[they] were not capable of such perfection’’).≥∞ He
was caught in a web of deceit and betrayal he had woven for himself.
in book 10 Nahua men and women are defined through their relationship to the Spanish world, which is positively valued by the friar: Nahua
men are almost exclusively and positively marked with ‘‘Spanishness,’’
while women are almost never represented wearing Spanish dress or
participating in Spanish occupations. Images of ‘‘good’’ noblewomen
invariably show them seated on mats (not Spanish stools), wearing the
traditional huipil (women’s traditional loose-fitting blouse) and skirt. By
contrast, men are sometimes shown sitting on stools. Women, even if
they are ‘‘good,’’ have considerably less association with Spanish markers
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Christian Morality in New Spain 77
and with the positive valuation these markers signify. The ‘‘bad noble,’’ on
the other hand, is ostensibly a preconquest Nahua man who is depicted as
a bearded Spaniard wearing a tailored shirt with a collar and pants. In the
image of the ‘‘youth,’’ the pants are distinctively Spanish and he wears a
European-style hat. Pants replaced the traditional Nahua maxtlatl (loincloth), which revealed too much of the body for the friars. Patricia Anawalt observes that the maxtlatl was used as a male given name and was
always found worn on top of a tlahuitztli (warrior costume). She suggests that the loincloth was ‘‘probably synonymous with virility.’’≥≤ If this
is so, then the ‘‘de-sexing’’ of men, compared to the ‘‘oversexing’’ of
women in Book 10 is quite emphatic. Yet these men retain their tilmatli
(capes) and they go barefoot. By 1550, the European fitted and buttoned
shirt (camixatli) was very popular, even among the poorest Indian men,
who would wear a loincloth underneath. (Pants, however, were slower to
come into general acceptance.)
In addition to wearing Spanish clothing, carpenters are shown using
European tools to construct a Spanish building (a chapel?), and the ‘‘wise
man’’ gives his advice in one of the best examples in the book of a Spanish
interior in realistic perspective. The image of the ‘‘wheat sellers,’’ in which
Nahua men are represented as Spaniards, epitomizes the association of
maleness with Spanishness. The Spanish visual markers in Book 10 render
Nahua males more familiar to European readers even as they remain
definitively marked ‘‘Indian.’’
In each of these images, the clothing the men wear (or do not wear, as
no one wears shoes and one of the carpenters is without pants) at times
reminds us of their ‘‘Indianness,’’ while the distinctly Spanish settings
reflect the fact that, during the colonial period, Nahua men, particularly
elite men, had the most consistent contact with Spanish power.≥≥ Nahua
women did not hold public o≈ce, and, although women were numerous
in religious cofradias (sodalities), elite men always held the high-ranking
positions that would have brought them into contact with Spanish secular o≈cials and priests. Women continued to wear the huipil and skirt
until the eighteenth century, even as they made Spanish clothes for the
males in the family. Women also continued to sell traditional medicinal
plants until the end of the colonial period, a practice that persists today.≥∂
At the same time, the sacred art of weaving by noble and commoner
women alike, from which women also could obtain an income, was gradually taken over by male-owned mechanical looms. Furthermore, later in
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78 Rebecca Overmyer-Velázquez
the colonial period, witnesses to wills and other documents were almost
always men, most likely due to Spanish influence. During the early colonial period, Nahua women had served as witnesses in almost equal numbers as men, which was a striking contrast to Spanish wills, for which
women rarely served as witnesses. Lockhart speculates that due to the
large female membership in cofradias it is likely that Nahua women exerted a de facto predominant influence in these organizations. This ‘‘hidden power’’ of women (not apparent in the sources) may have been true
in local secular organizations as well, but it is di≈cult to verify.≥∑ Still, the
sources show us that in material culture, as in Christian religious ideology, Nahua women were relegated to the margins of Spanish colonial
power structures. Thus, the images of Nahua men and women in Book 10
tell a colonial story about the lower-status position of Indian women
relative to Indian men within the dominant Spanish social system.
The ‘‘prostitute’’ is the only woman in this work associated with Spanish markers, though these markers are associated with transgressive sexuality. Her representation is especially odd because not only does she
wear a Spanish man’s collared shirt under her huipil, but it appears a
Nahua woman’s hairstyle was added as an afterthought. (We know that
Nahua women did not wear Spanish shirts.) Without this addition her
hair is short, curly, and light in color, which makes it look more like a
Spanish man’s. The prostitute o√ers alcohol to a patron, who presents her
with a Spanish coin, images that mark the transaction as immoral to a
European reader, who would most likely associate this woman with the
‘‘mother of harlots’’ in the book of Revelations.≥∏ The images of the
crossroads and the footprints, however, are Nahua symbols and reflect
concerns that this woman is ‘‘restless on the water, living on the water, she
is flighty . . . she nowhere finds lodging . . . she [wakes at] dawn anywhere.’’≥π The road itself connoted danger and immorality, and the crossroads even more so, as it was called the ‘‘crotch of the road,’’ signifying its
connection with excessive female sexuality. And yet, for the Nahua, the
crossroads was simultaneously a place where illness could be cured by
leaving one’s tlatlacolli at a shrine to women who died in first childbirth.
Such liminal places were rich in creative/destructive power. Coincidentally, for medieval Europeans, the crossroads had a diabolical association,
as it was where witches and sorcerers were said to hold their meetings
with the devil. In addition, Peterson suggests that the prostitute’s red feet
(striking in the original) are a European allusion to lascivious women.≥∫
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Christian Morality in New Spain 79
Contrary to positive associations of men with ‘‘Spanishness,’’ the prostitute’s association with European/Spanish markers, including male hair
and clothing, is an entirely negative one. Her image bristles with a potent
mix of Christian and Nahua moral symbols that in combination signify to
European and Nahua readers, in di√erent ways (and in spite of the more
complex and balanced Nahua conception of the crossroads), the immorality of wayward women.
It is important to note that the ambiguous gender manifest in the
prostitute is strongly proscribed in Book 10, though the ‘‘badness’’ of this
appears to derive from the dangerous perversion of maleness with femaleness, not ambiguousness as such. The hermaphrodite, for example, is
described as having a man’s body, build, and speech (‘‘good’’ qualities)
but is nevertheless ‘‘a woman with a penis.’’ Similarly, the sodomite, like
the male pervert, is e√eminate and plays ‘‘the part of a woman.’’ The
‘‘chicle chewer’’ is dressed as a Nahua woman, but is made to look ugly; it
is as if the image corresponds to the text, which asserts that ‘‘men who
publicly chew chicle achieve the status of sodomites; they equal the e√eminates.’’ This may in fact be an ‘‘e√eminate’’ as his/her hair is loose and the
text tells us that only married women cannot chew chicle in public. On
the other hand, the text also asserts that ‘‘bad women, those called harlots,’’ chew in public and along the roads.≥Ω It is unclear exactly where a
woman crosses the boundary to become ‘‘bad.’’ In either case, however, it
is the association with female sexuality that signifies immorality.
By now it should be apparent that the central descriptive di√erence
between women and men that reveals a distinctly Christian morality is the
consistent association of ‘‘bad’’ women with excessive sexuality and deception, along with the characteristics of ‘‘bad’’ men, including laziness,
inebriation, and general disobedience. Similarly, it is sexuality that distinguishes the daughter from the son. When a daughter is good she is chaste
and a virgin, but gone bad she is a whore, showy, and a drunken pleasure
seeker. The good son is obedient and humble; the bad son is a disobedient
dunce. The bad woman physician is distinguished from the bad male
physician by her uncontrolled sexuality. Not only is she a sorceress and
seducer like her bad male colleague, but she also has ‘‘a vulva, a crushed
vulva, a friction-loving vulva.’’∂≠ Furthermore, the female pervert is distinguished from the hermaphrodite and the sodomite by her excessive sexuality. Both the bad mother and bad grandmother are deceivers who lead
others into evil/immorality/chaos (the forest, cli√, desert, water’s curDownloaded from
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80 Rebecca Overmyer-Velázquez
rent, or crag). Falling and tripping into caves or torrents are Nahua
metaphors for moral aberration and the literal departure from social
norms. A bad father is lazy and unreliable, whereas a bad grandfather is
simply senile; he, like the father, has no active desire to disrupt. A woman,
however, is actively disruptive and dangerous. One bad noblewoman, for
example, ‘‘goes about besotted; she goes about demented,’’ and the corresponding image shows her holding a stick as a symbol of her reckless
violence. In the background are two figures in a scene resembling a pieta,
suggesting perhaps that the demented woman is the cause of this misfortune (the text is not specific).
In sum, the bad woman is like a prostitute: she is not careful with her
sexuality, which ‘‘wanders.’’ Moreover, through deception she leads others astray, evidence that immorality is contagious. For the friars, sin acted
like a disease, infecting others and making them participate in the sin.
Thus, Fray Andres de Olmos wrote that the ‘‘ ‘secret prostitute’ ’’ endangered good women, ‘‘like a rotten fruit by which good fruit goes bad.’’∂∞
That a human being could induce immoral behavior in others was absurd
to the Nahua, for whom life without tlatlacolli was impossible; and truly
absurd was the notion that humans could cause ‘‘sin.’’ Humans could not
cause nor choose sin, for sin was considered a part of life on earth, independent of human actions or intent. The implication is that passages in
Book 10 that speak of ‘‘leading others astray’’ are products of Christian
theology. The procuress, ‘‘the messenger of the devil,’’ is an obvious example of this Christian interpretation of infectious sin.∂≤ In this case, the
scribes (and/or Sahagún) abandoned Nahua symbols in favor of an unequivocal statement about the diabolical nature of female sexuality.
book 10 of the Historia tells us about the changing status of Nahua
women in Spanish colonial religious ideology and how this change was
perhaps connected to changes in daily social life. By the seventeenth century, for example, Nahua women in Mexico City participated in far fewer
property transactions than they had in the previous century, and they no
longer served as legal guardians of minor children in lawsuits.∂≥ By this
time, an Indian woman’s legal identity was connected to her husband’s,
and even when women inherited property in dispute, the husband had initiated the lawsuit. Husbands typically spoke for their wives, and brothers
represented sisters in litigation. This was in contrast to the early colonial
period, when Spanish o≈cials were astonished to witness Nahua women
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Christian Morality in New Spain 81
speaking for their male relatives in court, even answering for these men
when they were asked to give their names. One reason for the decline in
women’s legal status was the decline of the social institutions in which
women had had some authority before the Spanish invasion. Connected
to the disappearance of these social institutions was the gradual replacement of traditional Nahua gender ideology by a Christian ideology that
had no notions of gender parallelism or life in balance.
Book 10 reveals the flattening e√ects Spanish intolerance had on the
definition of what constituted a virtuous woman. Despite the vitality of
the Nahua worldview and its attendant symbols, a Christian gender ideology predominated, radically disrupting traditional Nahua conceptions of
how women could live in the world. But therein lies the rub: a study such
as this one must confront the limits of cultural continuity and change.
While a Nahua (or Mesoamerican) worldview certainly survived the imposition of Spanish religious forms, it could not help but be transformed
by a conversion to Catholicism.∂∂ The point is not to determine which
ideology won out in the end but to suggest that profound change occurred in Nahua religious and social ideology at the expense of women,
whereas certain cultural values and forms nevertheless endured Hispanic
oppression. This process took place over centuries, giving rise to forms
that were neither completely Spanish nor completely Nahua. Over the
years, the Nahua claimed outwardly Hispanic concepts, patterns, and
institutions, as if they had always been theirs.∂∑ In this way, Christian
gender ideology became Nahuatized as former Nahua gender roles and
relations were gradually forgotten.
It is important to remember, however, that this process never added
up to a final syncretic union of the Nahua and the Christian. As we have
seen, elements of these two worldviews might be placed in an uneasy
juxtaposition, but neither could easily assimilate the other. On the contrary, in Book 10 it is clear that Christian disparagement of sexuality,
especially female sexuality, necessarily distorted the Nahua celebration of
sexual expression as essential to a happy life. The book’s one-sided accusation that women are dangerously sexual and deceptive was also a violation
of the ideal of balance in life and in relations between the sexes. The
Franciscan understanding of the complex and powerful Nahua goddess
Tlazolteotl as Eve-like and evil underscores the total misunderstanding
that accompanied this cultural encounter. For Nahua women, the demonization of their power as women could not bode well for the future.
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82 Rebecca Overmyer-Velázquez
∞. Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain,
11 vols., trans. and ed. Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble (Salt Lake City:
School of American Research, 1950–1982). Note that Book 10 is actually volume 11 of
this work.
≤. Jorge Klor de Alva, H. B. Nicholson, and Eloise Quinones Keber, introduction to
The Work of Bernardino de Sahagún: Pioneer Ethnographer of Sixteenth-Century Aztec
Mexico, ed. J. Jorge Klor de Alva, H. B. Nicholson, and Eloise Quinones Keber (Albany, N.Y.: Institute for Mesoamerican Studies, suny, 1988), 9.
≥. Some evidence of this erosion has been noted by anthropologist James Taggart,
Nahuat Myth and Social Structure (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983). See also
Alan R. Sandstrom, Corti Is Our Blood: Culture and Ethnic Identity in a Contemporary
Aztec Indian Village (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992).
∂. John Keber, ‘‘Sahagún’s Psalmodia: Christian Love and Domination in SixteenthCentury Mexico,’’ in Chipping Away on Earth: Studies in Prehispanic and Colonial Mexico
in Honor of Arthur O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble, ed. Eloise Quinones Keber
(Lancaster, Calif.: Labyrinthos, 1994), 52.
∑. Louise Burkhart, The Slippery Earth: Nahua-Christian Moral Dialogue in SixteenthCentury Mexico (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1989), 29.
∏. Ibid., 71.
Ï€. Ibid., 38.
∫. See Je√rey Burton Russell, Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell
University Press, 1984) for a detailed discussion of the medieval personification of evil.
Ω. Susan Kellogg, Law and the Transformation of Aztec Culture, 1500–1700 (Norman,
Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), 88.
∞≠. Ibid., 95.
∞∞. Ibid., 92.
∞≤. Burkhart, Slippery Earth, 134.
∞≥. Ibid., 93.
∞∂. Ibid., 139.
∞∑. Kellogg, Aztecs, 114.
∞∏. Burkhart, Slippery Earth, 156.
∞π. Kellogg, Aztecs, 115, quotation on 116.
∞∫. Ibid., 107.
∞Ω. Sahagún, Florentine Codex, 1:37.
≤≠. Ibid., 1:38.
≤∞. John Leddy Phelan, The Millennial Kingdom of the Franciscans in the New World, 2d
ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970), 57. Editors’ note: the episcopate
was the ruling body of bishops.
≤≤. Charles Gibson, Spain in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 78.
≤≥. Sahagún, Florentine Codex, 1:77.
≤∂. Ibid., 1:75.
≤∑. Ibid., 1:9.
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Christian Morality in New Spain 83
≤∏. Ibid., 1:79.
≤π. Ibid., 1:80.
≤∫. Ibid.
≤Ω. Keber, ‘‘Sahagún’s Psalmodia,’’ 52.
≥≠. ‘‘Pero como no se exercitauan en Jos trabajos corporales, Como solian, y como
demanda la condicion de su briosa sensualidad, tambien comjan mejor, de lo que acostubrauan en su republica antigua’’ (emphasis added). Sahagún, Florentine Codex, 1:78.
≥∞. Ibid.
≥≤. Patricia Anawalt, Indian Clothing before Cortes: Mesoamerican Costumes from the
Codices (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981), 209.
≥≥. See Charles Gibson, The Aztecs under Spanish Rule: A History of the Indians of the
Valley of Mexico, 1519–1810 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1964), 218, 243–244.
≥∂. Ibid., 353.
≥∑. James Lockhart, The Nahuas after the Conquest (Stanford: Stanford University
Press, 1992), 228.
≥∏. Jeannette Favrot Peterson, ‘‘The Florentine Codex Imagery and the Colonial Tlacuilo,’’ in The Work of Bernardino de Sahagún, 284.
≥π. Sahagún, Florentine Codex, 11:94.
≥∫. Peterson, ‘‘The Florentine Codex Imagery,’’ 285.
≥Ω. Sahagún, Florentine Codex, 11:38, 11:90, 11:89.
∂≠. Ibid., 11:53.
∂∞. Burkhart, Slippery Earth, 180.
∂≤. Sahagún, Florentine Codex, 11:57.
∂≥. Kellogg, Aztecs, 111.
∂∂. See, for example, Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, Mexico Profundo: Reclaiming a Civilization, trans. Philip A. Dennis (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996); David Carrasco,
Religions of Mesoamerica (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990); Lockhart, The
Nahuas after the Conquest; Brenda Rosenbaum, With Our Heads Bowed: The Dynamics of
Gender in a Maya Community (Albany, N.Y.: Institute for Mesoamerican Studies,
suny, 1993); Sandstrom, Corti Is Our Blood; Taggart, Nahua Myth.
∂∑. Lockhart, The Nahuas after the Conquest, 446.
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