Review: Transcending Conquest: Nahua Views of Spanish Colonial Mexico

Stephanie Wood begins Transcending Conquest with a twelve-page foreword in which she not only her methodology and source base, but also her motivations for pursuing this project. Perhaps as a preemptive defense-she notes that some might dismiss her as “lacking sufficient authority” to approach the Nahuatl codices as an American English-speaker-Wood spends a great deal of her introduction describing childhood experiences with Mexican migrant workers before turning her attention to more technical matters (ix). This decidedly informal introduction seems oddly folksy, and almost jarring, when the reader moves from those pages into Wood’s explanation of her methodology and the intended purpose of her research. She largely confines secondary sources and historiographical information to this preface and to her end notes; there is little context given about the conquest itself, except when relevant to a specific scene or figure...........................................

Transcending Conquest comprises six chapters Colonial Mexico

each moving forward in time to a specific chronological point when a particular type of codex or manuscript was most likely composed and was most prevalent. She includes multiple examples of each source type, and weaves illustrations throughout the text rather than confining them to an insert somewhere near the book’s middle. Thus, in the chapter describing codices written closest to the actual date of the conquest, a pictograph of a Spaniard battling an indigenous warrior appears just before Wood’s analysis of that pictograph. As she states in her preface, Wood looks beyond the more obvious aspects of indigenous portrayals of Spaniards to note that these portrayals frequently belie the traditional assumption that the Aztecs and other indigenous groups regarded the Spanish as gods returned from the heavens.

Wood explicitly states that she intends to write not a monolithic Colonial Mexico

treatise on indigenous views of the Spanish conquest and colonial period, but rather a series of chapters that function as thematically related essays drawing from a common indigenous source base. Perhaps appropriately given the gradual introduction of alphabetic writing to Nahua “author-artists,” Wood employs only pictorial sources in her initial chapters, incorporating manuscripts and other textual sources as the book progresses from the conquest period to the colonial (23). Her selected pictographs and scenes come from codices in archives located in both the Americas and France.

Wood closely reads her chosen sources-she argues

that pictographs can indeed be read, since they largely serve the same function as alphabetic texts-for clues and insights perhaps overlooked by others who might have dismissed or downplayed the importance of pictorial evidence, given the common European preference for word-based materials. She does not categorically exclude textual sources, but in the chapter dealing with títulos, written documents detailing a town’s rights to claim certain allotments of land, Wood appears slightly less confident than in those about codices and mapas, documents combining textual and pictographic elements to relate local histories and genealogies.

Transcending Conquest is perhaps a bit brief, with only 162 pages of text, including the preface; Wood’s notes and bibliography are quite hefty by comparison, taking up fifty-three additional pages. In spite of her stated initial trepidation, Wood succeeds with her argument that there are further clues to be found in indigenous codices and manuscripts, even for those inherently outside the discursive framework of indigeneity.