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Nahuatl Passion Plays in the Colonial Era: An Interview With Louise Burkhart

Louise M. Burkhart is Professor of Anthropology at the State University of New York at Albany as well as Jay I. Kislak Chair for the Study of the History and Cultures of the Early Americas at the John W. Kluge Center.

Andrew Breiner: Could you start by telling me a little about your background and research interests, broadly speaking?


Religious image of Jesus Christ on the cross in black ink on a old, weathered page.

The crucifixion, with Mary and John, from a Nahuatl songbook of 1583. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.

Louise Burkhart: I’ve been focused on Mesoamerican studies since I took classes on Mesoamerican ethnology and Latin American archaeology in college. In graduate school I shifted from archaeology into historical anthropology in order to work with the early colonial written sources on Nahua civilization—and because I was entranced by the beautiful Nahuatl language. I realized that, to take a critical approach to these texts, I had to understand the colonial evangelization process that led to their inscription.

I’d also done a study of Nahua female deities and their connections to morality and immorality, so I wrote my dissertation on the translation of Christian moral doctrine into Nahuatl, exploring how the use of Indigenous concepts and rhetorical devices limited and altered the messages through which Christianity was introduced. By then I was thoroughly fascinated with Indigenous adaptations of Christianity and the large corpus of Christian writings in Nahuatl, which at that point had barely been touched by scholars. I’ve spent my career exploring this literature.


AB: Could you tell us briefly about who the Nahua are, for any readers who are unfamiliar?


LB: Nahua is an ethnic-linguistic term for speakers of Nahuatl, a Uto-Aztecan language that today is the most widely spoken Indigenous language in Mexico, with over a million and a half speakers. Some Nahuatl speakers have immigrated to the US. A number of Native North American nations speak related languages (for example, Hopi, O’odham, Comanche, and Shoshoni). The Toltec civilization and the dominant polities in the Aztec Empire (the Mexica, Tetzcoca, and Tepaneca), as well as many of their subject states and rivals, spoke Nahuatl. It was a lingua franca for the Aztec Empire and also for the Viceroyalty of New Spain, and thus was used as a second language by other Native peoples. Nahuas had a pictorial writing system as well as flourishing traditions of oratory and song, but they avidly added alphabetic literacy to their communicative techniques in the early decades of Spanish colonial rule, adapting it to their own purposes. Although colonial-era documents were written in many Indigenous Mesoamerican languages, by far the largest number are in Nahuatl.


AB: What drew you to the topic of Nahuatl theater, and more specifically Passion plays of the Nahuas?


LB: After my early work, which was mostly on sermons, catechisms, and confession manuals, I was drawn to genres of Indigenous literature that were less supervised by Catholic priests and thus more shaped by Indigenous agency and creativity. These included songs, narratives of saints’ legends or miracle stories, and, especially, theater.

Early Nahuatl theater had largely been seen as a tool of evangelization, but it was a space where Indigenous scriptwriters, actors, musicians, and others had considerable leeway to represent Christian stories as they chose. Priests sometimes wrote plays or supervised their production, but then these scripts could be recopied and passed along for a hundred years or more as a form of community theater, sometimes becoming integral to the ritual round and ethnic identity of the Nahua altepetl, or corporate communities. The fact that not a single Nahuatl play was approved for publication in colonial Mexico gives one indication that the genre was always seen as marginal and a bit suspect.

As a side project when I was working with Nahuatl literature on the Virgin Mary, I wrote a book on a Passion-related play, a prolonged farewell dialogue between Mary and Jesus. Some years later, historian Barry Sell and I co-produced a four-volume set in which we translated as much of the extant Nahuatl theatrical corpus as we could fit (Nahuatl Theater, University of Oklahoma Press, 2004–2009). In the fourth volume we published two Passion plays, one previously published in Spanish and one incomplete text that had been recently discovered.

While working with those, and then subsequently, I became aware of four additional never-published Passion plays. After being side-tracked for a time into some research on Nahuatl pictorial catechisms (Painted Words: Nahua Catholicism, Politics, and Memory in the Atzaqualco Pictorial Catechism, with Elizabeth Hill Boone and David Tavárez, Dumbarton Oaks, 2017), I needed a new project and decided to return to the unfinished business of the Passion plays. My friend and colleague Professor Daniel Mosquera at Union College had worked years previously on four Spanish-language Passion plays that were confiscated by the Mexican Inquisition in 1768, plays that were created to replace Nahuatl performances when those had been suppressed. Putting the Nahuatl and Spanish plays together into a project looking at popular religion in eighteenth-century Mexico and the suppression efforts against it sounded like a good idea to him as well, and our collaborative, open-access digital project, Passion Plays of Eighteenth-Century Mexico, was born.

As I transcribed and translated the other four Nahuatl plays, I found I had more to say about them than would fit in the short introductions and essays I’d envisioned for the website. After my work this year at the Library of Congress, I have a complete book manuscript, “Staging Christ’s Passion in Eighteenth-Century Nahua Mexico.” The Institute for Mesoamerican Studies at my home institution has a publishing agreement with the University Press of Colorado, and I expect the book to appear as part of our series.


AB: How are Passion plays distinct from other Nahuatl theater genres?


LB: All six Nahuatl Passion plays derive from a single, unknown source, most likely composed in the early seventeenth century and adapted from a Spanish-language narrative or drama. But the individual scripts are not simply copies of an original. Each is a unique text with additions, alterations, and subtractions that, together, reveal the passage through time and space of a performance tradition, continuously re-thought, re-worked, and re-staged. The interplay between respect for the model play and its now-archaic register of Nahuatl, and the freedom to innovate within that tradition, is something that cannot be charted for other Nahuatl theatrical genres because we don’t have so many scripts on the same subject.

And it is no accident that the Passion of Christ received so much attention: this is the only genre of play in which the action centers on an Indigenous man embodying a deity and acting out the mythic foundation of Christianity: the initiation of the Mass and communion at the Last Supper, the torments culminating in death on the cross. This was a very empowering mode of representation, especially since Indigenous men very rarely were able to enter the priesthood. In the plays, Jesus is a macehualli; this word originally referred to Nahuas of the commoner class, but in the era of these performances it meant an Indigenous person. A Nahua man being put to death by corrupt colonial authorities enacts the sufferings of the colonized, not just a story set in first-century Judea.


AB: Why did the authorities eventually suppress these Passion plays, when a casual observer might think they would welcome indigenous people engaging with Christian stories?


LB: It was colonial prejudice against Indigenous people that allowed Nahuatl theater to flourish as much as it did. They were seen as limited in mental capacity, overly carnal, and easily seduced by the devil. Along with this went the notion that, as one Franciscan put it, “they have no more understanding than what they see,” hence, spectacle like theater was necessary to draw them to the Church and keep their attention.

Roman Catholic churchmen could not accept, or even understand, a monist religion focused on performative rituals and on materialized embodiments and manifestations of sacred forces, themselves linked to natural phenomena. (Mesoamericans associated Christ with the sun.) To Europeans, the Indigenous deities could only be lifeless idols or living but evil demons. And given colonial status hierarchies, Indigenous forms of Christianity could not be accepted as equal to those of Spanish Christians.

What happens in the eighteenth century is that this dispensation—we can tolerate these spectacles because Indigenous people, in their ignorance and simplicity, respond well to them—expires. Enlightenment-influenced religious reformers sought to eliminate all forms of Baroque-era emotional excess from Mexican religious practice. So, for example, public self-flagellation was banned, even for people of Spanish descent. And Passion plays were considered irreverent, excessive, superstitious, and indecent, with women playing parts, the Jesus actor stripped naked or nearly naked, inebriated actors, and other problems—like Jesus actors being kissed and incensed as if they were divine, or their stage blood being sopped up and used in curing rituals.

But by this time there was such an audience for these exuberant plays among non-Indigenous people that when the archbishop of Mexico ordered the Nahuatl plays halted in 1757, Spanish-speaking people wrote and performed their own plays as a replacement. This instigated the 1768 Inquisition case that netted the four Spanish plays. Shortly thereafter, the next archbishop banned all Passion plays, whether in Indigenous languages or Spanish. So at this point there was suppression not only of Indigenous Christianity but also of other forms of popular religion that did not suit the taste of these reform-minded authorities.


AB: Can you tell me about how you’ve been able to make this research accessible online?


LB: The National Endowment for the Humanities Scholarly Editions and Scholarly Translations program has funded our digital project for two years (10/2020–9/2022). The website is still very much under development. Dr. Rebecca Dufendach, an ethnohistorian with better digital humanities skills than I will ever have, is handling the website design and maintenance. We will keep adding texts as they are ready, and updating and correcting the versions that are there.

English translations of two Nahuatl plays are currently available there, along with some general information and introductions to the individual plays. Accompanying these are paleographic transcriptions of the Nahuatl plays and also standardized transcriptions that facilitate access for students of Nahuatl and for native speakers of the language. For further outreach to Nahuatl speakers, the grant is funding work by my doctoral student Abelardo de la Cruz de la Cruz, an Indigenous scholar from Chicontepec, Veracruz. He is adding linguistic notes in Spanish to the standardized transcriptions in order to help contemporary speakers understand archaic and obsolete Nahuatl terminology, and writing introductions in contemporary Huaxtecan Nahuatl to each play and to the project overall. He and his wife, Alberta Martínez Cruz, also a native speaker, are recording some passages from the plays as audio files we will add to the website.

For the Spanish-language texts, so far we have Daniel Mosquera’s translations of two of the Spanish plays on the website. My former doctoral student Dr. Nadia Marín-Guadarrama is assisting with transcription of the Spanish texts. Spanish transcriptions of the plays will be added, and then we will be working with the other Inquisition documents. We will also be linking to short films Daniel is editing from footage he shot of contemporary Passion play performers in three communities in the area where the Inquisition inquiries were carried out. We will also be posting or linking to images of all the original texts, as much as possible.

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