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A 16th Century Codex Tells a Story of Resistance to Colonial Rule

Jay I. Kislak Chair Barbara E. Mundy is an art historian whose scholarship explores zones of contact between Native peoples and settler colonists as they forged new visual cultures in the Americas. She is Donald and Martha Robertson Chair in Latin American Art History at Tulane University, Senior Fellow of Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, and serves on the editorial board of Estudios de cultura náhuatl. Her project at the Kluge Center is titled “Indigenous Artists and European Book Culture, 1540-1600.”

On February 22nd, 2022, Barbara Mundy, the Jay I. Kislak Chair for the Study of the History and Cultures of the Early Americas at the John W. Kluge Center, traveled to Huejotzingo (pronounced Way-hoat-ZINC-o), a small town in Central Mexico. With her, Mundy brought a facsimile of one of the Library’s prized possessions – the Codex Huexotzinco (an early spelling of Huejotzingo).


LOC employee Michael Munshaw holds one of the facsimile pages of the Codex Huexotzinco. Credit: Barbara Mundy






The Huexotzinco Codex

The Codex comprises four painted sheets of amatl, a form of bark paper made in Mesoamerica, and four sheets of maguey, a paper made from the same aloe plant used to make tequila. It was made by the Nahua people of Huejotzingo.

In 1521, the Nahua people had forged an alliance with Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés against their mutual enemy – the Aztec empire. But, once Cortés had defeated the Aztecs, he also forced his allies, the Nahua people of Huejotzingo, to become part of his estate and to pay tribute.

Then, around 1530, Cortés left his estate to return to Spain. During this time, Nuño de Guzmán, another powerful conquistador who rivaled Cortés, began seizing parts of Cortés’s estate and expanding his power and territory.

Guzmán is remembered today as the founder of Guadalajara and for his brutality towards indigenous people. As part of his efforts to seize Cortés’s estate, Guzmán forced the Nahua people to provide additional and often excessive tributes. For this reason, upon Cortés’s return, the Nahua people joined Cortés in a legal case against Guzmán. In the Huexotzinco Codex, the Nahua people documented the tributes paid to Guzmán and the other administrators. Cortés used the Codex as testimony to prove Guzmán, and other Spanish colonial administrators, had taken too high a tribute from the Nahua people, and thus from his own estate, and that this should not have been legally permissible. The case eventually rose all the way to the King of Spain.

In 1538, King Charles of Spain decided in favor of Cortés and the Nahua people, and the Crown ordered that two thirds of all tributes the town of Huejotzingo had paid be returned to the community.[1]

The Codex is a notable record for numerous reasons. Firstly, the Codex showcases a moment of indigenous resistance to colonial administrators. Although the case was brought by Cortés against Nuño de Guzmán, the Nahua people of Huejotzingo used the opportunity to protest excessive taxes and assert their position as allies of Cortés.


A page of the Codex Huexotzinco depicting a banner of the Madonna and Child. Credit: Barbara Mundy


Secondly, the Codex contains important images, including one of the first depictions of the Madonna and Child created by an indigenous artist in the Americas. This depiction, along with the other drawings on the same page, were included in order to emphasize to the Spanish Crown the amount of gold and feathers indigenous artisans had used to produce an actual banner of the Madonna and Child for a Spanish military campaign. Other items depicted in the Codex (including turkeys, chili peppers, maize, adobe bricks, limestone, wheat, textiles, and feathers) provide insight about the kinds of items the Huejotzingo community was producing at that time.


Huejotzingo Today: An Opportunity to Reengage with the Past

By bringing the facsimile of the Codex to Huejotzingo, Mundy brought with her an important piece of indigenous history.    

Located in the state of Puebla, in the Sierra Nevada range in Central Mexico, the town of Huejotzingo (“place of small willows” in Nahuatl) has been recognized by UNESCO as a Learning City, with roots that date back to before Spanish colonization.

The modern contours of Huejotzingo arose around the Franciscan monastery of San Miguel Arcángel.


The town square of Huejotzingo. Credit: Barbara Mundy


The Monastery of San Miguel Arcángel surrounded by trees and gardens. Credit: Barbara Mundy


The façade of the monastery. Credit: Barbara Mundy

Murals within the monastery. Credit: Barbara Mundy


While visiting the town, Mundy donated a facsimile of the Huexotzinco Codex to Angélica Patricia Alvarado Juárez, Huejotzingo’s current mayor, during a meeting held in Huejotzingo’s town hall.


Mundy presenting the facsimile to Mayor Angélica Patricia Alvarado Juárez. Credit: Barbara Mundy


The event included comments by Huejotzingo’s Minister of Education and by Lidia E. Gómez García, a historian at Benemerita Universidad de Puebla. Mayor Juárez highlighted Huejotzingo’s importance as a UNESCO Learning City and the Codex’s relationship to her own education initiatives. These kinds of exchanges, suggested Mundy, can help promote a shared sense of history and offer ongoing opportunities for dialogue on topics that are of interest to both the U.S. and Mexico.


The event’s attendees. Credit: Barbara Mundy


Mundy discussed her work at the Kluge Center in a public lecture on May 12th, 2022. You can view it here.

In October, Mundy will be hosting a workshop at the Library of Congress for scholars of the Codex who are continuing to tease out its historical significance.

[1] https://mapas.uoregon.edu/huexotzinco


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