Lydia French.

Escuchando al Silencio de los Antepasados: Mesoamerican Writing Systems and Contemporary Composition

Like many who teach English 1301 here at Central, I use the Norton Reader in my Composition I classes. Typical of, or, more likely, generous in contrast to many such readers, the Norton contains three essays by Chican@i authors: Alberto Alvaro Ríos’s “Green Cards,” a reflection on immigration, Gloria Anzaldúa’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” and Richard Rodriguez’s “Aria.”ii As a Chicana deeply invested in Anzaldúa’s borderlands theories, I find it difficult to divorce “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” from its rich theoretical context on which I could devote an entire class. So when I teach literacy and language narratives, I opt to use Rodriguez’s “Aria,” which tells the story of Rodriguez’s transition from speaking exclusively the private language of his home, Spanish, to becoming fluent in the public language of his education and career, English.

All three of these essays, but most significantly Anzaldúa’s and Rodriguez’s, position Chican@s as late-comers to and “problems” in the U.S. composition classroom. Although the Norton, like many of us in our teaching, certainly faces the challenge of balancing diversity with tradition, this particular representation of Chican@s as pedagogical problems has the effect of reinforcing a conventional history of writing that fails to account for the intellectual and philosophical traditions of the Americas, to which Chican@s are indigenous. Indeed, as rhetorical theorist Damián Baca maintains, the conventional history of writing, like the trajectory of “civilization” it bears, tends to move from Europe to the Americas, imposing the hegemony of European understandings of literacy as part and parcel of the colonial-imperial project. Baca writes:

The genesis of human progress allegedly emerges in a Europeanized ancient Greece, then migrates westward through the conquests of Rome. From Roman imperialism, civilization eventually reaches Western Europe, we are told, and navigates across the Atlantic, migrating westward yet again with Puritan colonists seeking freedom and opportunity on American Indian land. The myth of civilization imposes a vanguard narrative of thinking from East-to-West, and this narrative remains firmly embedded in our classrooms. (xv)

Although Baca curiously relies on an Anglophone model here, the Hispanophone model of imperial conquest of the Native nations of what is now called Mesoamerica is even more apt since in Mexico-Tenochtítlan, in the Mixteca, in the Zapoteca, and in the Mayan city-states, the Spaniards encountered what they deemed “books” and “letters” (Mignolo 230-34). The erasure of Amerindigenous writing from conventional histories of writing’s evolution, as well as from contemporary composition classrooms, has relied upon the Spaniards’ recognition and subsequent burning of the Native books and libraries at the time of conquest.

The positioning of Chican@ students in composition classrooms as “problems” in part results from the historical gaps created by imperialist ideologies that render(ed) Amerindigenous writing, teachings, and bodies silent. To actively reject a pedagogy of complicity in such acts of silencing, I seek to fill those gaps in order to trace an enduring legacy of Mesoamerican writing and performance in contemporary Native and Chican@ literature. By placing our Chican@ students within the framework of a positive historical legacy of literacy in the Americas, we position them not as problems in the classroom but rather as heirs to a rich and vibrant academic tradition.

Mesoamerican Writing and the Voices of the Ancestors

In the 1990s, Chican@ artists returned to the Aztec-Mexica codices as explicit influences on Chican@ art in exhibits such as Chicano Codex: Encountering the Art of the Americas. Although this kind of indigenismo, an embrace and, in certain manifestations, romanticization of pre-colonial indigenous culture, pervaded Chican@ art and literature from the time of the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, the 1990s return to the art of the amoxtli marked an explicit recognition of the conflation of writing and painting in pre-colonial writing cultures and practices. Recognizing, for instance that the Nahuatl word tlacuilolitztli means at once “to write” and “to paint,” artists like Houston’s own Delilah Montoya adopted and adapted the codex form into contemporary art pieces that signified decolonial Chican@ consciousness into a context—the 1992 quincentenary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World—replete with colonial significance. The Chicano Codex exhibit thus staged an enduring conflict over contemporary, ancient, and colonial meaning-making practices that govern how we understand the relationships between writing, art, and politics in the Americas.

More recently poet, essayist, and playwright, Cherríe Moraga, published A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness, a collection of personal essays spanning the decade from 2000-2010, a decade that witnessed not only the fall of the twin towers on 9.11.01 and the subsequent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, but also the election of the United States’ first African-American President. Moraga charts, in poetry and prose, her responses to each of these events, weaving them into the challenges she faces in her personal life, including the loss of her mother, the growth of her son, and the recognition of the anger and suffering of her own queer, Chican@, and Native communities in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Complementing Moraga’s written reflections, the Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness also includes drawings by Moraga’s partner, Celia Herrera-Rodriguez. Like the colonial-era books that combined Amerindigenous logographic and pictographic writing practices with the alphabetic scripts imported by the Spanish, the images in Moraga’s Codex render at once the conflict between a Western privileging of signification through alphabetic script and that of image as well as the coevalness of multiple semiotic strategies in the legacy of writing in the Americas.

However, Moraga could have just as easily incorporated one of her plays or pieces of performance art into her Codex. Though she does discuss her own practices of performance pedagogy, the absence of embodied performance highlights the extent to which Chican@ interpretations and adaptations of Mesoamerican writing practices have been limited to the visual realm of painting-as-writing, frequently ignoring the embodied practices of oral, musical, and ritual performance that, together with the painted books, comprised the scenes of literacy in pre-colonial and colonial Mesoamerica.iii

Lydia French pictureIn extant Aztec-Mexica (valley of Mexico) and Mixtec (valley of Oaxaca) writing, depictions of speech scrolls, or volutas, emanating from the mouths of figures represented in the texts indicate the significance of speech and song. Indeed, in the texts recovered or repainted from Mexico-Tenochtítlan, we see a spectrum of volutas from plain scrolls coming from the mouths of elders (huehue in Nahuatl) seated in front of a receptive youth to the highly decorated scrolls that represent poetry and poetics, or in xochitl, in cuicatl (flower and song). Frequently, these representations of in xochitl, in cuicatl are affiliated with Mexican deities such as Macuilxochitl (5-Flower) or with lords and noblemen gifted in poetry and poetics (see fig. 1). These figures indicate the significance of oral and musical—sonic—performance within the contexts of literacy.

Many of these images connote single huehue (elders) or tlamatinime (philosophers and teachers, bearers of the wisdom of in tlilli tlapalli, “the red and the black ink”), sitting and reciting cantares (songs) performed as readings of the tales depicted graphically in the codices. But moving beyond the hegemony of Mexico-Tenochtítlan and the Nahuatl language to consider Mayan and Mixtec writings and languages, we find even more examples of the role of embodied performance in Mesoamerican scenes of literacy. In his essay, “The Embodied Sign in Mixtec Writing,” for instance, John Monaghan explains that “in the colonial dictionaries the Spaniards compiled for Yucatec Maya, they translated ok’ot as ‘to dance,’ and ok’otba ‘to pray.’ In the same manner Ah ok’ot is listed as ‘dancer,’ while Ah ok’otba is ‘intercessor, lawyer, mediator,’ often with the sacred” (89). Thus, for the Yucatec Maya, dance and prayer both act as sacred functions and, moreover, the line between the ritual saying of a prayer and the act of dancing is blurred such that both act to mediate and interpret sacred knowledge. Similarly, Monaghan explains, the Mixtec verb for dance is cata tie’e, where tie’e is “foot” and cata is “to sing.” Thus, “cata tie’e translates as ‘to sing with one’s feet[,]’ [suggesting] that from the Mixtec point of view, ‘dancing’ is a kind of ‘singing,’ and, by extension, that linguistic communication should not be treated as a phenomenon that is absolutely distinct from other forms of communication” (90). In other words, embodied performance of the codices is far more dynamic than a simple oral recitation or storytelling of their contents. Interpretation of the codices—an integral part of Mesoamerican scenes of literacy and the transmission of meaning—occurred as much through dance, gesture, and song as through more prosaic verbal transmission.

The idea of literacy as embodied and performative places it in the realm of what performance studies theorist Diana Taylor calls the “repertoire.” In contrast to the authority and relative permanence of the archive, particularly the written archive, the repertoire “enacts embodied memory: performances, gestures, orality, movement, dance, singing—in short, all those acts usually thought of as ephemeral, nonreproducible knowledge” (20). Like archives—records that include textual documents but also audio and video recordings—repertoires transmit cultural knowledge and memory, albeit through human embodiment rather than architectural or textual embodiment. For this reason, according to Taylor, “[t]he repertoire requires presence: people participate in the production and reproduction of knowledge by ‘being there,’ being a part of the transmission” (20). Thus, because the scenes of literacy that once characterized the transmission of knowledge in pre-colonial and colonial Mesoamerica no longer incorporate the performative manifestations of reading, the codices themselves are only ever partially interpretable. That is, as archives of text, they remain encoded with silence.

Nevertheless, the very silence of these extant manuscripts effects a decolonial politics in the very act of withholding. María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo describes such a politics of silence among the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN; Zapatista Army for National Liberation) when, in July of 1996, she, among 5,000 other visitors from forty-three countries, all invited by the Zapatistas, gathered to celebrate the “International Meeting for Humanity against Neoliberalism.” The crowd, whose exuberance was expressed in their songs, vivas, and general buzz of conversation, was told that in order for the event to begin, they needed to keep silent (191). After tremendous effort, as Saldaña-Portillo describes, the group finally immersed themselves in such strained silence, that “even the stars’ shining possessed a quality akin to sound” (192). While focused on her own silence and that of the crowd, Saldaña-Portillo failed to notice that the Zapatistas had, themselves, been silently emerging to fill the bleachers surrounding the central plaza where the crowd was gathered. She writes, “I had not heard hundreds of Zapatistas filling up the seats all around us. It seemed to me that none of us had heard the EZLN as its members surrounded us. While we were distracted by silence, the Zapatistas had added their silence—a silence now reverberating with movement—to our own” (192). The meanings encoded in this silent repertoire were not lost on Saldaña-Portillo: the Zapatistas, after years, centuries, of silence, had turned its performance into an aesthetic and a politics.

The crowd’s struggle to remain silent for ten minutes was designed to represent, on a much smaller scale, the struggle the Zapatistas must have endured in the ten years during which they had remained silent while organizing politically. More importantly, however, those ten minutes of strained silence also stood in metonymically for “another kind of silence, the five hundred years of silence imposed on indigenous peoples of the Americas by subalternizing discourses of the colonial and postcolonial periods” (193). Such silence, I argue, screams in the representations of singing, dancing, ball-playing, and, ultimately, living bodies of Mesoamerican manuscripts. It is a silence that, on one hand, withholds secrets, refusing to ever fully grant access to the local cultural or spiritual knowledge it contains. It is also a silence that, on the other hand, calls attention to the colonial conditions under which it has been imposed. In that way, it is a silence that impels listening.

Decolonial Listening in Contemporary Greater Mexican Literature

Like the Zapatistas performing a politics of silence mirrored in the extant Mesoamerican manuscripts, contemporary Chican@ and Native authors in the space that Américo Paredes has termed “greater Mexico”iv rely on an aesthetic of silence that Mexicanizes/indigenizes traditionally Western writing practices such as alphabetic text, the novel, or the memoir by, first, cultivating a politics of listening by depicting embodied practices of listening in their texts; second, including material, accessible popular songs as complements to the text that nevertheless require the reader to listen beyond the confines of the book to a sonic and musical performance that, as with Mesoamerican texts, proves integral to a full understanding and transmission of the text’s meanings; and, third, by layering these formal and performative elements in an iterative and polysemous fashion that recalls the complex scenes of literacy represented in the extant codices.

As indicated above, embodied performance, through song, dance, gesture, instrument-playing, ball-playing, storytelling, and other physical and oral/aural acts, was, along with the painted manuscripts themselves, constitutive of the scenes of literacy in pre-colonial Mesoamerica. At the same time, the body also functions representationally within the texts of the codices themselves. Frequently, for instance, the images on the manuscripts feature Lydia French picture 2gestures, such as index fingers pointed in specific directions, as well as bodily fluids emanating from unexpected sources such as trees. Similarly, one may encounter images of disembodied feet or umbilical cords connecting adult figures, sometimes even two males. These representations of bodily functions and body parts indicate, first, the important role that human bodies play in the transmission of cultural knowledge, affirming Diana Taylor’s call to emphasize the repertoire as much as the archive. But they also suggest, as John Monaghan claims regarding the Mixtecs, that the codices “use corporeal processes, the functions of organs, and bodily products as models for other processes, functions, and products” (95). In other words, the representation of disembodied feet might suggest the low or base part of something while the head might represent the pinnacle or apex of something, such as a hill or mountain. Similarly, as Monaghan argues convincingly, umbilical cords represent not only attachment by birth, or the relationship of children to parents, but also attachment by affiliation as well as conceptualization of identity. Thus, an umbilical cord joining two men, if each man represents a particular town, may represent the alliance of these communities or that they have experienced some historical connection, such as one “younger” town breaking off from the elder, more established town.

Recognizing the body as a metaphor for equally complex structures, including social and political as well as cosmological systems, in Mesoamerican writing offers a model for how to understand the depiction of a bodily process curiously absent from the codices and stories I’ve encountered thus far: hearing and listening.v Indeed, though there is an emphasis on song and voice (each of which functions to represent spiritual ideologies beyond the movement of the vocal chords, as I discuss below), there is little representation of hearing or listening in the codices.

Contemporary Greater Mexican works, however, pick up this trope in a way that, I argue, reflects the use of bodily functions as a metaphor for complex social and political understandings. In works such as Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, Tomás Rivera’s y no se lo tragó la tierra . . . / . . . and the earth did not devour him, Pat Mora’s House of Houses, Sandra Cisneros’s Woman Hollering Creek and Caramelo, and Nina Marie Martínez’s ¡Caramba!: A Tale Told in Turns of the Card, the authors depict acts of hearing and listening that, I argue, provide manuals for a practice of decolonial listening that highlight the social implications of the physical practices of hearing and listening.

In his foundational history of sound reproduction technology and listening, The Audible Past, Jonathan Sterne suggests that listening, particularly listening to sonic media, is a social activity, learned through instruction from manuals and advertisements. Drawing on Sterne’s recognition that “[w]e make our past out of the artifacts, documents, memories, and other traces left behind,” I suggest that narrative literature offers other avenues through which to trace the listening practices cultivated in a specific historical moment, in a particular geographic space, and within a specific differentiated set of political relationships. The depictions of hearing and listening in the works named above, in fact, reveal that, contrary to Sterne’s analysis of the social construction of sonic fidelity or listening for realism, there may be a set of listening practices that requires listening for the surreal, that which, by standards of social normativity, has been deemed imaginary, supernatural, or, frequently, just noise. These listening practices, what I call elsewhere “differential listening,” drawing on Chicana theorist Chela Sandoval’s “differential consciousness,” evidence a decolonial listening practice that hears, for instance, trauma in the silence of a literary

By using the bodily function of listening as a metaphor for understanding complex social relationships in the Americas, the fiction I have cited serve as primers for readers as to how to listen to the songs included in works such as Silko’s Ceremony, Cisneros’ Woman Hollering Creek and Caramelo, and Martínez’s Caramba. Each of these works includes popular music accessible in recorded form or, in some cases, via live performance. But each requires that the reader move beyond the text itself, thus transfiguring the scene of literacy and interpretation, to perform an embodied act of listening to these songs. Moreover, once the reader-turned-listener begins to interpret the musical performances, layers of meaning emerge from the combination of narrative text and performance. In many cases, a familiar listener will recognize song lyrics cited in the text or paratext being uttered by characters in the narrative. In the case of Caramba, the characters themselves reflect on the relationship between songs and life and vice versa.

This iterability and layering of meaning represents another formal characteristic that contemporary Chican@ literature shares with the codices. As scholars such as Dennis and Barbara Tedlock and Mark B. King have shown, for the Mayans as well as the Mixtecos, several signs in the manuscripts correspond not only to the information contained in the image, but also the information contained in the sound of the word. In other words, they act simultaneously as representational images and as logographs, images that represent phonetic syllabaries.

For instance, throughout Mesoamerica there are two calendars, a 260-day calendar that combines 13 day numbers with 20 day names and a 365-day solar calendar. Many codex scholars have noted that the day names are really untranslatable except as day names or proper nouns. While attempts have been made to interpret the metaphorical or symbolic significance of the images of, for instance, Alligator, Flint, Reed, Movement, etc., such interpretations have treated the day-signs solely as pictographs without considering the aural and linguistic component of the words themselves, which would, of course, require familiarity with the indigenous language. Barbara Tedlock, by contrast, maintains that “in actual practice the names are ‘read’ not as words in themselves but as a kind of oral rebus for quite other words; these other words are linked to the day name by means of paronomasia—that is, by means of poetic sound play,” or punning (qtd. in King 113). Moreover, Mark King explains that this punning typically operates on the level of the syllable, such that the individual syllables of day numbers and day signs are divorced from the words they normally compose in order to create alternative words and meanings. This polysemy—multiple meanings encoded into one signifier—operates by the layering of images, which are then articulated both aurally and representationally.

For instance, on the page of the Codex Vienna that features the dawn or birth of the first sun found, there is at the bottom of the page a temple decorated with song scrolls. Out of the temple rises a solar disk with the caption date 1 Flower at its center. Above is another solar disk with an unidentified solar deity at its center. And to the right are the caption dates Year 13-Rabbit, Day 2-Deer. The following reading of this creation story by Mark King offers an amazing example of the kind of polysemous and iterative form and performance that characterized Mixtec scenes of literacy. King explains, for instance, that even though the solar deity in the top disk is unidentified, there are only two deities associated with the sun in Mixtec cosmology, Lord 7 Flower and Lord 1 Death; the Flower date caption in the first disk thus indicates that the deity above is Lord 7 Flower. The word 7 in Mixtec is sa and Flower is waco or just co. Thus, 7 Flower could sound like sa waco or sa co. According to King, these two syllabic translations could pun with dzacu, which means “good,” “beautiful,” or “precious,” all of which are terms that describe those things associated with Lord 7 Flower, including the East, birds, gold, jade, chocolate, and fine clothing (122). But another derivation from this pun is the verb saco or coco, which means “to write,” “paint in colors,” and “compose a song.” Yet a third derivation is the verb sacu/cuacu, which means “to cry” or “to sound-out” (123). These last puns relate to the song scrolls seen on the temple at the bottom of the image.

The scrolls demonstrate the value placed on song in the spiritual life of the Mixtec, but they also demonstrate the idea of the first sunrise as “noisy,” calling attention to the relationship between song/sound and heat for the Mixtecs. King notes, for instance, that unlike in Aztec-Mexica representations of the scrolls as I discussed earlier, song scrolls in Mixtec manuscripts are differentiated not between speech-genres but between song and smoke. Multicolored scrolls, like the ones that characterize the temple are distinguished from gray scrolls that represent smoke. But there are also resonances between smoke and song on a verbal level as well. King explains, for instance, that even though books “are most often termed tacu, ‘to paint,’ ‘to make designs,’ and ‘writing[,]’ [and] a second set of meanings for tacu is . . . ‘to hear,’ or ‘to listen,’ implying the oral recitation of books,” books are sometimes also called tutu, meaning “page,” “design,” and “whistle,” and, as evidenced by the last, signals a relationship to wind instruments as well as the burning of copal incense (105). King thus understands the relationship between the song scrolls and smoke scrolls as one that suggests that “all song-related activities are spiritually heated in nature,” emphasizing the significance of heat for life and sustenance in Mixtec culture and cosmology (107). This relationship is further signified in the verb for “dawning,” cana, which is also a metaphor for birth. It means simultaneously: “to leave the inside” (as in birth), “to bounce back” (as in the sun’s daily return in the East), “to appear,” “to scream,” “to call out,” “to resound,” “the song of birds,” and “speech” (121-22). Thus, just as when a child is born (which in Mixtec understanding is characterized by its accretion of and subsequent loss of “heat,” which is balanced by immersing mother and child in a sweat-bath), when the sun rises it “cries,” and by singing out joins itself and the new day to the spirits of the cosmos.

Finally, the date caption Year 13 Rabbit, Day 2 Deer (which appears throughout the origin story told in the Vienna Codex), creates the puns si (13) sa(yu) Rabbit, or, using the first syllables, sisa, meaning, amongst other things, “to make a sound like a roaring fire” (123), and cua (2) cua(‘a) (Deer), or cuaa cuaa, which signifies, in one meaning, “to separate and move about” (123-24). According to King, “Both halves of this caption emphasize the sonic and separating aspects of the first sunrise” (124). As a priest, teacher, or interpreter/reader would perform a reading of this story, all of these meanings would echo in the verbal play of his song, which is also sanctified by its associations with the dawning itself. The performance of reading is thus not only iterative, it is also self-referential.

The verbal richness entailed in the images on these codices suggests a kind of literacy entrenched in sound and listening but also inseparable from performance. It is this kind of performative and audible literacy that I suggest would enrich our understandings of Chican@ literature. Just as the codices depict bodily processes as metaphors for larger social and political processes, so these works depict practices of hearing and listening as metaphors for a decolonial practice among Native Americans and Chican@s in the 20th– and 21st-century United States. Those depictions then act as guides to listening that invite readers to move beyond the confines of the book to actively listen to the songs included—as mere silent text until sought out—within narratives themselves. The songs and dances thus included in the narratives thus invoke the aural and performative aspects of the scenes of literacy that characterized the pre-colonial readings, interpretations, and teachings of the codices, thus altering our current understanding of literacy as confined to text, even if it is digital text.

Most importantly, these contemporary works use the musical performances of the songs to layer meanings in ways similar to the verbal play at work in Mixtec and Mayan writing. This polysemy of the songs in the text calls attention to the relationship between pop culture, narrative, and our actions in the world; like the tonalli of the 260-day calendar, which represents the days but also the destiny they foretell, readers-turned-listeners-turned-interpreters are invited to question the relationship between the narratives that render meaningful our lived experiences—including those in songs, films, television, and books—and our capacity to author or affect our own destinies.

This search for “other destinies,” to borrow a phrase from Cherokee literary critic Louis Owens, is one that touches the lives of our Chican@ students daily. Because conventional histories of writing tend to elide Amerindigenous scenes of literacy, the destinies of young Native and Chican@ students, heirs to these silent histories, appear determined. But by invoking Amerindigenous writing to indigenize and Mexicanize traditional Western forms of writing, contemporary Chican@ and Native authors offer students another path, another destiny. They illustrate and sound for young Native and Mexican-American students what it means to listen to the silence of our ancestors.

As such, these contemporary Chican@ texts rehearse a formal genealogy of Greater Mexican literature that runs from the Mesoamerican codices to Martínez’s 21st-century “codex,” Caramba. They illustrate for our students what it means to listen to the silence of the ancestors.


 The use of the @ in this word reflects a growing trend in Chican@ studies to avoid the necessity of writing Chicana/Chicano or Chicana/o, both of which represent the fact that Spanish words have both masculine and feminine endings. Because Chican@ studies encompasses the creative spirit, work, and history of Chicana women, Chicano men, and Chican@ gender queers, the @ more appropriately renders that inclusivity than the dividing line of the slash. The same representation can be used to represent the broader inclusivity of Latin@s.


 In addition to these three Chican@ essays, the Norton includes two pieces by Latin@ writers: Judith Ortiz Cofer’s (Puerto Rican/Nuyorican) “More Room” and Alberto Manguel’s (Argentine) “The Library as Survival.” Although many Chican@s now identify as Latin@ or Hispanic, the term Chican@ refers specifically to people of Mexican origin living in the United States either as a result of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which moved the Mexican border southward and created a class of Mexican-Americans, or as a result of immigration, either one’s own or that of one’s forebears. The term, Latin@, by contrast, is a more encompassing term, that refers to all peoples currently living in the United States who can trace their origins back to primarily Spanish-speaking countries.


 I use the phrase “scenes of literacy” to highlight the vibrant musical and performative nature of interpretation and pedagogy in precolonial Mesoamerica. “Scene” calls to mind not just the spaces in which interpretation was enacted, but also the actors, the agents of literacy, who inhabit that space and enact interpretation as performance.


 Paredes developed this idea as early as his study of corridos in “With His Pistol in His Hand”: A Border Ballad and Its Hero (1958). For Paredes, the folk expressions and folk life of Mexico moved beyond the national boundary into any and all spaces where Mexicanos lived.


 As of this writing, I have begun study of the Codex Borgia (Mixtec), the Codex Bodley (Mixtec), and in a preliminary way, the alphabetic text of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún’s Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España, also known as the Florentine Codex (colonial Aztec-Mexica). In what early research I’ve done into each of these texts, there are no homologies to the ear, hearing, or listening as there are for feet, hands, heads, umbilical cords, or bodily fluids. In the Popol Vuh (Maya), however, there is a curious representation of the ear at one point when Tohil, the god of the first Quiche men tells them, “It remains for you to give thanks, since you have yet to take care of your bleeding ears, yet to take stitches in your elbows. You must worship. This is your way of giving thanks before your god” (157). Translator and editor Dennis Tedlock clarifies that this reference to ears and elbows is punning on the words xikin (ear) and tz’ikin (bird, but also slang for penis) as well as ch’uk (elbow) and  ch’uq (breechcloth). Penitence and praising would come in the form of bleeding one’s penis, but the pun between ear and penis is curious. I have a hypothesis that it may suggest a relationship between listening and masculinity that comes to bear on an important and dynamic philosophy at the heart of the Popul Vuh: the sowing and the dawning. See also my post, “Winter Reading,” on my Chican@Lit&Culture blog.


 I develop these ideas further in an article currently under review.

Works Cited

Baca, Damián. Mestiz@ Scripts, Digital Migrations, and the Territories of Writing. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

French, Lydia. “Winter Reading.” Chican@Lit&Culture. Google Blogger, 25 Jan. 2013. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.

Boone, Elizabeth Hill and Walter Mignolo, eds. Writing Without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes. Durham:

Duke UP, 1994. Print

King, Mark B. “Hearing the Echoes of Verbal Art in Mixtec Writing.” Writing Without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes. Eds. Elizabeth Hill Boone and Walter Mignolo. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. 102-136. Print.

Martínez, Nina Marie. ¡Caramba!: A Tale Told in Turns of the Card. New York: Knopf, 2004.

Mignolo, Walter. “Signs and Their Transmission: The Question of the Book in the New World.” Writing Without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes. Eds. Elizabeth Hill Boone and Walter

Mignolo. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. 220-270. Print.

Monaghan, John. “The Text in the Body, the Body in the Text: The Embodied Sign in Mixtec Writing.” Writing Without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes. Eds. Elizabeth Hill Boone and Walter Mignolo. Durham, Duke UP, 1994. 87-101. Print.

Moraga, Cherríe. A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness: Writings, 2000-2010. Durham, Duke UP, 2011.

Saldaña-Portillo, María Josefina. The Revolutionary Imagination in the Americas and the Age of Development. Durham: Duke UP, 2003.

Sandoval, Chela. Methodology of the Oppressed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Sterne, Jonathan. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham, Duke UP, 2003.

Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham: Duke UP, 2003.

Tedlock, Dennis, ed. and trans. Popul Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings. New York: Touchstone, 1985/1996. Print.

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