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Campus News
Your faculty and staff news since 1965
March 15, 2004
Volume 39, Number 13

Library exhibit offers vivid look into Mexico’s history

By Karen Wentworth

Illustration from Bernardino de Sahagun, Historica las cosas de Nueva Espana (Florentine Codex).You are the local leader in the village of Tlalcosautitlan in the central valley of Mexico in 1587 and you need to convince the Spanish authorities that your village must divert more water from the river in order to increase the amount of land you have under irrigation. But there’s a catch, you don’t read or write in Spanish, the language of the new authorities. What do you do?

You might submit a carefully drawn manuscript to explain the problem and the solution. In this case it worked. The village got permission to divert more water. The codex is part of an exhibit in the Hertzstein Room on the second floor of the Zimmerman library organized by the UNM General Library’s Division of Iberian and Latin American Resources and Services.

A codex is a graphic depiction of everyday life, plants, animals, history or religious as drawn by the Mesoamericans either on long strips of material or on single panels. They usually have a series of symbols that furnish specific information about the scenes. This is a little known part of the extensive Latin American collections at the General Library, which contain nearly 45,000 books and pamphlets, one-half million microforms and large holdings of rare and unique prints, posters, manuscripts, and related material.

At the beginning of the Spanish conquest and colonization of the Mesoamerican people, the codices were routinely destroyed as the Spanish sought to remold indigenous life and society. As the Spanish learned more about Mesoamericans, they began to encourage the production of the codices to record information.

Facsimiles of several codices let the browser see how familiar the images are today. They also make a very old point. Even 400 years ago, for anyone petitioning the government, pictures help.