Sunday, June 20

Conquest of Mexico: The Canvas of Tlaxcala, a unique and digital version of the indigenous conquerors


The largest sheet of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.  In the center is the imperial shield of Spain followed by the shield of colonial Tlaxcala.  Plate extracted from the version of the Chavero codex.
The largest sheet of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala. In the center is the imperial shield of Spain followed by the shield of colonial Tlaxcala. Plate extracted from the version of the Chavero codex.Digital historical reconstruction project of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.

In 1552, the then viceroy of New Spain, Luis de Velasco, commissioned a canvas to honor the Tlaxcalans, an indigenous people allied during the wars of conquest, held between 1519 and 1541. Later known as Lienzo de Tlaxcala, the codex was elaborated at the end of the 16th century by four lineages of Tlaxcalans who accompanied the Spanish in battle. Today, a group of researchers is trying to virtually rescue one of its last copies.

It is about from the first document which detailed the participation of the Tlaxcalans in the alliance of peoples that the Spanish forged against the Mexica. The canvas gives a more finished, complex and systematic version of the history of the conquest. “This document tells us a very different story, because it tells us about the indigenous as protagonists in many wars, not only in Mexico-Tenochtitlan, but in the conquest of all the rest of New Spain”, the historian and researcher details Federico Navarrete. “The Tlaxcalans were able to assimilate the Spanish culture and negotiate with the Spaniards from very early on, not in a position of weakness, but in a position of alliance, strength and almost as equals,” he says.

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With Navarrete at the helm, a group of researchers from UNAM has taken on the task of reconstructing and digitizing the available files of the codex. The project began in 2017. In several conferences and discussion tables the idea of ​​collecting the different versions of the document was raised: over the centuries copies of the original and copies of the copies have been made. The intention of the researchers now is to collect all the available information and reconstruct the codex from all its versions so that it is available online.

The whereabouts of the original canvas, made up of 87 plates, is unknown. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, three copies were made. The first was transferred to Spain. The second stayed in Mexico City and the third remains in the Tlaxcala City Hall. Bad luck —or the New Spain robbery— caused most of these three copies to be equally disappeared. The last one served as the basis, however, to make another copy, made by Juan Manuel Yllanes del Huerto in 1773. Three more of Yllanes’s copy were made: one was sent to Paris in 1889 —whose final destination is unknown—, another dated 1933, kept in Mexico, in the National Library of Anthropology and History, and the last copy was found in the Tulane University, in Louisiana, United States.

Despite the number of losses and disappearances, the UNAM team of researchers is optimistic. More considering that universities and museums in Europe and the United States keep small fragments of the original copies. “It is fortunate that we have so much evidence about what the three copies of the original canvas were like and that the content can be reproduced despite the fact that the material does not exist in its entirety”, indicates Antonio Jaramillo Arango, one of the historians who work in the draft.

Margaret Cossich, who has been researching the codex for about five years, comments that he has worked with several alphabetical and pictographic copies to be able to carry out a digital reconstruction faithful to the vision of the Tlaxcalans. “Trying to reach the conclusion of the original canvas is complicated, so we must carefully review the fragments of the copies that we have,” he says.

For researchers, the revitalization of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala is very important, as it appears as a counterweight to the Hispanic versions of the conquest. Navarrete gives an example Relationship Letters, by Hernán Cortés: “They are not a complete chronicle, in fact, Cortés was not in all the battles after the taking of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, of which the canvas speaks with great precision,” he says. Although there are other documents that tell the story of the conquest, such as the Florentine Codex, Commissioned by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, the Lienzo de Tlaxcala is revealed as a unique vision, told by members of the Tlaxcala people themselves.

Fourth plate of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.  It is a copy of the 18th century painted by Juan Manuel Yllanes.  Hernán Cortés is observed entering Atlihuetzyan and received by Tlaxcala chiefs.
Fourth plate of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala. It is a copy of the 18th century painted by Juan Manuel Yllanes. Hernán Cortés is observed entering Atlihuetzyan and received by Tlaxcala chiefs.Digital Historical Reconstruction Project of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala

The antagonists counting the conquest

The Government has chosen 2021 as the year in which the 700th anniversary of the founding of Mexico-Tenochtitlan will be celebrated, although there is not enough information to prove its appearance in 1321. However, 500 years ago its defeat has been recognized. Mexican city, in large part, thanks to the alliance of the Spanish with the Tlaxcala people.

For many years, the historical imagination posed the Tlaxcala people as traitor or enemy, a vision that is not entirely accurate, if the Tlaxcala document is carefully reviewed. “The problem with the interpretation of the history of Latin America is that the past is seen in racial terms: Indians, blacks and whites are not seen as a plurality of identities, but rather they are opposed,” says Jaramillo.

Beyond the ephemeris, the official discourse has focused on a historical vision that focuses on the period of the Mesoamerican wars. “This year we made the decision to celebrate the Mexica, the origin and the resistance,” said the mayor of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum. At the same time, the name of streets and squares has been changed on the occasion of these celebrations.

“It is frequent that there is a lot of polarization, that things of the past are read in terms of the present and, for example, criticism of Spain is seen in current relations and not since what was done five centuries ago,” says Navarrete. About this period, without a doubt, there are many versions and ways of interpreting the documents. According to the historians in charge of the reconstruction of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, they try to find out various angles on this period. “More and more people are more and more interested in historical events. The questions of the 21st century are different, and academics must also ask other types of questions ”, he concludes.

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