Five hundred years ago, Tenochtitlan, which is now known as Mexico City, fell into the hands of the Spanish after a period of intense fighting, sickness, and siege. The conquest has been seen as absolute, marking the destruction of the Aztec empire. “Mixpantli: Space, Time, and the Indigenous Origins of Mexico” and “Mixpantli: Contemporary Echoes,” two exhibitions now on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, aim to subvert this totalizing view of history.
“Space, Time, and the Indigenous Origins of Mexico” showcases more than 30 artifacts made by the Nahua people in the time preceding, during, and following the conquest of Tenochtitlan. (Some of the objects are from LACMA’s collection, while others are held by Mexican institutions such as the Museo Nacional de Antropología and the Museo Regional de Tlaxcala.) In the show, co-curators Diana Magaloni and Alyce de Carteret bring together these artifacts to demonstrate how Nahua cosmologies adapted to preserve cultural practices and defend land titles during Spanish rule. “We wanted to rethink the dominant narrative of conquest, and switch the narrative to the Indigenous experience and perspective on that event,” Magaloni said.
Myths spread by Spaniards continue to have a strong impact today, and led to the absorption of aspects of the Christian religion into the Nahua cosmology. A facsimile of the Codex Moctezuma depicts the Aztec ruler, stripped of his regalia and with a rope tied around his neck, attempting to calm down his people following a massacre. His capture by the Spanish and subsequent killing by his own people came to be understood in parallel to the death of Christ, who was also captured by a foreign force and betrayed. Jesus would come to be incorporated as a Nahua sun deity and the two figures would continue to be related in Nahua politics and arts.
Magaloni presents a different version of the story. “One of the most destructive assertions of colonial history is the narrative about Montezuma’s death,” she said. “The Spaniards said that his own people who considered him a coward killed him. The Indigenous Codex Moctezuma and book 12 in the Florentine Codex clearly represent and state that the Spaniards assassinated him. We show how Moctezuma was considered the center of time and space, as a man-god, the representative on earth of Xiuhtecuhtli. The Spanish version destroys a legacy, and destroys the pride of being related to Moctezuma.”
Another key aspect of the exhibition is the use of Nahua cartography from the 16th and 17th centuries. “For the Indigenous people of the past and present, the connection to the territory, to their lands, is fundamental,” Magaloni said. “This connection is communicated through cartography. It was in our minds since the onset of the exhibition.”
Because these maps are exceedingly fragile, the LACMA curators were unable to travel them from Mexico for the show. Instead, Mexico City–based artist Tlaoli Ramírez Téllez reproduced them for LACMA. These mapas de merced, as they’re called, were used to make legible the historical, cultural, and historic Aztec relations to the land to Spaniards. This legibility was critically important, as these maps accompanied legal petitions to halt Spanish land grabs.
Narrative cartography is still in use today. This is in part because of the risks Indigenous knowledge-keepers took to continue their important work. “We were surprised about the parallels between the pandemic today and the epidemics in 1576 in Central Mexico,” Magaloni said. “Historia de las cosas de Nueva España (History of the Things of New Spain), or the Florentine Codex, is a bilingual illustrated encyclopedia that documents Mexica culture and history. The books were produced by a group of Nahua scholars under the auspices of Fr. Bernardino de Sahagún. As an epidemic in 1576 devastated Indigenous communities in Central Mexico, killing four out of every five souls, these scholars risked their lives and persecution by the Inquisition to complete this monumental work.”
“Contemporary Echoes,” the sister exhibition of “Space, Time, and the Indigenous Origins of Mexico,” brings together Los Angeles–based and Mexican artists who are inspired by the tradition of Nahua narrative cartography. (Most of the seven works featured are drawn from LACMA’s collection.) Like the original Nahua ones, these maps draw out connections to place and relations of violence.
Sandy Rodriguez, who uses traditional materials to make her maps, focuses on murders by the police and border patrol. Her watercolor You will not be forgotten. Mapa for the children killed in custody of US Customs and Border Protection (2019) locates where children under the custody of Border Patrol died. Rodriguez’s Mapa de Los Angeles 2020—for the 35 Angelinos Killed by Police Amid a Pandemic (2021) tracks police violence across the city during a time of acute crisis.
The final part of “Mixpantli: Contemporary Echoes” maps Indigenous communities living today in Los Angeles. The digital map We Are Here was produced by Comunidades Indígenas en Liderazgo (CIELO), in collaboration with the University of California, Los Angeles. The interactive map We Are Here asserts, just as the Nahua survivors did, that Indigenous life, culture, and cosmologies continue today, and that the fall of Indigenous empires did not mean the end of Indigenous peoples.