Nahua Singers: Celebrating an Indigenous Empire in Sixteenth-Century Mexico City

    Project: Research project

    Project Details


    "Nahua Singers" examines how the daily communal activity of playing and singing music was central to history keeping, political debates, and conceptions of masculinity during the Aztec Empire and early colonial period. My research shows that the normally erased voices of commoners and minor nobles are recorded down in song lyrics which discuss events from the ancient Aztec past into the sixteenth century. Though originally collected by Indigenous scribes in the 1550s, and misunderstood by Franciscan friars, my research shows that the singers of these lyrics came from diverse backgrounds and communicated directly between nobles and commoners in public and private spaces. By placing the surviving song lyrics into the center of historiographic discussions, and acknowledging that they are indeed comprehensible, my research changes the narratives of how Indigenous traditions were suppressed by colonial regimes, or that they were preserved only by a handful of Aztecs nobles. Instead, the lyrics were composed and performed by both minor nobles and commoners with the intention of communicating and defining their pride in their long and successful history.
    One of the primary uses of songs by commoners and minor nobles was to protest colonial injustices to Indigenous leaders and specific friars they saw as allies. The singers chose historical events in public performances to hint at the cultural criteria of what the nobility must maintain: overcoming setbacks, fighting for justice, and providing for their people. The singers were communicating that at times it was fine to negotiate, but sometimes outright resistance was needed. These songs were used by everyday people to navigate their transition from imperial citizens under the Aztecs to colonial subjects under the Spanish.
    In addition to negotiations and rumblings of resistance, some of the singers discussed concerns over their future and wonder about a new and much larger world. “Nahua Singers” shows that a newly colonized people struggled to understand their role in a colonial empire, but found comfort and power in traditional knowledge and stories of their ancestors. In this way, the songs were very early intellectual and poetic reflections by minor nobles and commoners attempting to understand their place in a world that was now transoceanic and had a very different political, economic, and social role for the residents of Mexico City. The singers used their traditional artform as a way to navigate the shifting colonial landscape of power, death, and environmental change with their audiences.
    StatusNot started
    Effective start/end date1/01/2531/12/27


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