1519 Nahua Voices & Spanish Conquest: Honoring the Life and Work of Miguel León Portilla

Reflection by Nathaniel Salvini ‘21, History major  

On November 7, 2019, Loyola Marymount University and the Consulate General of Mexico in Los Angeles recognized the contributions of Miguel León Portilla, a world-renowned Mexican historian, anthropologist, and philologist who pioneered the study of Nahua culture, language, and history. This year marks the 500-year anniversary of the arrival of Hernán Cortés in Mesoamerica, and subsequently, a Spanish conquistador narrative that dominated as the perspective towards understanding Mesoamerican history of the 1500s for 450 years. Portilla became instrumental in reevaluating this history, by placing an emphasis on reviewing Nahuatl manuscripts and pictorials, as well as pushing for a proliferation of the Nahuatl language. The event featured a panel of faculty and guest speaker Lisa Sousa of Occidental College discussing León Portilla’s crucial contributions to this field.

The panel began with Rebeca Acevedo, professor and chair of LMU’s Modern Languages and Literatures Department, who described the highlights of León Portilla’s life. Miguel León Portilla was born in 1926 and was educated in the Jesuit tradition, first at a Jesuit high school in Guadalajara and then at Loyola Univeristy in Los Angeles, where he earned his B.A. and M.A. in History in 1948 and 1952 respectively. His groundbreaking work, The Broken Spears, showcases the Aztec perspective of the Spanish conquest of Mexico and kick-started other scholarly work in this field to include the Aztec viewpoint. León Portilla ended up teaching as a professor for 60 years, wrote over 200 professional articles, and developed such a reputation that he became the foremost authority on Aztec history and Nahuatl language. Many of his works are translated into English, and his dedication towards uncovering the Nahua perspective extended to making a variety of Nahuatl works available for research and study. Throughout his life, León Portilla advocated for indigenous groups and pushed for multilingualism in rural Mexico and beyond.

Lisa Sousa, professor of history at Occidental College, emphasized León Portilla’s efforts to showcase Nahua culture, identity, and memory in Mexican history. Sousa demonstrated León Portilla’s influence through discussing Nahua manuscripts and other Nahuatl sources from archives. Nahua writing from the 1520s to the 1580s included pictorials, forms of hieroglyphics, and eventually alphabetic writing. The types of Nahua sources from the period included histories, accounts of tributes, calendars, criminal records, last wills, bills of sale, election records, and petitions to the Spanish crown. Codices of this period included Nahua pictorials, with notable codices being the Codex Borgia and Florentine Codex. Many of these Nahua documents, such as the Florentine Codex, were written by trilingual Nahua noble scribes from Tlatelolco, with the Spanish translation leaving out key information intentionally or summarized away from Nahuatl. Sousa concluded her presentation by sharing the ongoing digitization project for the Florentine Codex, so that a more popular audience can access it.

Margarita Ochoa, associate professor of history at LMU, focused on the myths around Hernán Cortés due to the Spanish conquistador historical narrative. Such myths include the “peaceful meeting” between Moctezuma and Cortés, which in actuality was not peaceful since Spanish soldiers were involved. Another myth is Moctezuma’s death being caused by Aztec rebels rather than Spanish soldiers. Ochoa then transitioned into how the Nahua recorded their experiences and encounters with the Spanish, with oral tradition, pictorial texts, and codices all providing context for the brutality of Spanish actions. It should be mentioned that these Nahua histories complicate or outright deny Spanish versions of the conquest of Mexico. León Portilla helped dispel myths about indigenous groups as well, emphasizing that indigenous populations such as the Nahua are not “underdeveloped” or “anthropological relics of the past.”

The event concluded with the presentation of a presidential proclamation, signed by LMU president Timothy Law Snyder, posthumously honoring Miguel León Portilla and his contributions; it was presented by Roberta Espinoza, LMU Vice Provost for Global-Local Initiatives, to Fabiola García Rubio, Consul for Cooperation at the Mexican Consulate in L.A. Consul García Rubio spoke briefly on the folklore of La Llorona. This infamous tale is said to be a woman in a white dress, who cries and moans as she wanders the streets and is thought to represent a demon because she has horns on her head. La Llorona was said to have appeared before the Spanish arrival and shows how an indigenous tradition was adapted to represent the despair of Spanish conquest.

León Portilla’s findings showcase the intricacies and complexities of the Nahua, which was previously largely absent from academia and mainstream viewpoints of Aztec history. His dedication to preserving Nahuatl signals the importance of multilingualism, for if a language dies, “many have already died, and many more may die. Mirrors forever broken, shadows of voices forever silenced; humanity becomes impoverished.” This English-translated excerpt of the poem “Ihcuac tlahtolli ye miqui/When a language dies” by Miguel León Portilla showcases the importance of continuing practice and preservation of languages. This event demonstrated the lasting influence that Miguel León Portilla had on the study of Mesoamerican history, Nahua culture, and the Nahuatl language.

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