Vassar Quarterly - Spring/Summer 2017 - 7
Karl Rabe / Illustration courtesy of David Tavárez
rofessor of Anthropology David Tavárez says he was
"shell-shocked" when he found out he had been chosen
for a 2017 John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship.
"I wasn't expecting to get it on my first try. Applicants
often must persevere," he says.
The award will allow Tavárez to work on his latest book, Word,
Time, and Resistance in Colonial Mexico: The Zapotec Books of the Cosmos,
which examines pre-colonialized Zapotec traditions and customs,
the effects of colonization on the culture, and the work of Zapotec
people to keep written accounts.
When Spain colonized the Zapotec region of Mexico, the indigenous
populations had a character-based writing and a 260-day calendar
cycle, and used songs to communicate with cosmic entities, Tavárez
says. All of those things would change dramatically under colonial
rule. Retaining written knowledge of their customs and beliefs was
then considered a crime, so people buried texts to keep them hidden.
"They would have been burned at a public ceremony to discourage
people from producing these books," he says.
Tavárez's research benefits from the existence of 17th-century
documents given to the bishop of Oaxaca by the officials of 40 Zapotec
communities. These manuals were created clandestinely. Their
authors sought amnesty from the church after others who owned
similar texts had been harshly punished, he says.
The bishop sent the manuscripts-referred to as "books of the
devil"-to Spain, where they were preserved as evidence. Over time,
they were forgotten, resurfacing in the 1960s. They now reside at the
Archivo General de Indias in
Seville, Spain, which Tavárez
"There are more than 100
manuals with different perspectives on how this indigenous
cosmology worked, on the songs
that were performed by ritual
specialists and an entire community to celebrate ancestors on
particular occasions, and on
important dates in the 260-day
cycle," Tavárez says.
For his research, Tavárez will
From the 1690s, the first 13 days in
return to Oaxaca, where he's
the Zapotec 260-day sacred count.
worked with Zapotec intellectuals
to translate pre-colonial songs that were confiscated by the bishop.
Along with the preservation of Zapotec history, there is a bigger
picture, Tavárez says: The ability of people to learn about their
ancestors and their culture. The experience of the Zapotec people
shares commonalities with other indigenous populations-strategies
of resistance that enabled people to write the folios in the first place,
Tavárez says. Part of his responsibility is to help uncover the body of
knowledge that anchors a people, and gives them a particular place
in time in their history.
VA S S A R Q u A R T E R LY