500 Years of Mexican Books | Newberry

500 Years of Mexican Books

This summer, the Newberry Library is working with the Bibliographical Society of America (BSA) and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), Chicago Campus to bring seven virtual programs on the history of Indigenous-language books in Mexico to audiences around the world.

From Nahuatl and Otomí to Purépecha and Yucatec Mayan, these languages are diverse. Today, the Mexican government recognizes more than sixty Indigenous languages, beyond which exists immense linguistic and dialectal diversity across communities past and present. The Newberry houses materials written in and about these languages, from sixteenth-century grammars to modern-day comic books.

500 Years of Mexican Books: Colonial Book Bibliography in Indigenous Languages is a collaboration that seeks not only to provide a forum for scholars, but also to heighten public awareness of the rich history of Indigenous-language book production by working across institutions, collections, and borders.

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500 Years of Mexican Books, Opening Event

Moderator Dr. Marina Garone Gravier (upper left) joined panelists Dr. Rodrigo Martínez Baracs (upper right), Dr. Alejandro González Acosta (bottom right), and Dr. Salvador Reyes Equiguas (bottom left) on Zoom for the opening event of 500 Years of Mexican Books on July 1, 2021.

“For anyone interested in Mesoamerican and Mexican history in general—from Mexico, the United States, and even from other countries—it’s well-known the richness of the treasures preserved at the Newberry Library,” said panelist Dr. Salvador Reyes Equiguas during the opening event on July 1. (His and other panelists’ comments have been translated from Spanish for this article.)

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Detail of the 1524 Cortés Map

2021 marks the fifth centenary of the so-called “conquest” of Mexico in 1521. Pictured is a detail of the 1524 Cortés map of Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec Empire. The map was published in Nuremberg alongside copies of letters written by Hernán Cortés to Emperor Charles V. It is thought to be based on a prior Indigenous-made map of the metropolis. (Call number: VAULT Ayer 655.51 .C8 1524d)

Dr. Reyes Equiguas added that the richness of the Newberry’s collection is made more profound when it is read in dialogue with the holdings of other institutions. From the Newberry to the Biblioteca Nacional de México to the Vatican Archives and beyond, “One reflects the other,” he said. And where collections differ, they paint a more complete picture. The reality that no one collection can be authoritative makes collaboration across institutions a key part of the Newberry’s mission.

“[There is] this necessity, this possibility, that we have through technology to rearticulate a bibliographic patrimony that I believe isn’t, say, national, but instead international,” said Dr. Marina Garone Gravier. She is the coordinator of 500 Years of Mexican Books and moderated the discussion on July 1. “We have the opportunity to make a real constellation of these documents to foster a much more detailed understanding of what happened during these cultural exchanges… and to better understand what exactly we have.”

500 Years of Mexican Books is just the first step in this multi-institutional process.

“All of us at the Newberry are dedicated to the advancement of research, teaching, and learning in the humanities, both in our home at 60 West Walton and beyond,” says President Daniel Greene. “We’re excited to work with our peers at the BSA and UNAM Chicago to pursue that mission with an even wider community.”


Collection item: "Coloquios de la paz y tranquilidad christiana"

This manuscript from the collection, written mainly in Otomí with some Spanish and Latin, is a compilation of parables and moral lessons composed by Franciscan missionary Father Juan de Gaona. The book was first printed in Nahuatl as “Coloquios de la paz y tranquilidad christiana en lengua mexicana” in 1582. The Newberry’s Otomí copy was written by hand around 1600. Today, dialects of Otomí are spoken by more than 200,000 people across Mexico, mainly in the states of Hidalgo and Querétaro. (Call number: VAULT Ayer MS 1648)

Interested in joining in the collaboration? Four programs of 500 Years of Mexican Books have already aired. You can watch recordings of them on YouTube. English subtitles are available for all programs except “Reflections on the Fifth Centenary” (original: “Reflexiones en torno al quinto centenario”).

In the coming weeks, two more programs will premiere on YouTube, one exploring the work of Indigenous typographers and calligraphers, the other examining historical roles that colonial texts written in Indigenous languages have played. To learn how to watch, please visit our 500 Years of Mexican Books program page.

500 Years of Mexican Books will culminate on August 12, 2021, with a second roundtable discussion. The conversation will take place in Spanish with simultaneous English translation provided. Click here to register.

The support of donors like you helps us to present these important conversations around our collection and to foster important relationships with other cultural organizations. Thank you for helping the Newberry connect people around the world to the wealth of information housed within our walls.

This story is part of the Newberry’s Donor Digest, Summer 2021. In this newsletter the Newberry shares with its donors exciting stories of the success and innovation made possible by their generosity. Learn more about supporting the library and its programs.