Spirituality and Physical Space: An Interview with Davíd Carrasco

May 20, 2008
Spirituality and Physical Space: An Interview with Davíd Carrasco

Harvard Divinity School celebrated its Alumni Day on June 4, 2008, with the theme "The Spiritual Nature of Physical Space."

The featured speaker was Davíd Carrasco, director of the Moses Mesoamerican Archive at Harvard's Peabody Museum and Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America at HDS and in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. His discussion was titled "Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation: Deciphering a Sixteenth-Century Indigenous Codex from Mexico."

The story of how Carrasco became involved with the indigenous codex begins soon after the philanthropist Ángeles Espinosa Yglesias acquired the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan No. 2 (MC2) in 2001. She contacted John Coatsworth, who was director of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard, and asked him if he knew of anyone who could lead an investigation into the ancient map, which dates to the mid-sixteenth century. It turned out that Coatsworth knew just the right person: Carrasco.

Espinosa, who served on the center's advisory board, provided a generous donation toward the investigation and conservation of the codex, which was produced by the indigenous Chichimeca peoples of Mexico and tells the story of their journey to Cuauhtinchan from the cave at Chicomoztoc. Carrasco soon assembled a team of international researchers and scholars from a variety of disciplines to undertake what has turned into an ongoing five-year study of the MC2 and its interpretations and historical application. The culmination of their research is presented in Cave, City, and Eagle's Nest: An Interpretive Journey through the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan No. 2, which was published last November by the University of New Mexico Press. The book is edited by Carrasco and Scott Sessions, who is a research associate at Amherst College.

At 479 pages, City, Cave and Eagle's Nest is a collection of striking images and 15 beautifully crafted essays detailing the collective work of Carrasco, Sessions, and a diverse team of collaborators. To make the book more accessible to a wide readership, Carrasco set aside a portion of funds to help UNM Press keep the price of the book down. A similar volume would typical retail for roughly $150. The Carrasco and Sessions book sells for $52.

I recently spoke to Carrasco in his office on the fifth floor of the Peabody Museum in Cambridge, where I also had the opportunity to examine a digital reproduction of the MC2. The detail and the artistry were stunning. Considering the space limitations, the book superbly demonstrates the rich complexities and vivid artistry of the codex and the people who painted it.

Below are portions of our conversation—along with excerpts (set in italics) from City, Cave and Eagle's Nest.

How do you view your personal relationship with the MC2, and how has it changed over the years you've been working with it?

The map is a piece of texture created by indigenous people in Mexico. We tried to cultivate within ourselves a higher regard, a higher respect for it. We didn't look at the map as a piece of art only. We tried to approach it as a living extension of the people who told the story. We went to the town and countryside and tried to get a feel for the landscape in which the map was created. The descendents of these people are still alive there, though they don't have the map with them anymore. I think when you deal with the history of religions in Mexico, you're in what they call a "contact zone." Between these townspeople and ourselves, and between the descendents of these people and ourselves, the map becomes the centerpiece. We felt a responsibility to be careful with the map and its epic story, because often these maps or this kind of art ends up in distant museums as a kind of fetish for tourists to look at. We didn't want to be part of that.


Gazing for the first time at the dramatic, colorful, and complex indigenous painting known as the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan No. 2 (MC2) leaves viewers with feelings of admiration and mystery. When you learn that this masterpiece of cultural history and religious memory was created by native Mesoamerican artists living in the altepetl or community of Cuauhtinchan, the "Place of the Eagle's nest," just two decades after the Spanish conquest of central Mexico, the profound historical significance of the document begins to sink in.

What was your relationship like with the people of the town? Were they welcoming? Were they questioning?

We first of all had to work through the representatives of Ángeles Espinosa and the Museum Amparo, which is the cultural center in Puebla. There were people there—elders and spokesmen in the community—and we didn't rush in there and try to interview them. We went there and met a couple of these people, and they knew what we were doing. There was some talk to either return the map to the community or make a replica of the map and put it in the community, but that's not in our hands. We are outsiders, and we've been invited in. We raised our concerns, but we didn't make any demands or anything like that.

There's an essay in the book by Ethelia Ruiz, which is about the history of the people in Cuauhtinchan. She's able to identify, over these 400 years, many of the people who were leaders in community when the map was made as well as people who might have been in possession of the map and what's happened to them. We held a conference in Puebla and some of our group went down for other visits; and then we had a PhD student in archaeology working in the area with William Fash and Barbara Fash from Harvard.

On the one hand, we wanted to be in touch. But on the other, we didn't want to intrude. We actually made and studied photographic records of the map, and I've seen the map a couple times. It is in Ángeles Espinosa's home in Mexico City. It has its own room, and it's been taken care of and conserved. It's like a living relic.

When you came on board, did you select the people you wanted to work with?

This is the Mesoamerican Archive, and so these are some of the leading scholars around the world. The archive, where you and I are meeting, is a collection of data and essays and objects, but it's also a collection of people who have worked together since 1984. These people have been wherever I've been—Colorado, Princeton, Harvard—and we work as a team. A number of them were involved in the project. There are about 30 people who are a part of this—my larger interpretive team, which is made up of some Mexicans, some people in the US, a few in Japan, and some in Europe. Out of that, we selected 15 who were more closely related to either this map or these types of documents.

It is one of the most 'global' if not the most comprehensive of the single-page colonial codices from sixteenth-century Mexico depicting a wide range of religious practices, social patterns, geographical features, ethnicities, and cultural orientations. It is truly remarkable that it is only in the last half decade that scholars have been able to gather together to study the MC2 directly and largely only through illuminating digital photography.

In regard to providing an unknown view into the lives of a Chichimec community of the sixteenth century, what is the wider significance of your research?

The map reflects the different ways humans narrate their sacred history, which is something you find in many if not all communities. And here you see that their narration is a combination of pictorial and oral recitation.

This codex is actually produced in the early Colonial Period. And while it is probably a copy of a pre-Columbian map, it also reflects this idea of a contact zone—this idea of an encounter between Christian and European and indigenous people. So, in a sense, it's like a visual chant that they were trying to keep alive under the pressure of Christianization and missionization.

If somebody here had a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it would be the biggest news in the world. This is more important than the Dead Sea Scrolls in terms of the Americas—in terms of who we are. This is the wisdom and sacred story and artistry of indigenous Americans, who produced a masterpiece on a scale that was both for children and adults.

The images on this document are a testament of memory—social, mythical, ritual, and political memory—yet it is also a brilliant assertion of an evolving tradition in the face of an unknown future.

What kind of discoveries of Mesoamerican culture has the MC2 revealed?

There must be 300 or 400 of these pictorials, but the MC2 is the most complicated and the most beautiful. It had disappeared from public view for 30 years, because it was in private hands. Occasionally it would be photographed, or people would see it in very limited settings. But bringing it into the light is a great discovery, or rediscovery. If Ángeles Espinosa hadn't done this, the mapa could have gone another hundred years of deteriorating further.

One of the other big moments is the fact that this map has an image of a place of origin—a kind of Garden of Eden. The complex interaction of pictorial and cultural groups is also evident as the narration goes on. Six or seven different ethnic groups are represented interacting with one another. So people are able, as written about in Eleanor Wake's essay, to start understanding the more complex social history of these people. 

The map is largely and indigenous story from an indigenous people. So it doesn't acknowledge as much as some other codices the presence of Spaniards. There's a very powerful image that speaks to your question. That is, an image on the map where a Christian church is constructed and almost touching and indigenous temple. The Spanish policy was that whenever they would build a Christian church they would destroy the temple. So this temple never would have stood while the church was being constructed; it would have been dismantled.

The viewer's sense of attraction and puzzlement is due in part to the over seven hundred images and symbols painted on the large amatl bark paper surface telling of the migration and settlement of Chichimec ancestors who pass through ritual ordeals, awesome landscapes, a monumental city, and what seem to be wide open spaces.

Why was it important to bring together so many different perspectives in your research of MC2?

I felt that other related documents—both big and small—were produced by people who know more about it than I do—even more so in the case of this map, which has so many types of botany and calendrical signs, deity bundles, and colors and so forth. It was clear that we needed a multidisciplinary perspective.

Working with a team does two things: It allows us to look at the mapa from different perspectives, but it also allows us to look at each other. Scholars can learn a holistic view. I don't mean every scholar becomes a holistic scholar, but historians learn more about astronomy by sitting across the table from and working with an astronomer; botanists learn more about rituals, if people work together over extended periods of time. So that was the idea.

The many colors and symbols, animals and plants, temples and gods, sacred bundles and staffs, mountains and caves, boundaries and roads, movements and settlements, an much more invited the interpreter spirits within us to speak up and offer, for the first time since this map was made nearly five hundred years ago, a collective effort of decipherment and interpretation of the places, social dramas, pilgrimages, political exchanges, purposes, and uses on and of the map.

With the convergence of many views, did disagreements ever become an issue?

There were no fights, though often people presented alternative perspectives from each other. I think in this case, they realized they were in the presence of a living relic, a living expression of great achievement in mythology, history, and art history—and a very unusual kind, something to do with Indians, indigenous people. That's powerful. That's important, because of the way indigenous people have been, especially in the United States, excluded from the record.

There were disagreements, but they were really more disagreements of an interrogative. "What could this mean?" Or, "I think this is the way to ask the question."

First, there was a discussion on the interpretation of the left and the right sides of the map. Some people wanted to use myth and history to separate or define the two sides, but I didn't want to use that kind of language, because I think there's myth and history on both sides of the map and in everything people do.

…we will suggest a small course correction in the present consensus of reading the "two sides" of the mapa as examples of mythic history and "real history." We understand what scholars mean by this distinction but we believe it tends to obscure the view of the mapmakers that their narrative is an unfolding of a genre of sacred history from start to finish… The suggestion is that the mapmakers imbued their narrative not so much with distinctions of "myth" and "history" as with two symbolic ways of talking about the human ordeals of leaving home, approaching the "splendid city," and settling sacred lands.

Were there any big surprises along the way, or, conversely, any major roadblocks?

Oh, there were surprises everyday. First of all, the map itself is such a surprise. It had been obscured and hidden and put into the shadows, so the fact that we can bring it out of the shadows and look at it, that was a surprise. Second, there are some scenes that are absolutely puzzling. One such scene is where two individuals seem to be falling into a rip in the earth. When we first looked at it in the original, we couldn't tell if it was rip in the earth or if they had painted a rip in the map. So that was a fantastic scene. We were also unsure if these were two individuals going in, or one going in and one coming out. The thought was that it was an earthquake, and even though there are two people—one has clothes and the other doesn't seem to have clothes—the fact that the eyes are closed suggest death.

Another surprise was how many sacred bundles these people carried around with them throughout the story.

What is new here is [the] interpretation that a number of bundles reveal a powerful connection between a set of symbolic elements including the foundations of a community, the central role of the rituals of fire and New Fire, the enthronement of rulers, and the practice of human sacrifice.

One of the biggest surprises was how diverse the botany is on the map. We discovered that there must be seven or eight different types of cacti, along with many different types of trees, flowers, and corn. They even depicted corn at different stages of gestation, so they were really encoding various stages of the growth cycle.

Along the way, our eyes become focused intensely on the seemingly endless depictions of century plants, cacti, yucca, orchids, maize in various colors and types, cotton, marigolds, amaranth, guava fruit, onions, and, perhaps most interestingly, the wide variety of trees found on the document.

For two or three years, I would come in and see things I hadn't seen the day before. And I think there are surprises ahead. We've just started this process. This interpretation is going to go on for generations as people become more adept at reading different types of iconographies.


Very few of us are adept at reading these different iconographic traditions. So nobody could really read the mapa by themselves. The original document was in much worse shape than the digital restoration we're looking at here. The other roadblock is getting the different scholars together from all different corners and getting them to cooperate. It took money and time and consistent communication. I think the roadblocks are just are ignorance about some of the images that are here. And there are a lot of things we just don't understand yet.

…we shared real cautions of not rushing in and lacquering the document with our categories, disciplinary approaches, and guesses.

What's been the most exciting part of this project?

It was tremendously exciting and meaningful to be in the presence of the map itself. Here is something that is almost 500 years old, painted by indigenous people when they were under the gun, as it were. It's fragile, but it gives the sense of being very durable, and that's a powerful combination—that this magnificent painting on bark has survived.

Another exciting thing, for me, and it's always the case, and that is sitting among a kind of family of scholars and learning from one another over a period of time. It was also a pleasure to have both students and teachers of mine involved in this.

While working on this document, all of us felt at one time or another that we were being presented with an indigenous Mexican statement about the plenitude of human beings and their gods and goddesses, cultures and ethnic groups, city and country, rituals and customs. Thrilled with this realization we resisted the tendency to gain "control" over the world of the MC2 and reduce its significance by overapplying one or two disciplinary orientations. Each of us tended to the ordeal of writing good descriptions of what we were seeing.

—by Jonathan Beasley

See also: Features