Case Study

Codex Mendoza (16th c.)

Why I Taught the Source

In Mexico City, towards the middle of the 16th century, Nahuatl-speaking painters created the Codex Mendoza, one of the most lavish indigenous accounts of history and moral behavior known today. Across pages of expensive, imported paper, the painters of the C. Mendoza describe the conquests of Mexica (Aztec) rulers and note the tribute they collected from their subordinates: precious feathered warrior shields and strings of turquoise, bundles of cotton blankets and bins of beans.

Perhaps the most famous image from the C. Mendoza depicts the founding of Tenochtitlan, the Mexican capital. Yet other scenes show boys and girls being raised by elders. In these scenes, the C. Mendoza articulates ideals of personhood in the Aztec empire as they were imagined, and remembered, in the first decades after the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan. And it is these scenes that capture my students' interest most insistently, that spark the most intense discussion.

I teach the C. Mendoza in classes on visual representation and colonialism in Latin America. We study the document both as a singular work and through comparative lenses. This involves reading the C. Mendoza as a physical object, a genre of history making, and an ideological project, not strictly a documentary report on the pre-Hispanic past. For instance, the manuscript, which was likely commissioned by Antonio de Mendoza, the first viceroy seated in New Spain, was completed and sent to Europe before 1553, just a generation after the introduction of Christianity and Spanish rule.

These historical conditions open onto questions about the construction and transmission of indigenous memories under conditions of extraordinary political and cultural stress. The material and physical forms of the C. Mendoza prompt discussions of painting style, glyphic and alphabetic writing, the production of books (printed, hand-painted, bound, folded), and, in advanced classes, comparative thinking about the meanings attached to objects made of paper, text and image in 16th–century Europe, America, and east Asia.

The painted scenes of children offer an opportunity to examine personhood, especially how to represent the gendering of identities in 16th–century central Mexico. To borrow a phrase from Annette Wiener, I frame discussion of the Codex Mendoza as a culturally dense object: it is a book, of idealized history, thrown into sharp relief by colonial circumstances. 1

How I Introduce the Source

To introduce works such as the C. Mendoza is one of the pleasures (and real challenges) of teaching in my field. For most of my students, manuscript painting is an unfamiliar genre of representation. I therefore begin with the material form of the document and its social life as a historical object. In large classes, this involves lectures with images on screen, assignments outside of class with digital images, and readings both about and from the C. Mendoza. 2 In smaller classes students examine the facsimile, assessing the material properties of the book—its heft and weight, and the ways in which image and text were set down.

One of my objectives lies in asking students to grapple with the patterns of labor that can be traced across the manuscript and the bodily postures its reading required. We also explore the history of the C. Mendoza's travels from New Spain to Europe, how it passed through the hands of multiple collectors—some quite famous, such as André Thevet, whose name has been scrawled on many of the manuscript's pages. The 'contexts' I ask my students to reflect upon thus include not only the site of manuscript production in central Mexico but also histories of early modern collecting, including western European desires to possess indigenous histories, bodies, and objects.

Reading the Source

As an art historian, I also expect my students to develop the skills to translate and parse exemplary pages and images. I may ask students to familiarize themselves with pages of the C. Mendoza as homework and perhaps write a short analysis for class, yet we also read images together in class.

For instance, folio 60r (see link above), forms part of a series of paintings and texts describing "the manner and customs the Mexicans had in giving birth to a boy or girl […] and later dedicating and offering them to their temples or to the military." 3 This page focuses on adolescence: the top, horizontal register depicts boys and girls at 11 years of age; the next registers, reading down the page, describe years 12-14.

Along with this horizontal structure, this page should be read vertically, male children and their teachers appear along the left side, females along the right. At age 11, elders punish children—both boys and girls—who fail to heed their advice by forcing the naughty ones to inhale chile smoke; at age 14, 'good' boys fish in canoes while 'good' girls learn to weave. This page also describes the proper allotment of food for each child at each stage of life. The ideals of behavior sketched out by these scenes provide a wealth of material for class discussion—be it at the introductory or advanced level, a course in visual culture or Latin American Studies.

I do find it useful and important to teach students how to read images as 'foreign' and unfamiliar as those of the C. Mendoza, and beyond this, to interpret this particular account of colonial memory. For one reason, there exist few indigenous sources so explicit about what it meant to raise children in this period and place. The implications of such an interpretive project, however, are no less compelling. This means thinking about the prescriptive and normative roles suggested by image and text: girls shall learn to weave and sweep, boys to fish and carry firewood.

We study the columnar and horizontal divisions of folios, and interrogate the patterns of distinction and parity they create—between boys and girls, between children of different ages, and between children and adults. We also consider the tone and language of the C. Mendoza, including the hybridity of its conventions, the mix of elements that derive from pre-Hispanic as opposed to European modes of representation. 4

In some classes this opens onto discussions of pre-Hispanic legacies and their preservation and re-fashioning in colonial Mexico. In other classes, it leads to conversation about normative and transgressive patterns of gendered behavior and child-raising—in the pre-Hispanic past, in colonial Latin America, or more broadly under colonial conditions. In nearly every course, we discuss the possibilities for (and limits to) representing the complexities of lived experience. To become an "Aztec" was no simple thing.

These last points are without doubt the most challenging. In part, this is because any comparative lens must be composed of many facets. While there is an increasingly extensive bibliography in English for students to work from, in my experience, the issue is not simply 'having enough information.' 5 Rather when it comes to children, and especially children in colonial contexts, my students—who are almost exclusively undergraduates and primarily women—have strong convictions about the innocence of young people, the malleability of their identities, and how much children 'back then' are like those 'right now.'

I take these concerns seriously, but it often means wrestling with the 'reality factor.' In works like the C. Mendoza, my students are often more interested in how chokingly awful the chile smoke that 11 year-olds had to inhale, than how persuasive the manuscript's strategies of representation.


In my experience, then, to raise the children of the C. Mendoza in the classroom is to raise questions that stretch far beyond the Aztecs and their colonial memories. It means addressing cultural divides that are deep and stereotypes that are complicated. This is not a challenge of this text alone, but of writing and teaching about histories of people who we do not know well, yet we are certain led sophisticated and complicated lives. Even as children.

1 Weiner, Annette. "Cultural Difference and the Density of Objects." American Ethnologist. 21:2 (May 1994): 391–403.

2 See, for instance, The Essential Codex Mendoza, edited by Frances Berdan and Patricia Anawalt (1997, Berkeley), and the full facsimile, The Codex Mendoza, edited by Frances Berdan and Patricia Anawalt (4 vols., 1992, Berkeley). For an analysis rooted in post-colonial scholarship, see also José Rabasa, "Confronting Imaginations: Towards an Alternative Reading of the Codex Mendoza." In Colonialism Past and Present: Reading and Writing about Colonial Latin America Today, edited by Alvaro Félix Bolaños and Gustavo Verdesio (2002, Albany).

3 Fo. 56v, "Relación del modo y costumbre que los naturales mexicanos tenian en naçiendoles algun muchacho o muchacha/ […]/ y despues dedicallas e ofreçerlas a sus tenplos [sic] o al arte military…" Transcription from The Codex Mendoza, edited by Frances Berdan and Patricia Anawalt (4 vols., 1992, Berkeley), 118.

4 The blue circles which represent numbers, and the scrolls spilling from the mouths of male and female instructors that represent speech, are anchored in pre-Hispanic painting traditions, whereas alphabetic writing and the overlapping of images to suggest depth in pictorial space were introduced to indigenous communities in New Spain by Europeans.

5 For Latin America and the history of childhood, Raising an Empire: Children in early modern Iberia and colonial Latin America, edited by Ondina González and Bianca Premo (2007, Albuquerque) and Minor Omissions: Children in Latin American History and Society, edited by Tobias Hecht (2002, Madison) can be useful. For gender in pre-Hispanic America and New Spain, see, Gender and Power in Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, by Rosemary Joyce (2000, Austin), Gender in Pre-Hispanic America: A Symposium at Dumbarton Oaks, 12 and 13 October 1996, edited by Cecelia Klein (2001, Washington), The Social Experience of Childhood in Ancient Mesoamerica, edited by Traci Ardren and Scott Hutson (2006, Boulder), and Infamous Desire: Male Homosexuality in Colonial Latin America, edited by Peter Sigal (2003, Chicago). For indigenous-language texts, see Mesoamerican Voices: Native-Language Writings from Colonial Mexico, Oaxaca, Yucatan and Guatemala, edited by Matthew Restall, Lisa Sousa and Kevin Terraciano (2005, Cambridge), and for indigenous manuscripts from colonial Mexico, see Stories in Red and Black, by Elizabeth Hill Boone (2000, Austin).

How to Cite This Source

Dana Leibsohn, "Codex Mendoza (16th c.)," in Children and Youth in History, Item #275, (accessed August 10, 2021).


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