Scenes of Cognition: Performance and Conquest

Diana Taylor | New York University

A fuller revised version of this essay was published as: “Scenes of Cognition: Performance and Conquest.” Theatre Journal, Vol. 56, Number 3, October 2004, pg. 353-372.

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Theatre, as a space (théātron in Greek or “place for viewing”), an object of analysis (a play), and a lens (theatricality), has long been associated with recognition and ways of knowing.1  Performance too has been considered a scene of communal, even cross-cultural, understanding. Victor Turner writing in the 1970s, asserted that populations could understand each other through their performances.2   Clearly these terms, like their objects of analysis, are constantly being re-thought and reconfigured.  Few scholars now subscribe to utopian fantasies that we can somehow transparently understand others, and other cultures, through their performance practices.  Any theoretical lens, we know from past experience, can occlude as much as it reveals.  Much of my previous work has looked at issues of representation, misrepresentation, and disappearance in contemporary Latin American theatre and performance.  In this presentation—part intro to 16th century Amerindian performance and part polemic—I think about the ways in which these pre-Conquest practices trouble some basic givens about the terms theatre and performance and ask us, not necessarily to replace them, but to re-think them again, from yet one more perspective.

Here is just one of many descriptions by 16th century European chroniclers describing the performances they saw in the so-called New World.

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José de Acosta writes: A temple for the worship of Quetzalcoatl
had a courtyard of middling size, where on the god’s feast day great dances and celebrations were performed as well as very amusing theatrical performances.  For this purpose there was a small theater about thirty feet square in the middle of the courtyard, thoroughly whitewashed, which they embowered and adorned for that day with all possible care, completely surrounding it with arches made of every kind of flowers and featherwork, and many birds and hares and other harmless creatures hanging between them at intervals, where the people gathered after having eaten. The actors came out and performed short comic pieces, pretending to be deaf, afflicted with colds, halt, blind, and missing an arm, all coming to the idol to ask for health. The deaf ones would give foolish answers and those with colds coughed. The halt, limping about described their miseries and complaints, and made the people laugh heartily.  Others came out representing vermin, with some dressed as beetles, others as toads, others as lizards, and so on.  When they appeared they described their lives, and turning about they played little flutes, which pleased their listeners mightily, for they were very amusing. They also imitated butterflies and birds of many different colors, bringing out of the temples youths dressed in these costumes; they climbed into a grove of trees that had been planted there, and the temple priests shot at them with blowpipes, and there were comic verses in defense of some and against the others, with which they entertained the audience. After this was over they performed a mitote, or dance, with all these actors, and the festival ended; they usually did this at the most important festivals.

José de Acosta, Natural and Moral History of the Indies, Book V, Ch. 30, pg. 326-7.3

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This passage, one of many written by the European conquerors and missionaries during the sixteenth century, describes the importance that native peoples assigned to performance.4 However, the description reveals not just the what we know but the complexities of how we know it. For one thing, Castilian-language writers used terms from their own tradition such as bailes, entremes, teatro, representantes, (translated into English here as dances, theatrical performances, theater, and actors) as if they were transparent and universally valid.  Less obvious, perhaps, this description by Acosta does not in fact reflect what he saw but what he read in Juan de Tovar’s Códice Ramirez.  Although we know that Acosta copied this description word for word from the earlier manuscript, it is still far from clear who in fact saw the events described.5 Ramirez, who transcribed the Tovar manuscript in the 19th century, believed the work was originally written in Náhuatl by a 16th century secular indigenous scholar.  The derivative and reiterative nature of these descriptions characterizes many of the European chronicles.6   The formulaic frameworks of these scenes of cognition make us question claims to knowledge based on supposedly embodied participation.  Instead of evidence garnered from first-hand witnessing—part of the repertoire of embodied practices that generate, store, and transmit social memory that I have discussed in my recent book, The Archive and the Repertoire, this description emanates from archival sources.7 Archival memory, I argue, maintains a lasting core: records, documents, literary texts, archaeological remains, and bones that are supposedly resistant to change. The value, relevance, or meaning of the remains, might change over time, as do the ways in which they are interpreted, even embodied. Through tricks of the archive, the scene-as-seen gets reproduced and inserted, unabridged and unacknowledged, into written accounts.  The how we know, then, seems based on assertions by unidentified witnesses and the highly suspect reworking of lost originals.

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Does this mean that we should not try to understand what these performances looked like, or speculate about the religious, social, and political functions they served?  Not at all.  Most, perhaps all, of our efforts to understand and interpret present and past events are based on unidentified sources, insufficient information, non-existent originals, and limited perspectives.  I would suggest, furthermore, that the age-old claims that we cannot know much about pre-Conquest cultures (and therefore should not try) are fueled as much by a willful politics of forgetfulness and disappearance as by an acknowledgement of the difficulties.  But it does mean that we exercise caution as we analyze the what we know and how we know it.  Terminology—words such as theatre and performance—comprises the how and the what simultaneously. The lens (the how) constructs the object of analysis (the what).

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Here, then, I will argue that terms such as theatre and performance imperfectly signal systems of incorporated practice that create and transmit social memory.  Yet, I will continue to use them. Why retain these words, instead of looking for new ones?  For one thing, as I argue at length elsewhere, we don’t really have a choice.8   All words reflect a history of practice, and we cannot unproblematically create or adopt new words to examine more complex objects of analysis.  For another, the what ultimately puts pressure on the how; that is, the objects of analysis will demand that we scholars re-examine our own meaning making systems, our critical lenses, our terminology.  So ideally, this essay would be as much about examining our own epistemic grids as about pre-Conquest theatre and performance.

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The use of familiar terms to denote foreign practices is, of course, one way of making the foreign familiar, of enfolding it within our own meaning-making systems.  While conquerors and missionaries offered many examples of indigenous theatre, many 20th century scholars are deeply invested in referring to these examples as “embryonic” or “rudimentary” dramatic forms that, left alone, would have developed along the lines of classical Greek theatre.9   What seems to be at stake, for them, is proving that the indigenous peoples’ boasted a civilization as sophisticated, and as cultured, as the west’s as if the west had cornered the market on civilization.  Other commentators, such as Miguel León-Portilla, Patrick Johannson, and María Sten use theatre more expansively, referring both to artistic objects and to an epistemic lens.  León-Portilla, for example, underscores the artistic merit of sacred hymns as an “example of the beginnings of later drama” and broadens his understanding to refer to embodied practice as an overarching expressive system “which culminated in what may be called the perpetual theatre of the Nahuas with performances and sacrifices throughout the year which coincided with different religious festivals” (65).10

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Some events, like the one described above, resembled what the chroniclers thought of as theatre.  They included music, singing, dancing, recitation, dialogues, impersonation, acrobatic feats, critique, and humorous mimetic routines.11   This description points to characteristics that we know from multiple other sources: the performers used elaborate and highly colorful costumes, masks, and body make-up. At times they used stilts.12   The sets were lavishly adorned with arches, flowers, animals, and all sorts of natural and artfully designed elements.13

While we cannot know exactly what these enactments signified for the participants, there are certain things that we can know.  The vast majority of the population learned and transmitted knowledge through the embodied practices that are the repertoire.  Through formal and informal techniques of incorporation, rather than inscription, people memorized, rehearsed, and mastered cultural competence.14  Although the passage refers to “actors,” the male population was rigorously trained into sing and dance in special schools, cuicacalli (casa de canto or house of song).  Boys, caballeros, and warriors trained in recitation and dance. Even the ruler executed a “princely dance” on special occasions, as did the priests who embodied god-figures.15  Training was obligatory, and students spent many hours (from sunset to midnight) in the cuicacalli perfecting their techniques in large, beautifully appointed spaces.16 Males and females danced in public—commonly choreographed as two parallel rows of dancers moving in straight lines, turning around, and dancing in the opposite direction17  or in concentric circles.  Men, moreover, often dressed as women and mimed gender practices (such as weaving) associated with those roles.  Musicians played on drums (including two-toned drums and turtle-shell drums), trumpets, gourds, notched bone, shells, flutes, and rattle-boards.18 Usually, the performances took place outdoors, sometimes in very public spaces such as temples and courtyards, sometimes in the semi-secluded space of a private patio.19

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The aim of these performances varied, though they always involved a religious component.  The comics in the description above praised Quetzalcoatl and asked for health.  Celebrations and commemorations brought populations, often scattered in agrarian societies, together to honor special days.  They served simultaneously as a mechanism for social integration and as a vehicle for othering by ridiculing regional and ethnic differences.20  Certain dances prepared warriors for battle or celebrated victory.  At times, the sung-dance (known as mitotes in Náhautl, taqui in Quechua, and arietos in Arahuac) recounted group and individual histories and past glories. The sung-dances were common throughout the Aztec, Maya, and Incan territories as the indigenous terms, images, and chronicles make clear.

[Fiesta de los Condesuyos. Guaman Poma, 246—note the masked dancers or guacones described by José de Acosta (1539-1600)]21

These ‘theatrical’ performances were staged within the context of a ‘larger’ performance, the many religious festivals that took place routinely in the expansive cityscapes.  These observances kept social rhythms in synch with the highly ritualized movement of time, made visible through the elaborate choreography of the calendars.  Celebrations required their own design and conventions of participation.  Spaces were transformed—cleansed and adorned.  Human bodies too became purified sites through fasting, sexual abstinence, piercings, sacrifice, ritual feasting and drinking.22 Everyone participated in these festivities which were “attended by the entire city” (Durán , 94).

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The ceremonies, as the descriptions suggest, involved multiple acts of debt-payment and sacrifice, often, especially among the Mexica (also known as Aztecs) including human sacrifice.  At the apex of the pyramid, contact point between the heavens and earth, the high priests re-enacted the ur-scene of the giving and taking of human life.  Victims— often war captives but frequently women and children—were bathed and prepared.  The six priests who performed the sacrifice appeared on the pyramid dressed in large, colorful outfits, their bodies and faces painted.  They adorned themselves like the god, “whom they represented on that day” (91).  At the beginning of the ceremony, the priests “humbled themselves before the idol” (91).  The victims ascended the temple stairs “totally nude.” A specially assigned priest came down from the temple, holding an ixiptlatl (god-image/delegate) in his arms, which “he showed those who were about to die” (92).  The ritual sacrifice was formulaic—four priests held the victim’s arms and legs, another held the head, and the “high priest” (or Topiltzin) quickly cut out the heart, held it to the sun, threw it to the image of Huitzilopochtli, and rolled the body down the steps of the temple” (92).

[from Fray Diego Durán ’s Book of the Gods and Rites, plate 7. “A victim sacrificed to Huitzilopochtli”]

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The bodies were collected and taken back to their appropriate capulli (barrio) by the owner: “They were carried away, distributed, and eaten, in order to celebrate the feast” (92).  In certain festivals, the head and skin of the victims were removed and ‘performed’ as part of the celebration.23   Multiple forms of human sacrifice were carried out in the Americas with regional variations.24  While the practice sounds cruel, it reflected the belief that there was no firm division between life and death.  Being was not considered ontologically stable but in flux, a transitive condition between the here and the there.  The sacrificial victims would be joining the gods, at times taking messages from those on earth, while the victims’ energy and force would be transferred to others on earth through the donning of the skin.  Notions of continuity and constantly recycling life forces, rather than cruelty or revenge, sustained these practices.25   The Mayas, for example, referred to certain forms of sacrifice as “ahil,” acts of “creation.”26

These performances served not only to honor the gods, but to reinforce the network of belief systems and practices throughout the Mesoamerican and Incan worlds.  In the Andean situation, as Peruvian anthropologist Luis Millones notes, the population was scattered.  Because people farmed and raised animals, their contact with each other was minimal except during the designated fiestas that brought them together.  While these were local affairs before the rise of the Incan empire, they increasingly became part of the imperial network created by the Incas for territorial control.27

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The same applies to an even greater degree with the Aztecs who celebrated the same festivals, on the same day, in the same way, throughout Mesoamerica.28 A thousand people, according to Fray Diego Durán, could be sacrificed during a particular ceremony (93).  “After all these ceremonies, dances, sacrifices, farces, and games had ended—all performed for the gods—the actors, priests, and dignitaries of the temple took the image of dough and stripped it of its ornaments” (95). Participants ate the body of the god shaped out of amaranth dough (ixiptlatl) in an act that resembles ‘communion’ according to Durán, who asked his “reader [to] note how cleverly this diabolical rite imitates that of our Holy Church, which orders us to receive the True Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ” (95).  The Friars could not image a script or scenario other than the biblical one they knew.  Their way of fending off radical otherness was by trying to fit the performances they witnessed into the pre-existing framework of Christian doctrine.29

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These extraordinary performances took place within the context of yet a ‘larger’ performance, the choreography of the sacred and earthly realms.  For Amerindians, the earthly and cosmic world functioned together, mutually sustained and reflecting each other.  Mesoamerican creation myths, for example, tell of how the gods sacrificed themselves for human beings, quite literally spilling their blood, doing penance, and throwing themselves into the fire in order to create people and their world.  The gods, in turn, required similar sacrifices on behalf of their creatures.30   These myths describe how four of the previous five suns ended abruptly, bringing a catastrophic end to life on earth.  In order to keep the sun rising, the rain falling, and the earth free of annihilating quakes, windstorms, fires, and draughts, people had to carry out a strict series of ritual observances as forms of debt-payment (tlaxtlaua) to the gods.

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Through embodied performance, Amerindian groups perpetually re-enacted the primal story of conflict and sacrifice. Performance, in this broadest sense, was the fundamental iterative act of existence itself, endlessly recreating the original act of creation.31   The Mesoamericans particularly were master builders, architects of the sacred.  Temples, the human-made equivalent of nature’s mountains, reached towards the heavens, forming a living link that conjoined the heavens above, the earth, and the underworlds below.  The Mexica called these temples the ‘’naval’’ of the world, the umbilical cord that kept the blood and life flowing between mutually sustaining worlds.  There was no concept of the original and its representation, as in Platonic thought.  They were all aspects of one thing—the body, the man-made, the natural and the cosmic order. They moved together—the light passed through the opening in the temple at a certain time, a child came into the world, a living sacrifice and human expenditure were offered back.   The dance, or choreography, that held them in synch was vital for the existence of the universe.  The city, then, was a site of sacred performance—a space in which everything was created, designed, and re-enacted with a purpose.  Nature was ritualized and ritual was naturalized in a choreographed balancing act.  Nature, in itself, could not be trusted to assure the safety and continuity of life on earth.  Only relentless human exertion could do so, and at staggering human cost.

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Needless to add, perhaps, these performances also had evident political as well as sacred power.  The performance-as-skit/farces/dance served as occasions to critique and make fun of “others” even as performers praised the gods.  The massive performance festivals, moreover, made visible the very real economic and military power of a state that could afford to sacrifice hundreds, or even thousands, of victims.  Additionally, these performances permitted territorial expansion and control through a shared belief system.  Both the Mesoamerican and Incan political systems were based on “persuasive and dominating influence” rather than simple force—that is, ideological and hegemonic control. 32  These spectacular, synchronized acts were fundamental to maintaining power. Ideology, normalized through religion, social hierarchies and so forth, only becomes visible in embodied practice. Beliefs become visibilized as acts.  And, finally, the sacred choreography aligning the earthly to the cosmic had obvious political applications. The architectural design and placement of the temples, placed to throw off shadows or catch rays of light at precise moments of the equinox, indicate the degree to which priests and kings used stagecraft to position themselves as living conduits of the sacred.33  These leaders, highly trained in astronomy and mathematics, dramatized their power by organizing huge public events around eclipses and other natural phenomena that they alone could predict.  They, as delegates of the divine, could also threaten underlings with the death of the sun.

The term ‘performance’ suggests both a praxis and an episteme, allowing us to view events such as those described here as layered and interconnected—i.e., as object of analysis, as repertoire, as spectacle, and as epistemic and analytical lens.

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‘Performance,’ as object of analysis, allows us to examine discrete embodied acts, each with a beginning and end, which involve conventional behavior: a dance, a skit, or farce.  These constitute learned, mimetic practices—some aesthetically pleasing and entertaining. Actors and audiences enact their socially agreed upon roles. Everyone in a given community knows the rules of accepted behavior and interaction.

‘Performance,’ however, encompasses far more than a set of distinct cultural practices.  It constitutes a repertoire of embodied knowledge, a learning in and through the body, as well as a means of creating, preserving, and transmitting knowledge. Without easy access to archival and writing systems (whether pictograms, hieroglyphs or knotting –quipus ), people learned through memorization, physical training, and participation in social events—what Paul Connerton has called incorporating rather inscriptive practices.35   Whether in cuicacalli or through ritual practice or at home, people learned about themselves and their history through enacted songs and dances.  The repertoire of gestures, oral traditions, movement, dance, and singing required embodied presence for transmission.  People participated in the production and reproduction of knowledge by ‘being there,’ being a part of the event.36   These performances passed on the life—past, present, and future—of the community itself.  The Popol Vuh, the ancient sacred book of the Maya Quiché begins: “It takes a long performance and account to complete the emergence of all the sky-earth.”37  Even without knowing the exact translation of the original Quiché term, it is clear that the passage refers not to myth-as-information but its transmission through oral, bodily practice.

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Third, performance as spectacle also constitutes a network of relations in which social arrangements, hierarchies, and values are made visible.  In the massive performances held around the temples, individuals saw their relationship to earthly and divine powers. These social actors—priests, victims, participants—were all invested in the system of norms and beliefs that governed social practice. It is only within this network that people could function and form a sense of identity.  These behaviors were both products of dominant ideology and sustained it.  The generalized fasting, abstinence, blood-letting, and staying awake for nights on end, for example, made each member of the population an active participant in the struggle to assure the continuation of the world.  The network, held together by shared beliefs, stretched throughout enormous stretches of the Americas by means of synchronized ceremonies and observances.

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Fourth, performance serves as a lens, a way of seeing and understanding the world.  Mesoamericans and Andeans saw existence quite literally as a battle between the forces of creation and destruction, and they accepted their duty to fight ceaselessly for the continuation of life. These conflictive worldviews set all these practices in motion.  It is precisely because they viewed life as an unending contest that the many acts of affirmation became necessary.  The Mexica, for example, lived in and through performance because they experienced the unabated anxiety of extinction.  The four previous suns had suddenly died out—thus they lived in a state of perpetual liminality, on the catastrophic edge between destruction and continuity, trying to maintain cosmic balance through re-enactment.

While ‘performance’ helps elucidate the many, interconnected levels associated with the Amerindian practices I have been looking at, this term, like ‘theatre’ also points to ideological and epistemological frameworks that differ radically from those found in the Native Americas. My understanding of embodied practice in relation to the worldviews and enacted behaviors of indigenous peoples has little to do with European notions of linearity, representation, mimesis, image, and ephemerality, associated with theatre and, at times, performance.

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Some of the events I have been referring to, the skits and farces for example, could be thought of as ‘theatre,’ and chroniclers unhesitatingly referred to them as such.38   One of the distinguishing features of these accounts is the ease with which they overlook obvious obstacles—the lack of an understanding of what they were seeing and a vocabulary for description.  The skits looked familiar enough.  They involved linearity, ‘representation,’ and imitation.  Squeezed in between other kinds of spectacles, they resembled the art form that Spaniards were familiar with—the “juegos,” and “entremeses” that formed part of larger religious festivals such as Corpus Christi.39   While the indigenous skits and farces had a clear beginning, middle and end, they were part of a cyclical ritual practice that affirmed the continuity of existence.  They were never ‘original’ but always reiterative, a re-creation of the original act of creation.  The underlying intention of these efforts was precisely to forestall the ‘end’ –conceptualized not as Aristotelian cathartic closure but, on the contrary, as catastrophic and world-shattering.  So while an individual skit might be thought of in terms of linearity, it was embedded within another, circular performance structure that resisted closure.  Just as one calendar was placed within another to both recognize and align solar and lunar forces, one performance event functioned within and against another.

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We might argue that performances in Spain also situated the particular skit within a larger religious framework and calendar (Corpus Christi, for example).  I would suggest two differences—one of degree, one of kind.  The separation between the secular and sacred aspects of European worldviews was more pronounced in the fifteen and sixteenth centuries than it was in the Americas, which allowed for the increasing popularity of secular performance genres in sixteenth century Europe. Moreover the relationship between the particular performance (i.e., the skit) and the larger religious framework was different in these two cases.  For the Europeans, the skit or miracle plays were representations that served to illustrate and elucidate the larger Biblical story for a predominantly illiterate audience.  For the Amerindians, the acts were themselves presentations to the gods, one more offering in a complex and interconnected system of reciprocity.

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The western concept of mimesis, thus, is complicated by indigenous practice.  Time and again European chroniclers referred to Amerindians as excellent mimes, though they usually disparaged this as a sign of idolatrous, dishonest, and animalistic tendencies: “They go about like monkeys, looking at everything, so as to imitate whatever they see people do” (104).40   They could imitate anything—animals, plant life, people, and (to the consternation of some writers) the Europeans themselves.  Yet, by and large, the events I have described are not representations of an “action” or of “men” in the Platonic or Aristotelian sense.  Intended to do something, make something happen, these acts were not metaphorical; they lacked the ‘as if’ quality of ‘representation.’  Rather, as Inga Clendinnen suggests, re-enactment animated life-affirming forces, “render[ed] present by simulation” (253).

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The Náhautl word, ixiptlatl, usually translated as ‘imagen,’ or ‘image,’ points to a basic misunderstanding between European notions of representation and Mesoamerican practice.  Friars and chroniclers took the ixiptlatl = image further, often referring to them as bad objects or idols.  Imagen belongs to the same etymologic family as imitar (imitate).41   But ixiptlatl does not mean ‘imitate’ but rather its opposite, the understanding of “spiritual being and physical being as fully integrated.”42   Ixiptlatl constitutes a very flexible category that includes gods, god delegates, god impersonators, priests, sacrificial victims dressed as gods, beggars wearing the flayed skins of captives, wooden and vegetable seed-dough figures.43  One of the requirements of the ixiptlatl was that it be ‘made,’ ‘constructed’ and that it be ‘temporary, concocted for the occasion, made and unmade during the course of the action” (Clendinnen, 1991: 252).  Its constructed quality contributed to its sacredness because the making was the currency of participation. Rather than an idol or fetish, another bad object in that facere (to make) comes to mean feitico (sorcery, artificiality), the ixiptlatl’s constructedness allows for communication, presence, and exchange. ‘Delegado’ (delegate), or ‘representante’ (representative), or ‘enviado’ (envoy) are more precise translations for ixiptlatl,  reflecting that “which enables the god to present aspects of himself” (sic, Clendinnen, 1991: 253).  What the Náhuatl word makes clear is that process (not the object) is sacred, and that the liminality of the making and unmaking offers the opportunity for human and superhuman forces to commingle.  So if we were to find an equivalent for ixiptlatl using European terminology, it would more closely coincide with the Catholic idea of transubstantiation than with an image or idol.  The consecrated wafer, though man-made, was the body of Christ—not a representation or metaphor.  Though an object, Catholics see it as imbued with divine essence. By eating the wafer, believers accomplish the integration of spiritual and physical substance. Needless to say, the Catholic’s deep anxiety about assuring orthodoxy in the understanding of the spiritual/ physical relationship in their own practice (especially in the age of the Council of Trent) contributed to their dismissal of Mexica’s ixiptlatl as representations and ‘bad objects’ (idols).45

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Ephemerality, another key concept theorized by theatre and performance studies, also might be revised in the light of these Amerindian practices.46   Ephemeral (“existing only for a day”) usually accentuates the fleeting because its common usage in English occludes an important part of its meaning: “table showing the places of heavenly bodies for every day of a period [… an ] astronomical almanac.”47   Amerindians certainly saw life as fleeting.  Náhuatl has a word for what we would call ephemeral—cahuitl (“that which leaves us”).48   Aztec songs are full of lamentations. Nezahualcoyotl (1402-1472), perhaps the most celebrated ruler/poet, describes the aching awareness of disappearance:
Not forever on earth/ only a little while here….49   He, like many other poets, however, also stresses the on-goingness of life, and the persistence of human affirmation: “My flowers will not come to an end,/my songs will not come to an end…. Even though flowers on earth/may whither and yellow,/they will be carried there,/to the interior of the house/of the bird with the golden feathers”50 As long as this fleeting life on earth sustains a higher, heavenly order, life will not end.  The almanac, that shows the heavenly bodies in regular, endless motion, is the key to understanding the vital, mutually sustaining relationship of that which disappears and that which endures.  The constant making and unmaking points to the active role of human beings in promoting the regenerative quality of the universe, of life, of performance—all in a constant state of again-ness.  Through these reiterative acts, Amerindians made sense of the past and the present, even as they tried to secure their future.  These acts also served to transmit their knowledge, memories, and values from one generation to the next, thus simultaneously securing their future at another, related, level.

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For the Europeans, of course, the persistence of indigenous memory and cultural practices was exactly what needed to be attacked and permanently annihilated.  Performance-as-ephemeral was central to a conquest that willed it into extinction. Nonetheless, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún clearly recognized the continuity of ‘pagan’ and ‘idolatrous’ beliefs transmitted through performance, though he acknowledged that he did not understand the content.  The Devil takes advantage of songs and dances and other practices of indigenous people as “hiding places in order to perform his works […] Said songs contain so much guile that they say anything and proclaim that which he commands. But only those he addresses understand them.”51   The colonist’s claim to access met with the diabolic opaqueness of performance.  “And [these songs] are sung to him without its being understood what they are about, other than by those who are natives and versed in this language […] without being understood by others” (58).  Shared performance and linguistic practices constituted the community itself.  Others could not decipher the codes.  The spiritual conquest, these friars feared, was at best tentative.

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In order to supplant native performances, the friars introduced missionary theatre shortly after the conquest to use what they saw as the Amerindians’ love of spectacle for evangelization.  They hope to affect indigenous beliefs systems (the what they know) by slightly tampering with the hows, or ways of knowing.  The plays developed by the friars and acted by native peoples (such as The Destruction of Jerusalem and The Final Judgment) imposed clear causal relations and temporal plot-lines with beginnings and ends both in the performance and in the conversion project.  The massive performances, involving thousands of indigenous performers, ended with the theatrical defeat of the infidels. Nonetheless, the event supposedly brought about their ‘real’ salvation—these thousands were baptized at the end of the performance in a mass ceremony.  Initially the friars celebrated the ways in which their new converts took so enthusiastically to Catholicism, as if the learned behaviors reflected a change of heart.  “Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe,” Althusser quotes Pascal as saying.52  Gradually, however, they understood that embodied behaviors were not a stable or uncomplicated indicator of belief.  Although corporeal practice makes ideology visible, as I noted earlier, it can also do the opposite.  The friars grew to suspect that the bent knee at church did not guarantee orthodoxy, and that the neophytes’ apparent acceptance of Christianity hid deep ambivalence and misunderstandings.  The repertoire has its own tricks, and the frustrated and disappointed Sahagún might be forgiven for accusing the Amerindians of “idolatrous dissembling”—believing one thing and doing another.53

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To add insult to injury, many of the practices that Sahagún described—the fiestas, masked dances, processions, celebrations of the dead—continue to this day.  Innumerable communities throughout the Americas have kept alive their fiestas, and practitioners continue to employ performance genres (such as pastorela and moros y cristianos) developed during the sixteenth century to deal with uneasy relations between peoples and religious views.  Plazas, atrios (churchyards) and theatres are full of Moctezumas, Atahualpas, Malinches, Tepoztecatls, Quiché warriors, Yaqui deer dancers and other famous indigenous ancestors who help contemporary subjects negotiate their present.  Many of these so-called ‘folk’ performances continue to be presented in the same public spaces, atrios, plazas, and other places associated with ancient stagings.  They emphasize participation over spectatorship, debt-payment to the gods rather than entertainment for audiences.

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I am not arguing that we can speak of uninterrupted or “authentic” practices transmitted intact from generation to generation.  Some of these performances have ancient histories (such as the Rabinal play of the Quiché warrior); some are 18th and 19th century “inventions” based on legends. The texts of these performances were in all cases written after the performance tradition was well established, and they change as the performances change.  Dennis Tedlock’s recent translation of Rabinal Achí, based on the performance he saw in 1998 differs, necessarily, from the text that French priest Carlos Esteban Brasseur wrote down (with the help of Bartolo Ziz, the mayan performance specialist) after he saw the danced performance in 1855. The archive, like the repertoire, invites revisions and new interpretations.

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What I am advocating, however, is that we examine the transmission of traditions, trajectories, influences, and sources by looking at both the archive and the repertoire.  How would we go about it?  We would analyze all the archival sources available—texts, buildings, artifacts, and so forth—but with an eye to understanding live practice in its particular context, as part of a network of internal and external relations.  We would, however, also examine the use of performance space, techniques of the body such a specific movements, dance-steps, gestures and so on, we would explore language, the logic of participation, intended audience, assumptions about presentation and representation, the social hierarchies that configure or delimit the performance of self (in terms of status, gender, social function etc), the role of social myths and legends, the competing and simultaneous activities surrounding the performance, the ways in which the calendar (agricultural, religious, budgetary) frame the event, the importance of the landscape in the construction of the physical and symbolic staging. By bringing together various methodologies, we would try to flesh out the role of performance in the highly regulating function of social spectacle.

49_smFig. 30

53_smFig. 31

Contemporary performances, based on past practices, are always necessarily reinventions that involve speculation and performatic leaps.  The same, however, is true of historiography. As historian Greg Dening writes in Performances, “’Presenting the Past’ will always imply bringing the past and present together. It will also imply that the past will not be replicated or repeated, but represented, shaped, staged, performed in some way other than it originally existed”(xv). 54  Theatre studies, area studies, history, archaeology, anthropology, performance studies, all offer approximations to the past—using diverse methodologies to be sure.  Even though history involves theatrical representation, it claims archival legitimation in a way performance—as the so-called ‘ephemeral’—has not been able to.  But what we know is linked to how we know it, and it seems urgent to recuperate embodied practice as a way of knowing and transmitting knowledge.  The past is not dead; it’s not disappeared; it’s not even hidden from view. Current practices always exist in conversation with past events, sites of remembrances, and embodied traditions.  Perhaps, as the Mexica believed, meaning is not a thing but a practice that requires the tireless and repetitive process of doing, making, and tearing apart, and reconfiguring the pieces—again and again and again.


I wish to thank my students in “Performance and Conquest” (Spring, 2004) for reading and discussing this essay with me.  Rigorous thinkers and demanding readers, they are a tough audience to please.  I love them for it.

1‘Theatricality’ is the optic associated with ‘theatre.’ I would argue that it is not simply an adjective of theatre, a ‘theatrical delivery’ or a metaphor ‘as if it were a stage’ but a way of seeing the constructed-ness of the real. The relationship between this and ‘performance’ is not straightforward. “Performance” used to denote a specific event (a play, a ritual, a demonstration) is also an object of analysis.  ‘Performance’ as a lens however denotes the constructed-ness of the critical apparatus as well as the object of analysis. It is the way in which the critic frames the event (say for example Argentina’s “Dirty War”) that allows her to think of it as a mise-en-scene of the national imaginary and not, necessarily, the more visible staging of power and the positioning of social actors.  Performance includes social imperatives (Jon McKensie’s Perform or Else) and normalizing practices that seem totally ‘natural’ rather than theatrical (i.e. the performance of gender, racial, or national ‘identity’)

2"We will know one another better by entering one another's performances and learning their grammars and vocabularies," Victor Turner, from a “Planning Meeting for the World Conference on Ritual and Performance,”  quoted in Introduction to Richard Schechner's and Will Appel's edited volume: By Means of Performance, NY: Routledge, 1980.

3José de Acosta, Natural and Moral History of the Indies, Book V, Ch. 30, pg. 326-7.

4Aside from this passage, copied from Juan de Tovar’s Códice Ramírez, see Fray Diego Durán’s Book of the Gods and Rites, and The Ancient Calendar (Univ. Of Oklahoma Press, pg. 135),  and his History of the Indies of New Spain, Fray Torbio de Benavente (Motolonía), Hernan Cortés’s third letter, Mendieta, Historia  eclesiástica Indiana (XXX1), Fernando de Alva Ixtilxóchitl, Historia Chichimeca. Madrid: Dastin, S.L., 2000, pg. 173.

5José Fernando Ramirez, who copied the manuscript now known as Codice Ramirez in 1860, speculates that the lost original was written in Nahuatl (lengua mexicana).  The copy he worked from was written in two columns, he notes, and the right hand one was left blank (Hernando Alvarado Tezozomoc, Crónica Mexicana, and Codice Ramirez. Mexico: Editorial Porrua. 1987, pg. 9.)  The author, Ramirez conjectures, was most likely a secular native scholar (10).  Ramirez estimates that the undated manuscript was written no later than the mid 16th century, based in part on the irrefutable evidence that passages from it were lifted by Fray Diego Duran in 1579 (11).  The manuscript also served as a basis for Hernando Alvarado Tezozomoc’s Crónica Mexicana. In 1876, Alfredo Chavero adds to the debate claiming that “the author of this beautiful work seems to have been a pure blooded Mexican who wrote in his mother tongue” (161).

6Fray Ramón Pané’s 1498 Relación Acerca de las Antigüedades de los Indios (Mexico: Siglo Veintiuno, 2001), the first known chronicle written in the Americas in a European language begins the formulaic opening that characterizes much of this literature: “Yo, fray Ramón […} escribo lo que he podido saber y entender de las creencias y idiolatrías de los indios” (3).

7See my Archive and Repertoire (Durham: Duke UP, 2003), Chapter One.

8Archive and Repertoire, pg. 12-15.

9See my Theatre of Crisis, “The Making of Latin American Drama” for a fuller discussion of this topic. Also José Juan Arrom, Historia del teatro hispanoamericano (época colonial), Mexico: Ediciones de Andrea, 1967, pg. 10, 21, and Francisco Javier Clavijero, Vol 2, pg. 300 [Book VII, XLIII]

10Miguel León-Portilla refers to the “perpetual theatre of the Nahuas, with performances and sacrifices throughout the years which coincided with different religious festivals” [Pre-Columbian Literatures of Mexico, trans Grace Lobanov and the author, Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1969, pg. 65.]  Patrick Johannson writes of Mesoamerica as a “giant scenario in which the plots of a magic world were threaded and unraveled” (Patrick Johansson (ed). Teatro Mexicano, Vol 1: Festejos, ritos y propiciatorios y rituals prehispánicos, CONACULTA: 1992, pg. 13).  María Sten writes that “The life of the natives before the conquest was in a way nothing other than a perpetual theatre of fiestas in honor of the gods that took place throughout the year” (Vida y muerte del teatro Náhuatl. Xalapa: Editorial Universidad Veracruzana, 1982, pg. 15).

11The Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Maya Quiché, refers to dances as entertainment: “If only they’d come make a show for us we’d wonder at them and marvel,” the Xibalba said, referring to the two sacred “boys” --Hunahpu and Xbalanque. “Please entertain us… What do you want us to give you in payment […] So then they began their songs and dances, and then all the Xibalbans arrived, the spectators crowed the floor, and they danced everything: they danced the Weasel, they danced the Poorwill, they danced the Armadillo” (151-2).

12Patrick Johansson (ed). Teatro Mexicano, Vol 1: Festejos, ritos y propiciatorios y rituals prehispánicos, (CONACULTA, 1992), 26. Durán claims to have personally seen “a gigantic Indian who appeared in a procession of the feast of Corpus Cristi” who was, in fact, a man on stilts (History, pf. 9). See too Angel Maria Garibay, 1987,  333, María Sten, Mendieta, Historia. Tomoeda, Millones, and Kato, Dioses y demonios del Cuzco (Lima: Fondo Editorial del Congreso del Perú, 2001).

13See Motolinía’s description of the ‘natural’ environment created for a Corpus Cristi play in 1538: “there was constructed a mountain and from each mountain there rose a high cliff. The lower part was made like a meadow, with clumps of herbs and flowers and everything else that there is in a fresh field; the mountain and the cliff were as natural as if they had grown there. It was a marvellous thing to see, for there were many trees […] On the trees were many birds, both big and small: falcons, crows, owls; and in the wood much game; there were stags, hares, rabbits, coyotes, and very many snakes. These last were tied and their fangs drawn, for most of them were of the genus viper, a fathom in length and as big around as a man’s arm at the wrist […] In order that nothing might be lacking to make the scene appear completely natural, there were hunters with their bows and arrows well concealed on the mountain,” pg. 103. Lic. Polo de Ondegardo describes the Andean festival of Inti Raymi: “In these festival, they threw many flowers on the roads and the Indians came very embixados, and the lords with bits of gold attached to their beards, all of them singing.  It should be noted that this festival falls almost at the same time as when we Christians celebrate the solemnities of Corpus Christi, and in some cases there are similarities (as in the dances, representations, and songs) and for this reason its been said that nowadays there are Indians that seem to celebrate our festival of Corpus Christi when there is much suspicion that they are celebrating their Intiraymi” qtd. in Arriaga, La extirpación de la idolatria en el Peru (1621) pg.58-9, ftn. 181.

14Paul Connerton, in How Societies Remember, distinguishes between “incorporating” and “inscribing” practices. (Cambridge UP. 1989, pg. 72-3.

15Sahagún, F.C., I, 30.

16Sten, 27.

17Clavijero, Historia Antigua de Mexico, pg?

18Sahagún, F.C. Acosta, in Natural and Moral History of the Indies, describes the following in relation to Peru: “They play different instruments for these dances. Some are like flutes or pipes, others like drums, others like conch shells; the usual thing is for them to use their voices, all singing” (375).

19“Los bailes más principales eran en las plazas, otras veces en casa del mayor señor en su patio, porque todos los señores tenían grandes patios… Cuando habían habido alguna victoria en guerra, o levantaban nuevo señor, o se casaban con señora principal, o con otra novedad alguna, los maestros componían nuevo cantar, demás de los generales que tenían en las fiestas de los demonios, y de las hazañas antiguas, y de los señores pasados… en las plazas o grandes pueblos solían ser más de mil y a veces de dos mil” (Mendieta, Historia eclesiástica indiana, Mexico: Ed. S. Chávez Hayhoe, 1945, Vol. Cap. XXX1, p 153-157. In Sten, 22.

20See Clendinnen’s description of the Mexica’s “memorable caricature of Huaxtecan weirdness” through dance, in Aztecs, pg. 34.

21“I also saw any number of dances in which they imitated different occupations, such as those of shepherds, farmers, fishermen, and hunters; usually all these were danced with a very slow and deliberate sound, steps, and rhythms. There were others danced by masked men, whom they called huacones, and both the masks and their movements were absolutely diabolical. Some men danced on the shoulders of other men […] The greater part of these dances were mere superstition and a kind of idolatry, for that was the way they worshipped their idols and gods. For this reason the priests have tried to avoid these dances as much as possible, although because a large part of them is pure recreation they still allow the Indians to sing and dance after their fashion.  The play different instruments for these dances. Some are like flutes or pipes, others like drums, others like conch shells; the usual thing is for them to use their voices, all singing, with one or two reciting their poetry and the others coming in with the refrain.  Some of these ballads of theirs were very ingenious and told a story; others were full of superstition, and still others were pure nonsense.  The members of our society who work among them have tried to put things of our Holy Faith into their way of singing, and this has been found to be extremely useful, for they enjoy singing and chanting so much that they can spend whole days listening and repeating, never getting tired” (Acosta, 374-5).

22Pablo José de Arriaga, in La extirpación de la idolatría en el Perú (1621), described ongoing fiestas in huacas that continued to involve ritual purification: fasting, sexual abstinence, staying up all night to sing, dance, and tell stories for five days or more. (Cuzco: Centro de Estudios Regionales Andinos “Bartolomé de las Casas”, 1999, pg 56-62).

23See Sahagún, FC, II, 31 for one of many examples.

24Among the forms of sacrifice were the opening of the chest and extracting the heart (preferred by the Aztecs), decapitation (preferred by the Maya), stoning, shooting the victim to death with arrows, and others (see Arqueología Mexicana, etc).  Acosta states: “Although Peruvians surpassed the Mexicans in killing children and sacrificing their sons (for I have not read or learned that the Mexicans did this), yet in the number of men that they sacrificed and the horrible way in which they did it the Mexicans surpassed the Peruvians and even every other nation in the world” (293).

25Ross Hassig points out that “According to Aztec belief, all those who died in battle went to ilhuicac, the place of the sun, as did those who were captured in battle and later sacrificed. After four years in ilhuicac they were transformed into birds and butterflies and returned to earth” (Aztec Warfare, 118-119).

26David Stuart, “La ideología del sacrificio entre los Mayas.” Arqueología Mexicana, Vol. XI-Num. 63 (24-29), pg.28.

27Luis Millones writes: “Organized in this way, the fiestas acquired political significance as lords from Cuzco started to participate. Every festival signified the temporal conformity in a space occupied by multitudes.  Ceremonies invested the space with new ideological values” (1992, 22).

28Durán, in The History of the Indies of New Spain, notes: “The same feast, the same rites, were performed in front of their god, just as was done in Mexico. All the provinces of the land practiced the same ceremonies.  It was a universal ceremony […] Every town sacrificed the prisoners taken by their own captains and soldiers” (92-93).

29Durán writes: “basing ourselves on the evidence provided by these people, whose strange ways, conduct, and lowly actions are so like those of the Hebrews, and I would not commit a great error if I were to state this as fact, considering their way of life, their ceremonies, their rites and superstitions, their omens and hypocrisies, so akin to and characteristic of those of the Jews; in no way do they seem to differ. The Holy Scriptures bear witness to this, and from them we draw proofs and reasons for holding this opinion to be true.” Fray Diego Durán, 3.  Fr. Agustin de Vetancurt, in his 1698 trestise, Teatro Mexicano: Descripcion breve de los svcessos exemplars, historicos, politicos, militares, y religiosfos del Nuevo mundo occidental de las Indias [Mexico: Porrua, 1982] dedicates several chapters to this claim, Part Two, Tratado Tercero, chs. 8-10. See too Acosta, Book V, ch. 24 (Mexico) and 25 (Peru).

30For an excellent summary of the creation myth see Enrique Florescano’s Memory, Myth, and Time in Mexico, chapter 1, “The Nahua Concept of Time and Space.” [Austin, University of Texas Press, 1994). For Mayan creation myths, see Popul Vuh and Chilam Balam.  For Andean creation myths see the Huarochiri Manuscript.

31Florescano writes of the Mexica: “Every creation is thus a repetition of the creation of the world, just as everything that is thus created is converted into a sacred space, governed by primordial forces” (Memory, Myth, and Time in Mexico, 17).  Also see Clendinnen’s excellent study, The Aztecs: An Interpretation. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge U.P., 1991)

32See Ross Hassig, Aztec Warfare, 17.

33A Mayan ruler could stand on top of a temple built up against the Caribbean sea [Structure 5C-2nd] in such a way that the “sun actually rises from the sea on the east and sinks into the sea on the west [….] A Maya farmer, standing below this building for some ritual occasion, saw his ruler standing at the pivot of this symbolic program that represented the movement of heavenly bodies as they rose and set […] By taking his place at the apex of the symbolic program, the king declared himself to be the causal force that perpetuated this order” Linda Schele, Mary Ellen Miller, The Blood of Kings, pg. 106. 

34Quipus  were threads, dyed different colors, used to keep track of dates, quantities, events and other important information.  The system was highly elaborate and precise. People who mastered the techniques were called quilcacamayoc.  See Guaman Poma, pg 271.

35Connerton, How Societies Remember.

36See The Archive and the Repertoire, Chapter One.

37Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings. Translated Dennis Tedlock. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985, pg. 71.

38Interestingly, one of the oldest debates in relation to these materials is precisely around the question of whether or not Amerindians had ‘theatre.’  These earlier discussions, not surprisingly, arise from different preoccupations than mine.  Several commentators use ‘theatre’ loosely.  Miguel León-Portilla, one of the leading scholars of Mexica culture, for example, refers to the “perpetual theatre of the Nahuas, with performances and sacrifices throughout the years which coincided with different religious festivals.”  But some commentators of the mid-twentieth century were deeply invested in proving that Amerindians had theatre in the classical Greek sense—embryonic perhaps, rudimentary, but ‘theatre’ nonetheless.  (See my Theatre of Crisis, “The Making of Latin American Drama” for a fuller discussion of this topic. Also José Juan Arrom, Historia del teatro hispanoamericano (época colonial), Mexico: Ediciones de Andrea, 1967, pg. 10, 21, and Francisco Javier Clavijero, Vol 2, pg. 300 [Book VII, XLIII] )

39See Introduction to Melveena McKendrick’s Theatre in Spain, 1490-1700, Cambridge UP, 1989.

40Motolinía, History of the Indians of New Spain, pg. 104.

41“ĭmĭtāri […] de la misma familia que imago ‘imagen.’” Joan Corominas. Breve Diccionario Etimológica de la Lengua Castellana. Madrid: Gredos, 1961, pg.332.

42James Lockhart, The Nahuas after the Conquest. Stanford UP, 1992, pg.  238.

43“Ixiptlas were everywhere, the sacred powers represented in what we would call multiple media in any particular festival—a stone image, richly dressed and accoutred for the occasion; in elaborately constructed seed-dough figures; in the living body of the high priest in his divine regalia, and in the living god-image he would kill: human, vegetable and mineral ixiptlas” (252).  3 criteria: 1) it was “a made, constructed thing” and 2) “it was formally ‘named’ for the particular sacred power, and adorned with some of its characteristic regalia” and 3) “it was temporary, concocted for the occasion, made and unmade during the course of the action. (The great images within the shrines … were not described as ixiptlas, nor were they processed or publicly displayed.)” Inga Clendinnen, The Aztecs: An Interpretation, 252.

44Rémi Siméon, Diccionario de la lengua Náhuatl o Mexicana. Mexico: Siglo Veintiuno, 1977.

45For a longer discussion of this, see my The Archive and the Repertoire, Chapter One, “Acts of Transfer.”

46Performance studies theorists such as Peggy Phelan (Unmarked. N.Y.: Routledge, 1993) and Philip Auslander (Liveness. N.Y.: Routledge, 1999) make ephemerality and disappearance the defining features of performance.

47C.T. Onions, ed.  The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996 edition

48Miguel León-Portilla, Fifteen Poets of the Aztec World, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992, pg. 80.

49Op cit. 80.

50Op cit. 82.

51Sahagún, Florentine Codex, Book 1, Introductions and Indices. Prologue to Book 1, pg. 45.

52Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” 168.

53Sahagún is wrong when he accuses the Native neophytes as perpetual performers, engaged in  “idolatrous dissembling” (Sahagún, Historia general, Vol 3, pg. 352. Also quoted in Florescano, Memory, Myth and Time in Mexico, pg. 133-4. )

54Greg Dening, Performances. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.