Mapping Colonial Latin America: Relaciones Geográficas Map of Cholula (1581)

Visitors to Oublié Sur La Carte (not so many these days, I know, since I haven’t posted in a while) are greeted by a quotation from Baudelaire and a pair of map images. When the site was first launched, I offered some comments on the quote. Here are some thoughts on the maps, in anticipation of some revisions to the headnotes of my Exam List 1, covering representations of space in Colonial Latin America, which I’ll begin posting soon. Many of the ideas in this post are culled from Barbara Mundy’s excellent work on colonial map-making, The Mapping of New Spain (University of Chicago Press, 1996).

Map of Cholula from the Relaciones Geograficas (1581)

Beginning in 1578, a survey of 44 questions authored by Spanish royal cosmographer Juan López de Velasco was distributed throughout the Spanish controlled portions of the Americas as part of a larger effort to extensively map the region and document its features. Though the survey was addressed only to colonial officials, many such officials, lacking either interest or sufficient familiarity with the region to answer the questions, passed the survey on to members of the indigenous population. The resulting documents, known as the Relaciones Geográficas, constitute a fascinating and varied collection of colonial semiosis, a heterogeneous mixture of graphic and print sign systems drawn from both Spanish and indigenous traditions in order to represented a colonial landscape that was itself already organized in conflicting ways around Spanish and indigenous patterns of understanding and inhabiting space.

The map above, produced by an indigenous mapmaker in 1581 in response to the Relaciones Geográficas, depicts the town of Cholula in Mexico, an important Tolteca-Chichimeca religious and political site and one of the largest population centers in Mesoamerica at the time of Cortes’s conequest of Mexico. Several aspects of this map make it a striking example of a number of the issues involved in the study of colonial representations of space:

  • Gridlike Structure – The mere division of the Cholulan map into a 5 x 5 grid separated by broad avenues into discrete rectangular units itself already constitutes a complex nexus of meanings drawn from both Spanish and indigenous codes. The grid is, on the one hand, a symbol of the European dream of the planned city. Unable to effectively overwrite the chaos of cities like Barcelona which had grown increasingly disorganized through centuries of architectural sedimentation (compare the labyrinthine streets of Paris before Hausmann as depicted in Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris), Europe in general and Spain in particular turned towards the New World as a laboratory for urban design. The colonial situation afforded the Spanish with opportunities not only to found new population centers (see for example Cortes’s account of the founding of Veracruz) but also to raze existing structures to the ground (see Cortes’s and Bernal Diaz’s accounts of the burning of Tenochtitlan) and rebuild from scratch. “Rebuilding from scratch” often meant simply ignoring preexisting structures and territorial conceptualizations and superimposing instead an abstact architectural projection. Cholula was in fact built around such a grid, so in this sense the map is accurate in reproducing a system of territorial organization drawn from Spanish colonial models of urban planning. But the particular grid depicted on the Relaciones Geográficas map of Cholula exaggerates the extent of the grid in the actual city, and indeed functions to consolidates a number of smaller blocks into larger “super-blocks” (Kubler, qtd. in Mundy), thus already transforming existing conceptions of the city by reorganizing it into larger territorial units.

    The exaggeration of the city’s gridlike structure also transforms the grid itself into a different kind of sign. In the world map that accompanies the map of the Cholula in the header at the top of the page, the grid of latitude and longitude function as guidelines to facilitate the mathematical projection of the known world onto a perfectly corresponding copy reproducing distances, directions, and angles with geometrical precision. In the Cholula map, the layout of territorial units in space may provide some indications of general orientation (north, south, east, west, etc.), but for the most part, the grid no longer provides the basis for a one-to-one correspondence between location on the map and location in Cholula. Instead, the grid has become an icon, signifying the fact of Cholula’s gridlike character without reproducing its particular grid. If anything, the grid as a sign has come to resemble more closely the geometricized pre-Columbian maps in which the rectilinear organization of iconographic place glyphs signifies a conceptual division of territory rather than any accurate measure of layout in space.

  • Heterogeneous Perspective – In Ptolemy’s terms, the city map of Cholula is a chorographic rather than a geometric map, which means, according to Mundy, that it deals with “partial and particular views” (3) of the urban landscape rather than attempting to reproduce the general features of a region or territory, as in a road map or the world map depicted in this site’s header. The depiction of buildings and monuments, in other words, remains at least somewhat tied to the point of view of a human eye rather than to a bird’s eye or the abstract place markers of a regional or global map. This ties the map to the lived experience of its inhabitants rather than the administrative perspective of an official operating by proxy on controlled territory, or the universalized perspective of a citizen trying to locate him or herself within the larger geography of the nation state.

    To an extent, the shared orientation of the city’s major buildings and monuments (the central monastery San Gabriel, the well in the town square, the six parish churches or cabeceras distributed throughout the city, and even the pre-Hispanic pyramid labeled “Tollan Cholula,” all of which face the same direction) endows the document with an official point of view that reorganizes the territory of Cholula around a set of privileged places. The map, in short, has a clear “top” defined simultaneously by the city’s monumental landscape and by the legibility of alphabetic place names. This shared orientation associates the map’s official point of view with the perspective of a literate elite. Yet, significantly, the official perspective implied by the map’s orientation nonetheless assumes a bilingual fluency in Spanish and transliterated Nahuatl (such bilingualism would have included both Spanish officials and indigenous elites) while granting equal privilege to sites of Spanish and indigenous significance. It is a perspective already at odds with the text of the Relaciones Geográficas survey, which asks explicitly for the names of all parishes and monasteries but makes no mention of pre-Hispanic architecture. The parity granted to indigenous and Spanish monuments might therefore seem to indicate, instead, the mindset of an indigenous elite, possibly the mapmaker himself, but we cannot discount the possibility that the perspective does not correspond to any actual individual, and that the prominence granted to Spanish religious architecture has as much to do with responding to the genre conventions imposed by the survey questions as it does with expressing a human point of view.The predominance of the map’s official perspective is nonetheless not reproduced consistently in the rendering of the city’s smaller buildings. Instead, the mapmaker reorients each such building so that its door faces the building’s entryway. In other words, each building is represented from the point of view of someone entering it. The result is to decenter the large monastery, reconstituting the paths of everyday traffic as alternate centers, potential points around which perspective can be reoriented. The map thus transforms the practice of everyday life into a principle of spatial organization counterbalancing the monolithic viewpoint of the lettered elite. Daily practice nonetheless appears to produce an experience of space which is available to no individual but which is composed of the aggregate of heterogeneous representations drawn from different points of view.

    Beyond the mere fact of the Cholula map’s use of heterogeneous perspectives, the particular distribution of perspectival centers also has potential implications for local models of spatial organization. In the third and fourth squares from the top in the second column, for example, a number of doorways face inward, opening towards each other and onto the square. Quite unlike the outward-oriented buildings in the far right column, this arrangement depicts the square as a sort of public sphere, a common point of entrance into adjacent buildings and thus a potential site of crossings between edifices and of interactions between their occupants.

  • Perspectival and Iconic Art – Despite the significance of perspective in orienting the represented space of Cholula, and even the clear presence of some of the conventions of European perspectival art in the rendering of the parishes, the monastery, and the well, the map of Cholula remains mostly independent from the Renaissance ideal of mathematical faithfulness to what the eye sees. To see this clearly, it suffices to observe the similarities between the six parishes. Not only do the parishes appear to share numerous architectural features, a detail which might at least be explained by actual similarities between the churches, but also, each church appears in an almost identical position in front of a large round hill. Not likely true to life, the juxtaposition of head churches and hills is most probably iconic, drawing on the association in Nahautl between hills (tepetl) and places of political significance according to local territorial alignments (altepetl) in order to signify the role of the church jurisdiction in structuring colonial life.As Mundy observes, in short, the introduction of the conventions of European perspectival art into indigenous map-making practices served to enhance the rendering of iconographic place glyphs, but did little to alter the principle modes of laying such places out on the map.
  • Cabecera vs. altepetl – One of Mundy’s most interesting observations in The Mapping of New Spain concerns the relationship between the cabecera (head church/parish community – the principle Spanish conception of the organization of community) and the altepetl (indigenous system of territorial alliances composed of loosely overlapping ethnic communities known as calpolli):

    “As the map shows it, six of the twenty-four urban blocks are dominated by churches, which are numbered and labeled as follows: (1) Sanct Miguel tecpan Cabezera; (2) Sanctiago Cabezera; (3) Sanct Joan Cabezera; (4) Sancta Maria Cabezera; (5) Sanct Pablo Cabezera; (6) Sanct Andres Cabezera….

    These six cabeceras were actually the colonial version of Cholula’s pre-Hispanic calpolli system. While all six shown on the map today are known by Cholula’s present residents as parishes, some preserve the Nahuatl names they bore in the pre-Hispanic period: there are Santiago Mixquictla (or Mixquitla); San Pablo Tecama; San Miguel Tianguishnahutel; and Santa Maria Xixictla. Three of these Nahuatl names are place-names that correlate exactly to three of the twelve calpolli of Cholula discussed in the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca….

    In fact, not only these three calpolli survived: scholars have found that all twelve calpolli survived, condensed and rearranged over time into the six cabeceras shown in the Relación Geográfica map….

    Thus, at first glance, this Relación Geográfica map of Cholula shows a community ordered by a European grid and under the watchful eye of a European god, with no one living more than a block away from a church. Yet the artist’s presentation of Cholula is firmly rooted in preconquest practice and reflects earlier social structure maps wherein the city was not an undivided whole but rather a league of various calpolli.” (127-8)

    The conceptualization of community organization according to preconquest practices is further confirmed by the use of the Nahuatl place glyph for altepetl – for river (atl) + hill (petl) – in the center of the upper row of city blocks adjacent to the glyph for Tollan Cholula to mark the pyramid as an alternate center of territorial organization, one which, furthermore, overflows the grid in which it is contained: the curve of the hill glyph in row one column three is thus contiguous with the curve of the pyramid in column four, even if the space between them is left blank so as not to disrupt the grid.

I’ll pick this back up in a couple of days with some comments on the second map in my header. In the mean time, what other aspects of this map strike you as interesting? Also – without sacrificing an academic tone, I tried to make this post a bit more readable than some of my previous efforts. Drop me a note and let me know if you found this post more accessible (and, if not, where I lost you).


~ by Matt on August 28, 2007.

4 Responses to “Mapping Colonial Latin America: Relaciones Geográficas Map of Cholula (1581)”

  1. In reading this I noticed that your writing has become easier to digest. I don’t however quite follow you when you say, “Rebuilding from scratch” often meant simply ignoring preexisting structures and territorial conceptualizations and superimposing instead an abstract architectural projection.” What does this mean for the actual construction of spaces such as buildings?

    I might have some sort of idea:
    As for the map produced by the indigenous mapmaker, due to the grids it reminds me of looking out of an airplane window onto the landscape of a metropolitan or at least urban space, i.e. Los Angeles, Boston, Las Vegas etc. Perhaps then modern urban planning is akin to Spanish colonization, or perhaps it has superseded it in bringing about the materialization of “superimposing…abstract architectural projection(s)?” Making grid like spaces a reality and not an idealization.

  2. “Making the gridlike spaces a reality and not an idealization” pretty much gets it right. Basically what happened in a lot of cases (Buenos Aires is a great example) is that the grid was conceptualized before it was actually laid down, and as the city grew, it was sculpted to fit into the gridlines. It wasn’t laid down all at once, thus my use of the term “projection.” But what made the Spanish colonial situation distinct from what I assume you mean by “modern” urban planning is that, unlike in, say, Paris in the 1870’s, in New Spain it was ideologically possible to pretend that the grid was being projecting on top of “nothing,” even when “nothing” was actually a highly developed population center. The act of erasure preceded the actual demolition of buildings – the denial of indigenous cultures implied in projecting the grid onto a “blank” space is itself already a sort of violence.

    When you talk about “modern” urban planning, you have to be careful since the examples are so diverse. In a sense, the dream of a perfectly pre-planned city that the Spanish attempted to realize in the Americas is not only the start of modern urban planning, it is the very definition of modern urban planning, and indeed one of the few places where it at least seemed realistic to carry out the paradigmatically “modern” dream of compete human engineering of the social environment.

    There are, of course, some comparable North American and European examples, but in some ways they’re the exception rather than the rule. Downtown Chicago is a great example, but the consistency of the grid was really only possible because it was actually built on top of nothing – the Great Chicago Fire did the same kind of work as Cortes had done in Tenochtitlan.

    Contrast this to something like Paris, where Hausmann was able to cut a number of broader avenues into an urban landscape that had been built up somewhat haphazardly over several centuries – the imposition of a grid was possible, to an extent, because the French government bought up and demolished hundreds of buildings, forcing out numerous tenants in the process, but even with such a large capital expenditure, the ability to rewrite the city was limited, and as a result the streets of Paris remain fairly labyrinthine in many places.

    Boston is a similar situation; if anything, there’s even less of a grid. I lived there while the Big Dig was running over-budget and over-deadline trying to cut tunnels and bridges into a city that just couldn’t be rationalized. Though that’s part of its charm… (same with Paris).

    Los Angeles and Las Vegas are really sort of different situations. Vegas was more or less built from scratch in an era of modern urban planning, and it hasn’t been around long enough for the impact of different phases of development to start to crash into each other…though look at the downtown area, I suppose… L.A., on the other hand, really isn’t planned, thanks to the sprawl. These days it’s being called postmodern rather than modern anyway, for whatever that’s worth. Some areas downtown are fairly gridlike, but mostly the grids of different neighborhoods crash into each other at awkward angles and intersections.

    Thanks for the comment. Glad you’re still reading. Stay in touch.

  3. Hi I am Antonia Carcelen and I would like to use some of your thought in my comprehensive exams. I would love to give you credit for them. Can you give me your name and references, or quoting the bolg would do? Best, A>

  4. […] […]

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