By José Chávez | Contributing Columnist
Imagine a land filled with books by people who made books, illustrated books and sang their books for the benefit of the people. They didn’t write books as we know them but painted them with vibrant natural colors and designed them to help the people embrace their past and discover how they came to live in the land they occupied. Imagine talented word painters who even chiseled words in stone. Did such a place exist?
Before the Spanish and other Europeans came to the Americas, different civilizations prospered in Mesoamerica. They had distinct languages and beliefs and built cities and pyramids in the central regions of Mexico in the north to Costa Rica in the south. Today, they are known as Aztecs, Mixtecs and Maya. This area is unique in that books originated and developed without outside influence.
The native people who lived in this region called it amoxtlalpan, which means “a land of books” in the Nahuatl language. Thousands of them were made before the Spanish arrived. A noted Mexican author, Duncan Tonatiuh, helps children discover books called amoxtin, or codices, in his book, “A Land of Books, Dreams of Young Mexichah Word Painters.”
Tonatiuh sets the tone by describing the Mixtecah, or the cloud people we know as Aztecs. The scribes were the tlacuiloqueh, or “painters of words,” who lived in the valley of the volcanoes. It was essential for them to learn religion, astronomy, warfare and history so they could express their knowledge using paint. A performer would read from drawings made by the painter.
In this story, a young girl reveals to her brother how their parents belong to a class of people who made amoxtin, or codices. They used paper from a tree’s bark and were long strips with multiple page folds. She described creating paint from plants, animals and pulverized rock. The books contained sacred colors for symbols of animals, warriors and gods.
These codices featured people drawn flat and facing sideways. A person may look as big as a mountain or a pyramid, but the drawings are stylized and not meant to look realistic. They are pictograms representing a word or idea explained, similar to how we read emojis today.
The author illustrates how a reader sings the books during the Flower Festival, and the people listen and cherish the colorful images. Part of the magic inside the book is that not everyone can read the words. The noblemen, priests and wise elders understand the colors and layout of the pages. They interpret and share the message with the macehualli or villagers. While the children sleep at night, they dream of how the four main gods created the world and people out of the darkness. They’ll recall the great migration when their ancestors left Aztlán, the island where they lived. The Blue Hummingbird told them to search for an eagle atop a prickly pear cactus or nopalli and settle on the shores of Lake Tetzcoco. They built the city of Tenochtitlán, the capital of the powerful Aztec Empire. Today, this area is known as Mexico City.
Mesoamerican codices covered a variety of subjects, listed the ranks and names of people depicted and the movements of the moon and stars. Some were calendars; others described gods, historical figures and events. The author notes that some may have been books for children, but we don’t know, as conquistadores and clerics destroyed most during the Spanish conquest. Only a few codices survived. Some are in Mexico, but others are in museum collections in Europe.
Teachers and parents will appreciate the lyrical prose and the pre-Columbian-inspired illustrations by author-illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh. The richness and color in these pages bolster the importance of preserving Indigenous languages, art, storytelling and traditions. A pronunciation guide and definitions for words in Nahuatl are at the back of the book. There is a bibliography and a list of websites for viewing reproductions of codices for those who wish to add to their knowledge of pre-Columbian books in Mesoamerica.
I was delighted by the way this book blends magic, storytelling, truth and tradition. The family who created the amoxtin adds realism, life and radiant color to this story, where books and dreams come together in Mesoamerica’s pre-Columbian world. I want to sample more books by this gifted, award-winning author.
José Chávez is an award-winning bilingual poetry author for children and lives in Riverside with his family. His new book is “Dancing Fruit, Singing Rivers.”
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