My principal expertise lies with the periconquest narrative commonly known as Popol Vuh which recounts the mythological, historical, and religious heritage of the Quiché Maya who inhabited the highland region of present-day Guatemala City. Although it is one of the foremost works of the Spanish-American colonial period, shockingly little critical attention has been given to its colonial context. Popol Vuh survives by way of Dominican priest Father Francisco Ximénez. The position most commonly taken as to Popol Vuh’s survival is that a missionary-educated Indian used his knowledge of European alphabetic writing to capture and preserve, in written form, the oral recitation of an elder sometime in the 1550s. In the late 1600s or early 1700s, Father Ximénez is popularly theorized to have obtained this phonetic redaction from a parishioner, which he then would have transcribed and translated in parallel Quiché and Spanish. After Ximénez’s death, his writings remained in the library of his convent near the capital until 1829 when General Francisco Morazán expelled the religious orders from Guatemala and Ximénez’s writings came under the auspices of the Universidad de San Carlos. The existence of these writings was documented by Austrian adventurer Carl Scherzer in 1854 and by French cleric Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg in 1855. Subsequent to Brasseur, Ximénez’s parallel manuscript disappeared from public view. Without the original source text to consult, Popol Vuh came to be studied on the basis of the two incomplete editions published by Scherzer and Brasseur. Ximénez’s parallel manuscript eventually resurfaced in 1941. Part of the reason that Ximénez’s text took so long to resurface is that it was bound with preceding treatises on Quiché grammar and parochial administration and this obscured the full scope of the manuscript’s content. But even after resurfacing, Popol Vuh continued to be studied independently from Ximénez’s adjoining text. Imposing such arbitrary textual and narrative boundaries on the manuscript is problematic because Ximénez’s voice is always present by way of his translation and by the contextual permeation of his leading and trailing discourse.
My research is grounded in the critical dimensions of marginalia theory and colonial discourse. In their seminal work titled Ma(r)king the Text: The presentation of meaning on the literary page, Joe Bray, Miriam Handley, and Anne C. Henry summarize marginalia theory thusly: “to mark a text is also to make it; [and] features such as punctuation, footnotes, epigraphs, white space and marginalia, marks that traditionally have been ignored in literary criticism, can be examined for their contribution to a text’s meaning.”1 Ximénez’s complete manuscript contains four intercalated prologues that appear to communicate that the manuscript is four distinct works, perhaps bound together as an accident of time. However, upon close examination it is clear that these four prologues stitch the constituent parts into a logical and well-organized whole. Unfortunately, prior to my research no scholar had studied the prologues in this capacity. The importance and necessity of studying the prologues is made clear by Ximénez’s opening line introducing Popol Vuh. He writes: Esta mi obra, y trabaxo discurro q’ avra muchos q’ la tengan por la mas futil y vana de las q’ he trabaxado, asi lo pensaran muchos; y yo lo discurro al contrario, porq’ entiendo ser la mas util, y neçesaria q’ he trabaxado.2 My research thus attempts to frame, explore, and answer the question, why does Father Ximénez believe this to be his most important, his “most useful and necessary” work?
The greatest impediment in the contemplation of this question is the nebulous concept of transatlanticism. In the colonial context, all written text is transatlantic, which in its most reduced and perhaps overly simplified form, connotes the epistemological intersection of Old World and New World civilization. Because Popol Vuh consists of an indigenous oral narrative preserved through the pen of a missionary friar, it must therefore be studied within the colonial transatlantic construct. The analysis then shifts to a discussion of colonial discourse. Walter Mignolo has noted that “[t]he lack of alphabetic writing was one of the most significant trademarks […] in the construction of the image of the Amerindians during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Not having it yet or having it in excess were two cognitive moves used by Europeans in constructing the identity of the self-same by constructing at the same time, the image of the other.”3 Ximénez surmises in his second prologue that “there is no lack of persons who will say that addressing these matters is futile and vain because these natives do not remember these things.” But in justification of his efforts he writes in his fourth prologue that “although the former priests gave them stories of the saints […] I have learned that they sing those in public where the priests hear them and then in private make merry memory of their former heathendom. Of these things and many more that have come to my attention, I endeavor to craft these scholia, noting that which is ancient history […] and that which touches upon elements of our Holy Catholic faith.” These statements reveal three critical underpinnings of Ximénez’s endeavor. First, he highlights a cognitive disconnect between American (oral) and European (written) discourse. Second, he acknowledges a degree of syncretism. Third, he asserts that effective evangelization must simultaneously extirpate and embrace indigenous beliefs. Therefore, Popol Vuh survives as a transatlantic production that cannot be accurately studied solely from the perspective of indigenous auto-ethnography.
In a recent publication I raised awareness of three Arabic numerals written in the margin of the first folio recto that occur in proximity to three instances in which Ximénez translated the Quiché word xchicatzibaj as “to write” (while translating it throughout the rest of the narrative as “to paint”). These assertions of European-style writing form the basis of the general assumption that the narrative was first redacted by an educated Indian. As I observed in that article, “[t]he problem with the existing literature on Popol Vuh is that critics appear to have taken the text of the first folio recto too much at face value in drawing conclusions about Popol Vuh’s survival.”4 Another major issue is the poorly understood provenance of Ximénez’s text. In my most recent submission for publication, I thoroughly provenance Ximénez’s manuscript, disprove a twentieth century theory of multiple Popol Vuh manuscripts, and propose that the original phonetic redaction was more likely performed by a missionary priest. I am currently returning to an investigation that I began several years ago that examines discursive disparities created by the parallel translation. Following this I will begin editing an unknown letter by Alonso de Noreña written in the 1580s that Ximénez copied into his manuscript. Also, in 2012 I won a competitive seed grant that I used to conduct radiocarbon and trace analysis on binding artifacts recovered from Ximénez’s manuscript during a prior conservation initiative. Publishing those results together with a discussion of testing methodologies will do much to broaden the study of antiquitous texts.
While my critical analyses advance the understanding of Popol Vuh’s context, the larger problem remains that there is no complete volume of Ximénez’s manuscript. Working with Ximénez’s original manuscript is a tedious and arduous undertaking, and that was one of the considerations that led me to disseminate my edited prologues on the web in the interest of making this marginalia available to the academic community. Editing Ximénez’s text is one which I am uniquely able to conduct with the aid of my extensive digital skillset. With this in mind, I envision utilizing Digital Humanities approaches to design an upper level seminar that will bring together the unique perspectives and varying talents of students in order to produce the first complete edition of the manuscript. But I do not want to understate the importance of student involvement. Kate Bennett has observed that “to print an ‘unprintable’ text is a compromise, and much remains out of reach of the public domain which print represents.”5 Ximénez’s text is comprised of nonstandard page dimensions with extensive columns and tables that present an editorial nightmare. The editorial compromises that must be achieved will be best (re)solved through a collaborative effort that effectively tests various models and ultimately arrives at the most appropriate one. With adequate support from an administration to create this seminar, I believe that this edition can be realized as early as 2020.
1 Bray, Joe, Miriam Handley, and Anne C. Henry, eds. “Introduction.” Ma(r)king the Text: The presentation of meaning on the literary page. Aldershot, Eng: Ashgate, 2000. xvii-xxiv. Print.
2 The colonial discursive form, in general, formidably resists literal translation; however, I offer this accommodated translation: This work of mine on which I labor, knowing that there will be many who regard it as the most futile and vain of my endeavors, so many will say, and I argue to the contrary, because I understand it to be the most useful and necessary that I have undertaken.
3 Mignolo, Walter. “When Speaking Was Not Good Enough: Illiterates, Barbarians, Savages, and Cannibals.” Amerindian Images and the Legacy of Columbus. Ed. René Jara and Nicholas Spadaccini. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992. 312-45. Print.
4 Woodruff, John M. “Ma(r)king Popol Vuh.” Untying Tongues: Literatures in Minority or Minoritized Languages in Spain and Latin America. Spec. issue of Romance Notes. 51.1 (2011): 97-106. Print.
5 Bennett, Kate. “Editing Aubrey.” Ma(r)king the text: the presentation of meaning on the literary page. Eds. Joe Bray, Miriam Handley, and Anne C. Henry. Aldershot, Eng: Ashgate, 2000. 271-90. Print.