Women's voices in the cantares mexicanos

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“Women’s Voices in the Cantares mexicanos: Pleasure in the Word”
Jeanne L. Gillespie, Ph.D.
The University of Southern Mississippi

In a recent article, Kay Read and the late Jane Rosenthal examine the use of sex as a metaphor for Mesoamerican warfare in a cuicatl performed in the voice of a Chalcan woman (chalcacihuacuicatl). The text describes a Chalcanfemale who is offered sexually and also in tribute to the victorious Mexica ruler Axayacatl to "please" him, as a means to cement a military alliance following the defeat of the Chalcan warriors. This text has been translated and studied by Miguel Leon-Portilla, John Bierhorst and Camilla Townsend—the translations of Townsend and Read and Rosenthal appear in the January 2006 issue of The Americas, ajournal of Franciscan History. What is fascinating is that each translation addresses a particular nuance of the text. Leon-Portilla suggests it is somehow politically metaphoric in a very general way, Bierhorst totally discounts the account of Chimalpahin regarding its possible performance and maintains that the text is part of a ghost-warrior ritual tradition; however his translations arevery precise and complete. Read and Rosenthal document the political nature of the offering of a female to a victorious warrior by the defeated polity very successfully in their argument and Townsend establishes the personal narrative expressed in the text. So, who is "right?" In some ways they all are, that is one of the beauties and frustrations of Nahuatl literature—the signs are alwaysmultivalent. A Nahua audience would have appreciated the multiple layers of meaning in one performance. I have examined several other texts in the collections known as the Cantares mexicanos and the Romances de los señores that also detail military alliances and/or threats and battle narratives but the translation projects have only dealt superficially with the historical information contained inthe texts or with the performance practices of the texts themselves.
One of the most interesting things for me about the form "cuicatl" is that it is performance centered, even within the text, performance practice is discussed and the text is always auto-referential. These are performance texts that allow the cuicanitl—singer—to improvise or to add new information. Many cultures have oralperformance texts whose function is to contain local history and to report important events: The blues, fado, and the pan-Hispanic décima are similar forms. In the Yoruba tradition, the creativeness of the improvising singer plays an important part in the audience's reception of the information. In many of these forms, certain elements or strategies repeat while new information is added orold information is retained. As we see in the 98 songs in the Cantares mexicanos, the performed oral text with mnemonic pictorial references can collect and retain much information. This is truly a cancionero for the community—the content ranges from the fall of Tula and Quetzalcoatl to the dedication ceremonies of Catholic Churches. For the Nahua community, these texts served as the newscastsand history books. What I am examining today are the resonances of pre-Hispanic texts in the colonial era from the echographies of these performed texts.
Returning to the chalcacihuacuicatl , an interesting question that has not been easily answered is whose voice is it singing? While the cuicatl occurs in the female voice, historian Chimalpahin indicates that a cuicatl that pleasedAxayacatl very much was performed by the talented (male) cuicanitl., the Chalca-Amecameca, Quecholcohuatzin, who delivers a rowdy and sexually charged message. (See Read and Rosenthal The Americas 62.3 (2006) 313-348.)
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