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Rethinking Zapotec Time

Rethinking Zapotec Time
Cosmology, Ritual, and Resistance in Colonial Mexico

As the first exhaustive translation and analysis of an extraordinary Zapotec calendar and ritual song corpus, seized in New Spain in 1704, this book expands our understanding of Mesoamerican history, cosmology, and culture.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

February 2022
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360 pages | 7 x 10 |

In 1702, after the brutal suppression of a Zapotec revolt, the bishop of Oaxaca proclaimed an amnesty for idolatry in exchange for collective confessions. To evade conflict, Northern Zapotec communities denounced ritual specialists and surrendered sacred songs and 102 divinatory manuals, which preserve cosmological accounts, exchanges with divine beings, and protocols of pre-Columbian origin that strongly resemble sections of the Codex Borgia. These texts were sent to Spain as evidence of failed Dominican evangelization efforts, and there they remained, in oblivion, until the 1960s.

In this book, David Tavárez dives deep into this formidable archive of ritual and divinatory manuals, the largest calendar corpus in the colonial Americas, and emerges with a rich understanding of Indigenous social and cultural history, Mesoamerican theories of cosmos and time, and Zapotec ancestor worship. Drawing on his knowledge of Zapotec and Nahuatl, two decades of archival research, and a decade of fieldwork, Tavárez dissects Mesoamerican calendars as well as Native resistance and accommodation to the colonial conquest of time, while also addressing entangled transatlantic histories and shining new light on texts still connected to contemporary observances in Zapotec communities.


David Tavárez is Professor of Anthropology at Vassar College and a recent Guggenheim Fellow. He is the author of The Invisible War: Indigenous Devotions, Discipline, and Dissent in Colonial Mexico, the editor of Words and Worlds Turned Around: Indigenous Christianities in Colonial Latin America, and the coauthor of Painted Words and Chimalpahin's Conquest.


 “This is a superb study of both the Indigenous secret republics of letters and their Indigenous rivals. It is also a brilliant analysis of Zapotec divinatory colonial practices.’’
—Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, University of Texas at Austin, author of How to Write the History of the New World: Histories, Epistemologies, and Identities in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World

“This book introduces participants in a 'republic of letters' in the Zapotec language who, in the 1600s, created something new through their combination of ancestral knowledge and new knowledge from the Spanish realm. With its focus on actors outside the colonial political hierarchy, the book gives extraordinary insight into the lives of residents of colonial Indigenous towns that were locally administered, often only lightly overseen from distant political and religious centers. David Tavárez’s understanding of Zapotec history and cultural achievement is without parallel. The analysis of Zapotec literacy as 'anti-colonial discourses' contributes to  an important global reconsideration of Indigenous lives under colonial power.”
—Rosemary Joyce, University of California at Berkeley, author of Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives: Sex, Gender, and Archaeology

Rethinking Zapotec Time makes several significant contributions. It is a major synthesis of documentary evidence from the Zapotec mantic and ritual manuals that is both revisionist and encyclopedic. David Tavárez’s work has succeeded in mining the manuals' content to understand local historical processes and to link them as part of a longue durée in the production of knowledge by Zapotec peoples that goes back more than a thousand years. The book also sheds new light on highly debated issues concerning Mesoamerican calendrics and synchronology with European time, as well as contested interpretations of obscure passages in the Codex Borgia and other divinatory manuscripts.”
—Javier Urcid, Brandeis University, coauthor of The Lords of Lambityeco: Political Evolution in the Valley of Oaxaca during the Xoo Phase

“Rooted in the exceptional linguistic skills and erudition of David Tavárez, this study of Zapotec-language calendric texts and ritual songs not only explains the workings of northern Zapotec pre-Hispanic and early colonial timekeeping, it reveals the multifaceted intellectual traditions of colonial indigenous ritual specialists. They fostered intense communal efforts to maintain sacred beliefs and local practices, sometimes leading to dissent within communities and suppressive efforts from Catholic officials. Nonetheless, the Zapotec sacred survived—transformed in some ways—until today, a story Tavárez brilliantly details.”
—Susan Kellogg, University of Houston, co-editor of Género y Arqueología en Mesoamérica: Homenaje a Rosemary A. Joyce