Order of Multitudes

Cartographic Contacts: A Conversation with Alex Hidalgo

Alex Hidalgo, Associate Professor of History at Texas Christian University, is a historian of colonial Latin America. His latest book, Trail of Footprints: A History of Indigenous Maps from Viceregal Mexico, explores how Mexican indigenous communities used maps to record their life, plants, and land before and since the Spanish conquest. In this interview with Yi Lu, he discusses the social life of cartography and its significant role in preserving indigenous knowledge.

Yi Lu: One of the highlights of the book is your forensic attention to material details. For example, we learn about the mix of plants, minerals, roots, insects in ink; native paper-making technology and their ritual uses; as well as physical recycling of rags and paper. But these are not just bibliographical curiosities. Instead, you show how these surface features belie complicated social and spatial transformations. Can you give us an example? How does materiality of maps authenticate and legitimate claims over Indigenous land? 

Alex Hidalgo: I love the way you described the attention to detail as forensic. I show how Indigenous knowledge plays a key role in shaping the history of early modern science by exploring Mixtec, Zapotec, and Nahua ways of knowing: Writing surfaces such as paper, cloth, vellum, and hide not only inscribed a visual landscape of place, but also served as vehicles to express power and authority rooted in hereditary leadership and close ties to the land. Spanish colonialism relied on rag-paper to evaluate, analyze, tax, punish, and allocate people and resources of the New World. This material had a transformative effect on Native pictorial practices. Painters in the late sixteenth century adopted European paper as the preferred material to illustrate geographic spaces. A century later, during conflicts over new Spanish land regulations, Indigenous painters chose to make their maps on large cloth surfaces or on amate (bark) paper in order to emphasize the non-European elements of their wares. They sought to archaize the maps, to present evidence of ownership tied to an earlier period of contact when the ancestors had resolved these matters. These paper acts reflected not only practicality and notarial requirements of the Spanish empire, but also Indigenous decisions.

Yi Lu: One of the most memorable metaphors of your book is “footprints” — not just those of Spanish settlers and Indigenous cartographers, but also your journey as a scholar and the physical scattering of New Spain in so many collections across the world. How did you embark on this intellectual project? What challenges did you face during your fieldwork? 

Alex Hidalgo: As a master’s student in Latin American Studies at San Diego State University, I was involved in the rehabilitation of the archive of a small town on the outskirts of Oaxaca City known as Santa María Atzompa. Their collection included a rather striking map painted on a large cloth surface that generations of elected officials had passed down from mayor to mayor since the eighteenth century. The vibrancy of the colors and the positioning of geographical elements around the page appeared odd but fascinating. Over the course of two summers, I had the opportunity to photograph and analyze the map, which inspired . When I joined the doctoral program in Latin American History at the University of Arizona in 2006, I wrote my first major research paper on the map from Oaxaca. My questions centered on skills and materiality on the one hand, and on use and circulation on the other. How did people learn to make maps, and for whom did they make them? What sort of knowledge informed the production of the vibrant colors that helped give the map its unique character? How well could viewers read and understand the maps they examined? How many more maps of this kind saw the light of day? The book is a response to that initial set of questions.

I faced a major challenge when UNESCO declared the maps in Mexico’s National Archive that formed the centerpiece of my study to be the patrimony of humanity. This prestigious designation triggered a contraction in the archive: the maps were no longer available for consultation; one could only access digital copies. While I managed to secure a consultation over the course of two days in 2010, I was not allowed to view any of the maps during subsequent visits in 2014 and 2015. These limitations prompted me to think about archival privilege, the set of factors that influence access to primary sources in the first place, a subject that I explored in depth in the book’s epilogue.

Map of Mystequilla and Tegoantepec (1573), no. 2378, Tierras, vol. 3343, exp. 4, f. 43v and 44, Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico City.

Yi Lu: Your book offers a visual feast of Indigenous maps, but you have compellingly shown them to be more than pretty works of art: as instruments of empire, they transmitted geographical knowledge, authenticated land claims, and connected a world of natural commodities, social rituals, and human actors through their materiality. A map is not a snapshot frozen in time, but a living object. Can you explain your approach and the new questions it opens?

Alex Hidalgo: Scholars used to argue that Indigenous maps functioned primarily within Indigenous towns: they were used to negotiate internal matters surrounding land, had little value outside of local affairs, and were eligible to non-Natives. My research suggested otherwise. Maps represented some of the most highly scrutinized records in the Spanish courts. Regional bureaucrats, legal representatives, translators, Indigenous leaders, and judges analyzed their contents and had maps copied for land dispute cases that could drag on for decades. Indigenous towns archived maps along with other important records and sometimes used them during important ceremonies to recount oral traditions to strengthen communal bonds. In the eighteenth century, Enlightenment intellectuals turned to Indigenous sources, including maps, to interpret the history of New Spain. Traces of these patterns can be detected all the way to the present.

Map of Ahuehuetitlan and Suchitepetongo (1616), no. 2056, Tierras, vol. 2763, exp. 13, f. 9, Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico City.

Yi Lu: Although your book studies “Indigenous maps” in New Spain, I finished the book with the feeling that there is no such thing as such: a map might be the work of an Indigenous painter, but it could be made of Spanish paper, rooted in Iberian law and notarial culture, and inextricable from technologies of colonial survey and territorial governance. In the end, cartography is not just a product; instead, it is a dynamic process that reveals local experimentation, knowledge transfer, and grassroots adaptations. How would you define an “Indigenous map”? Can we “de-colonize” these colonial maps?  

Alex Hidalgo: An excellent observation. This was perhaps one of the trickiest aspects of research I navigated: what to call the records that formed the centerpiece of my analysis? In the end, I let the sources guide me. A case study from 1686 helped me think through this very issue. When a Mixtec town and a Spanish landholder disputed over a parcel of land, the town representatives introduced an old and tattered map that required a copy. The person entrusted for the task, a Native lord named Domingo de Zárate, signed and dated his map, noting, “I made [this map] according to the traditions of my art of painting.” This signaled to me a recognition of a visual system with a distinct form and style that required the application of certain skills honed by masters in their craft. This system looked different than the one in the sixteenth century, but it followed in its footsteps. In my view, describing the maps as indigenous is a step towards recognizing the principal role Nahua, Mixtec, and Zapotec painters, healers, botanists, landholders, and hereditary rulers played in challenging authority, defining space, and negotiating resources.

Yi Lu: Your book makes the poignant observation that modern archival science, for all its emphasis on provenance and original context, in fact detaches maps from their original context: most of them today form specialized collections in a library or archive. How did this classification scheme come about? Is there a better way to organize them?

Alex Hidalgo: Late nineteenth- and twentieth-century archival science played a role in separating maps from their original dockets. It is understandable that the visual aspects of the maps attract more users; the same thing has happened with European maps published in books and atlases. While it makes sense to keep them separate, this practice can also lead to misinterpretation. It is imperative future scholars consider the proper bibliographical context in which maps came into being.  

Yi Lu: The world is reeling from the worst pandemic in more than a century, but the Indigenous people in your book lived through even more deadlier times. Despite mass deaths from germs and viruses brought by European settlers, Indigenous mapmaking remained key. How did geographical knowledge transfer in times of social upheaval? What explains the resilience of indigenous knowledge?

Alex Hidalgo: Late nineteenth- and twentieth-century archival science played a role in separating maps from their original dockets. It is understandable that the visual aspects of the maps attract more users; the same thing has happened with European maps published in books and atlases. While it makes sense to keep them separate, this practice can also lead to misinterpretation. It is imperative future scholars consider the proper bibliographical context in which maps came into being.