In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Early Colonial Forms of Native Expression in Mexico and Peru

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Approaches to the Study of Native Expression

Latin American Studies Early Colonial Forms of Native Expression in Mexico and Peru
Lori Boornazian Diel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0135


The Aztecs and Inca were the dominant cultural groups in Mexico and Peru, respectively, upon the arrival of the Spaniards in the sixteenth century. After the conquest, Spain imposed distinctive forms of colonial rule over Mexico and Peru in response to the Native traditions they encountered. The Indigenous peoples of the Americas continued to express themselves in a variety of media after the conquest, and traces of an Indigenous mindset or worldview can be found in these forms; however, the Native and European worlds were quickly entangled and the Native worlds fundamentally changed. Though Native forms survived, they did so in changed circumstances and conditions, often in response to colonialism and as a form of negotiation and survival in a new world order. For example, many Native artists were influenced by European styles and techniques, as revealed by the more representational motifs appearing in 16th-century Andean art and greater illusionism in Mexican art. Moreover, many Natives learned to write alphabetically, so past oral traditions once preserved in songs, poems, pictorial books, and khipus were soon converted into alphabetic script. Other traditional forms of expression, such as the feather works of the Nahuas or the queros of the Inca, continued to be created by the Indigenous peoples after the conquest, but their styles, functions, and subject matter changed due to their new colonial contexts. Indeed, one of the greatest dialogues between the Native worlds and that of Europe took place in the religious realm. The imposition of Christianity and its attendant material culture created new opportunities for Native expression to flourish. Though the architecture, painting, and sculpture of the churches now served Christian ends, their Native authorship and preconquest influences are often clear. Religious dramas, too, preserved traces of Native expression, though again with a Christian visage. Here, then, this article takes a broad view, focusing on traditional forms of expression and those imposed by Spain but focusing on the Indigenous side of this dialogue, when known, and as it became manifest in expressive forms. Mexico and Peru are treated separately because many of their forms of expression differ. So too did the colonial projects of each continent, owing to their different cultural traditions. Because some of the key sources for Native expression date to the early seventeenth century (and beyond), this article takes a broad view chronologically, focusing largely on the early colonial period and more recently published texts, when available, while directing students to the bibliographies of these sources for fuller historiographical information.

General Overviews

This article focuses on three types of expression—literary, performance, and visual. Each of these flourished to different degrees and in different forms in Mexico and Peru in the early colonial period. These categories are often not mutually exclusive. For example, the pictorial writings of the Aztecs that we interpret as visual culture can also be seen as literature, and the songs that were performed in Mexico and Peru are mostly known to us through written records and are accordingly treated as literature. These categories are useful to organize information, but readers should be aware that they are quite fluid when concerning Native Mexico and Peru.

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