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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Exhibition Catalogues
  • Native Expression as Colonial Discourse

Latin American Studies Early Colonial Forms of Native Expression in Mexico and Peru
Lori Boornazian Diel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • 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 16th 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 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 17th century (and beyond), this article takes a broad view chronologically, focusing largely on the early colonial period and more recently published texts while directing students to the bibliographies of these sources for fuller historiographical information.

General Overviews

Because of their material nature, the visual arts of colonial Mexico and Peru have received the most scholarly attention, with many of these sources treating the entire colonial period. The textbooks Bailey 2005 and Donahue-Wallace 2008 are useful for undergraduate students new to the topic of viceregal art and architecture, as is the multimedia Vistas website. An issue of Ethnohistory, Salomon and Hyland 2010, contains articles devoted to the theme of graphic communication in the Americas. More ephemeral forms of expression, like music and song, have not received as much scholarly attention, but a volume on music, Stevenson 1968; some of the essays in Robertson 1992 on music and performance; and a book on song, Tomlinson 2007, provide nice overviews on these topics for both Peru and Mexico. For an overview of literary traditions in the native Americas, see Lienhard 1991.

  • Bailey, Gauvin Alexander. Art of Colonial Latin America. London: Phaidon, 2005.

    Bailey takes a thematic approach in his text, with the first two chapters treating the encounter between the natives and Europeans and native artistic responses to Spanish colonialism. A nice introduction to the topic for undergraduate students.

  • Donahue-Wallace, Kelly. Art and Architecture of Viceregal Latin America, 1521–1821. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008.

    The first three chapters of this textbook consider 16th-century Mexico and Peru, focusing on architecture, sculpture, painting, and urban planning from both the native and Spanish perspective.

  • Leibsohn, Dana, and Barbara E. Mundy. Vistas: Visual Culture in Spanish America, 1520–1820.

    A bilingual internet resource on colonial material culture, with introductory essays on various themes, an image gallery, bibliography, glossary, and internet links. A companion DVD is also available through University of Texas Press, offering high-resolution images and a library of primary documents including translations and commentaries.

  • Lienhard, Martin. La voz y su huella: Escritura y conflicto étnico-social en América Latina, 1492–1988. Hanover, NH: Ediciones del Norte, 1991.

    Takes a broad chronological approach but considers native literary traditions in the 16th and early 17th centuries in both Mexico and Peru.

  • Robertson, Carol E., ed. Musical Repercussions of 1492: Encounters in Text and Performance. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

    A compilation of articles that resulted from a symposium on music in the age of the encounter. Includes articles on preconquest musical traditions of the Americas and the coming together of native and Spanish musical traditions in the New World.

  • Salomon, Frank, and Sabine Hyland, eds. Special Issue: Graphic Pluralism: Native American Systems of Inscription and the Colonial Situation. Ethnohistory 57.1 (2010).

    This special issue of Ethnohistory considers systems of literacy throughout the Americas, with a focus on the impact of conquest and colonization on these graphic systems of communication. Articles focus on a variety of cultural traditions, including Nahua, Zapotec, Maya, and Inca, while the introductory essay provides a nice historiography of the topic.

  • Stevenson, Robert Murrell. Music in Aztec and Inca Territory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

    A broad overview of a topic in need of further study, Aztec and Inca music in the preconquest through colonial periods, useful for its bibliography.

  • Tomlinson, Gary. The Singing of the New World: Indigenous Voice in the Era of European Contact. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    Tomlinson explains the significance of singing and its expressive power in the pre- and postconquest Aztec and Inca worlds.

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