Who was Antonio Valeriano?
This blog is on Antonio Valeriano, an indigenous scholar and politician in colonial Mexico, who negotiated with the Spanish on behalf of his people for better living and working conditions in Mexico-Tenochtitlan. Antonio Valeriano was a graduate of the Colegio de la Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, which the Franciscans founded in colonial Mexico in 1536, with the aim of giving a university-level education to select sons of native nobles in the Valley of Mexico. The school produced controversy with colonial authorities, who knew that educated natives meant a potential political unrest, or even a rebellion. That tension, and a slow decline in funding, led to the eventual abandonment of the Colegio as an institute of higher learning. For more on the Colegio, see my earlier blog: (https://bit.ly/2NMwETm)
Based on the word of Bernardino de Sahagún and other Spanish chroniclers, Antonio Valeriano was the most outstanding student of the Colegio de la Santa Cruz. Antonio Valeriano bears a baptismal name, which only superficially obscures his native roots as well as his life of advocacy for native concerns. Valeriano came from the town (altepetl) of Azcapotzalco, on the northwestern shore of Lake Texcoco. Stafford Poole estimates that he entered the Colegio de la Santa Cruz near its opening in 1536. He would have been about thirteen years old at the time, which places his birth near 1523, two years after the surrender of Tenochtitlan to the Spanish and Tlaxcallan alliance.
For the fact that he is a Nahua who lived under a foreign colonial power, we know a surprising amount about Antonio Valeriano. He was a student at the Colegio de la Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, and later a professor of Latin, and even the rector of the same institution. He was also the main assistant to Bernardino de Sahagún in the latter’s monumental Historia universal, a systematic survey of ancestral Nahua culture, which now bears the name of the Florentine Codex. In 1565, after his academic career, Valeriano returned to his familial home in Azcapotzalco, in the northwestern shore of Lake Texcoco. His was in his mid-thirties and had married the Mexica noblewoman, Isabel de Alvarado Moteuczoma.
In Azcapotzalco, he began a career in politics. Valeriano’s linguistic skill, as well as his achievements as a rhetorician, gave him a desirable skill set for his time. He became a living bridge between the ancient native past, and the unknown future. He also constructed favorable ties with the Spanish, as subsequent blogs will detail. We can infer that he was a gifted speaker in Nahuatl, Latin, and Spanish. Clerics including Gerónimo de Mendieta, and Juan Bautista, have pointed out that he was able to speak extemporaneously in Latin, with the skill and subtlety of the Roman poets Cicero and Seneca. The first chair of Latin of the Spanish-founded Real y Pontificia Universidad de México, Francisco de Cervantes y Salazar, conversed with him and in 1555 proclaimed that Valeriano met and even excelled the rhetorical skill of the Roman models. The most amazing part of his scholarly achievement is that it was home grown: Antonio Valeriano never left Central Mexico and never attended class in a European university.
Noble Commoner, or Uncommon Noble?
For years scholarly consensus was that Antonio Valeriano was a commoner (macehual). This idea comes from a single quote in a text that members of the royal house of Tenochtitlan helped elaborate, the Crónica mexicayotl (1609). In that text, the Mexica noble Alvarado Tezozomoc (actually Valeriano’s brother-in-law!) expressed his disapproval that the Spanish had appointed Antonio Valeriano as governor of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. True, explained Tezozomoc, Valeriano was a genius when it came to Latin, and there were few people left who were as eloquent as Valeriano in the traditional refined speech of the nobles (tecpillitlatolli) that native rulers had used for public discourses before the Spanish invasion. But how could Valeriano be governor of the Mexica capital? Alvarado Tezozomoc goes on to call him explicitly “not a noble” (amo pilli). Based on Tezozomoc’s description, the Spanish had appointed an educated puppet ruler to the indigenous government of Tenochtitlan, to rule even though he did not belong to the Mexica lineage.
Subsequent research, however, has shown that Valeriano was indeed a noble, and, in fact, a member of an ancient lineage by birth. As mentioned, Valeriano had married Isabela de Alvarado Moteuczoma, the granddaughter of of Moteuczoma II (Xocoyotl), which made him a member of the Mexica royal house by marriage. In addition, María Castañeda de la Paz, anthropologist at the UNAM in Mexico City, has shown, based on the chronicles of the native annalist Chimalpahin, that Antonio Valeriano was the grandson of the Mexica ruler Axayacatl. Thus, by birth and by marriage he was a member of the Mexica royal house. Moreover, his mother’s side included the nobles of Azcapotzalco, the lineage of the Tepanac Empire, who had ruled the Valley of Mexico for three centuries before the Mexica had risen to power.
Antonio Valeriano earned an appointment as governor of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, a fact that alienated the members of the royal house of the Mexica, among which Alvarado Tezozomoc was one of the most logical candidates for governor. Tezozomoc’s cousin Santa María de Cipac, had recently fallen from the roof of his palace to his death, which left the city without a native governor. The anthropologist María Castañeda de la Paz has convincingly argued that Tezozomoc resented the fact that he did not gain the governorship of Mexico-Tenochtitlan.
As we can see, however, Antonio Valeriano as a noble gained the appointment to governor from Viceroy Antonio Peralta and governed Tenochtitlan from 1573-1599. Due to the Spanish conquest and the difficulties of rebuilding the city in an era of epidemic diseases, which greatly reduced the city’s population in 1545 and later in 1576, the native nobles and Spanish hierarchy were looking for the best individual for the job. As a polyglot who also possessed skills in negotiation, accounting and urban planning, Antonio Valeriano gained a position from which he would negotiate on behalf of his people. The native scholar and politician lived in the midst of a changing urban landscape. Here a great simulation that Tomás J. Ellsinger has compiled of the changes that empires, independence and massive urbanization have brought to the Valley of Mexico, 1330-2010: (https://bit.ly/2UBEFlv).
In the coming blog entries, I will highlight the career achievements of Antonio Valeriano, which shed light on his ability to reconcile the interests of various indigenous groups with those of the native ruling elites and even those of Spanish colonial administrators. Antonio Valeriano charted courses ahead in areas ranging from economics and ecology, to education, and even religion.
We have only one likeness of Antonio Valeriano, which comes from the Codex Aubin. He is pictured as the governor (tlatoani) of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. The glyphs above his head are “atl” (water) and “tolotl” (bird), which together approximate the Spanish name “Antonio.” He wears the traditional tiara of the tlatoani and sits on the reed throne (icpalli), yet he also carries the Spanish staff of office, which only colonial administrators used.
If you would like to know more about Antonio Valeriano, the Colegio de la Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, and the other native graduates from that key —yet often overlooked— center of study and cultural exchange in Central Mexico in the colonial period, I have good news. Forgotten Lives of Latin America is planning a trip to Mexico City, the 24th – 29th of June, 2019. Here is the link to the trip page. MXCY TRIP PAGE
There are options to travel from LAX, or from Tijuana. We can also help you with travel arrangements if you fly from elsewhere. In the coming blog entries, you will see photos from the trip we took to Mexico City last summer. Here are a few from the pyramids of Teotihuacan, our first stop during the tour.
I hope this finds you all well. I hope that this Spring is opening up with new possibilities for everyone. I hope that you will consider joining us in Mexico City this summer. What I really hope, however, is that by reading this blog, we can work together to promote greater understanding of the forgotten, yet foundational, lives of Latin America.
Ezekiel Stear, Ph.D. (Director)
Forgotten Lives of Latin America, LLC