Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera continues his Library-wide tour as part of the “La Casa de Colores” campaign when he discovers the unusual story behind the Huexotzinco Codex with reference librarian Catalina Gómez. View the webcast, read the Poet Laureate’s poem response, and learn more about the collection from the curator.


EL JARDIN: Huexotzinco Codex

In my early twenties, in San Diego, with an incredible group of artists from my childhood barrio Logan Heights, I learned about the Pre-Columbian history and art of Mesoamerica. The culture and life of the Aztecs (Mexica) and Mayas intrigued me. Were we related? How many would have survived if the invading Spanish hadn’t brought disease, horses, military weapons in 1519? Could I visit the remaining indigenous communities on the hilltops of Nayarit and the last villages in the worn rainforests of Chiapas? What poetry would such a visit, and my new knowledge of the past, spark in me?

In this Jardín, reflect on the lives of our many indigenous peoples. Look up their codices, their writing, their words—their stories. Gaze upon the Huexotzinco Codex, what figures do you recognize? What does the term "tribute" mean? If you were over-taxed and required to pay extra tribute, what would you do? Write about all these things. Pick up Aztec terms in the Mexica language, Nahuatl. Sprinkle these terms into your poem. Yes—we are related to the indigenous people of this continent. Like chocolate? The word is derived from the flavorful Nahuatl word "Xocolatl," from the actual Xocolatl bean native to Mesoamerican micro-climates. Let your poem fly like a butterfly . . . I mean, a papalotl—or as we say in Spanish, a papalote!

Papalotl, Papalotl Butterfly

Tear  though the flowers, Xochitl 
      In  Xochitl in Cuicatl 
                           In Xochitl in Cuicatl
Flower  & Song 
      Flower  &       Song
                           Poetry—how long
will  you last 
      more than jade rainstorm colors
            as in the cantos of Nezahualcoyotl
                   Prince of Texcoco
               Papalotl carved 
                        on the breastplates of  the ancients
our  ancestors of Tula, Toltec warriors 
      singers of peace 
Huexotzinco,  here—we call for courage, 
      colonists, taxes, labor
                               Papalotl,  Papalotl
We  offer this canto to your winged sky 
      In  Xochitl 
                     In Cuicatl

—Juan Felipe Herrera
21st Poet Laureate of the United States

Curator's Comments

I was overjoyed and honored to have our Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, in the Hispanic Reading Room to check out one of our favorite treasures here in the Library of Congress: the Huexotzinco Codex. When Juan Felipe began his laureateship, I told him about the Library’s Luso-Hispanic treasures—and when I told him the story of the codex he became incredibly excited.

The Huexotzinco Codex is an eight-sheet document on amatl, a pre-European paper made in Mesoamerica. It is part of the testimony in a legal case against representatives of the colonial government in Mexico, ten years after the Spanish conquest in 1521. Huexotzinco is a town southeast of Mexico City, in the state of Puebla. In 1521, the Nahua Indian people of the town were the allies of the Spanish conqueror Hernando Cortés, and together they sued the Spanish colonial administrators who intervened in the daily activities of the community and forced the Nahuas to pay excessive taxes in the form of goods and services. The plaintiffs were successful in their suit in Mexico, and later when it was retried in Spain. The record shows (in a document uncovered in the collections of the Library of Congress) that in 1538, King Charles of Spain agreed with the judgment against the Spanish administrators and ruled that two-thirds of all tributes taken from the people of Huexotzinco be returned.

The original Huexotzinco Codex is part of the Library of Congress collections, but for our filmed ‘El Jardín’ session we showed a facsimile copy that we have here in our reading room. Because we have this copy, we can have interactive showings of this gorgeous document and share its magic with our patrons and visitors.

There are many reasons why the Huexotzinco Codex is one of our favorite items to show here in the Hispanic Division Reading Room. It highlights the first case in which a non-western group uses a western system of law to defend themselves and with success. For human rights historians and activists this is a groundbreaking story, but it fascinates anyone who learns about it. Also, the Huexotzinco Codex is aesthetically unique and beautiful. It shows a very intricate numerical symbolism used by the Nahua people, and is the first representation of the Madonna and Child done by an indigenous group—pretty remarkable! Everyone is invited to our Reading Room to come see it in person.

Catalina Gómez
Reference Librarian, Hispanic Reading Room