Scholars of Latin America have worked hard in recent years to challenge
old assumptions about alphabetic writing as a cornerstone of civilization.
As they tease the virtuosic inscriptions of Mesoamerican scribes from
ancient stelae and study the knotted cords of Andean quipus, they reveal
the power of what Elizabeth Boone and Walter Mignolo call ‘‘writing
without words.’’∞
But of course the colonial Latin American archive is also full of alpha-
betic writing, the bulk of it (though not all) in Spanish. We have recourse to
it constantly, but have thus far asked relatively few questions about it and
its makers. Who imposed this form of literacy and record keeping, when,
and how? How did it work? Whose needs and ends did it serve? Roberto
González Echevarría usefully reminds us, in Myth and Archive, that writing
circa 1500 ‘‘took place within a grid of strict rules and formulae.’’ And this
grid was markedly legal. ‘‘Legal writing was the predominant form of
discourse in the Spanish Golden Age,’’ González Echevarría observes, and
‘‘it permeated the writing of history, sustained the idea of Empire, and was
instrumental in the creation of the Picaresque.’’≤
Legal writing also sustained the idea of the Archive—and the genealogy
of the Latin American archive is not merely legal, but distinctly notarial.
Not by accident is a stock figure in the picaresque narratives that flourished
in Golden Age Spain and America that legal writer par excellence, the
escribano, or notary. (He scampers on and o√stage quickly in Lazarillo de
Tormes, but steals major scenes in Guzmán de Alfarache and La vida del
Buscón.) These men gave the colonial Latin American archive its shape, its
characteristic forms. They were involved in records of all kinds, not just
the contracts, wills, and other extrajudicial documents we recognize as
‘‘notarial records,’’ but trial records, treasury accounts, and much more
besides. Writing and power were inextricably joined in their hands: they
(and their assistants) had the power to put other people’s words into
o≈cial form. These men thus hold power over us as well: the power to
shape our histories of the Latin American past.
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