General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 14 Dec 2017/3 Rain
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Presione para ir a la versión en español Article suitable for older students

Tlacuilo (Aztec scribe) ancient and modern

A tale of two ‘tlacuilos’

Dinorah Lejarazú is a modern-day scribe who lives and works in Mexico City. She’s been meticulously reproducing Mexican codices by hand for many years and her work is of fine quality. Several of her codices are on permanent exhibition in the National Anthropology Museum in the capital. You’d think she would have gained widespread recognition. Think again... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: 200 of Dinorah’s hand drawn copies of the Codex Boturini - lost to Mexican schools
Pic 1: 200 of Dinorah’s hand drawn copies of the Codex Boturini - lost to Mexican schools (Click on image to enlarge)

For starters, to our amazement there’s no acknowledgement in the Museum of Anthropology to Dinorah as the painter of the facsimile codices on display! Worse, a few years ago she donated 200 hand drawn copies of the Codex Boturini to the Mexican Ministry of Education (SEP) for use in schools. She heard nothing more until, to her utter astonishment, a friend alerted her to a radio advert offering (her) copies of the Codex for sale (to tourists) in the Anthropology Museum shop! Upset, she immediately recovered them: they have languished ever since in a cupboard in her house (Pic 1).

Pic 2: All the important outline black-and-red lines are added at the end.
Pic 2: All the important outline black-and-red lines are added at the end. (Click on image to enlarge)

Worse still, back in 1992 (for the 500th anniversary of Columbus in America) Dinorah produced - on sheets of real amate bark paper - over a hundred black-and-white copies of key pages from pre-Hispanic codices, and offered them to Mexican education authorities for use in museums and schools, for children to colour in. They were rejected. To add insult to injury, her proposals to work personally in schools with children on codex painting were regularly turned down. Understandably, she has become deeply disillusioned in her efforts to promote the teaching of pre-Columbian art and writing among Mexican children.

Pic 3: Dinorah continues to hand paint codices today...
Pic 3: Dinorah continues to hand paint codices today... (Click on image to enlarge)

Like her Mexica counterpart (top picture, left), Dinorah remains passionate about her work. She has carefully studied the art of the Aztec/Mexica tlacuilo or scribe. Her son Manuel is a scholar with CIESAS (a key Mexican research centre) who has researched and published important studies of ancient Mexican codices. She uses the finest materials to create her facsimiles - animal skins (calf today since it’s now illegal to use deer skin in Mexico) that must be painstakingly scraped and then coated with stucco (very thin plaster) to ‘hold’ the ink, pigments and colours that she sources from around the world (from Mexican azul maya and ochre to Winsor & Newton artists’ materials from England...). She draws with a pencil initially, adding the painted red-and-black outline only at the end with a very fine paintbrush (Pic 2). Just one mistake is fatal - it means starting again from scratch!

Pic 4: Today Dinorah uses more modern colours and fewer traditional pigments.
Pic 4: Today Dinorah uses more modern colours and fewer traditional pigments. (Click on image to enlarge)

Before starting work on a codex, Dinorah offers a simple prayer or dedication, and would encourage Mexican school children to do the same, as a mark of respect for pre-Columbian traditional beliefs.

When, during our meeting with her, she heard of Mexicolore’s work in English schools teaching Aztec/Mexica culture - and with extensive use of replica codices - she did not hesitate: she asked her grandson to retrieve from a shed outside her house a suitcase-worth of over a hundred of her reproduction codex pages, all drawn in black-and-white on amate bark paper - yes, the same ones she herself had offered to Mexican schools back in 1992 - and immediately donated them to us as a resource for primary schools studying the Aztecs here in England (Pic 5). We are deeply grateful to Dinorah for this spontaneous and heart-warming gesture of support.

Pic 5: Dinorah and her son Manuel with some of her reproduction codex pages that she has donated to English schools
Pic 5: Dinorah and her son Manuel with some of her reproduction codex pages that she has donated to English schools (Click on image to enlarge)

As we said we would, the Mexicolore team have started donating these wonderful resources to schools that we have visited several times, where we know they will be respected and - above all - made full use of. On this page you can see (Pic 6) photos of the first couple of schools (Autumn 2010) to receive Dinorah’s fine reproductions: Allenbourn Middle School in Wimborne Minster and Freegrounds Junior School in Southampton. They join us in giving warm thanks to Dinorah for her generosity.

Pic 6: Mexicolore director Graciela with (top) Year 6 pupils, Allenbourn Middle School and (bottom) Headteacher Malcolm Barretts with pupils, Freegrounds Junior School
Pic 6: Mexicolore director Graciela with (top) Year 6 pupils, Allenbourn Middle School and (bottom) Headteacher Malcolm Barretts with pupils, Freegrounds Junior School (Click on image to enlarge)

In the face of this generosity and goodwill, we can’t help feeling that it’s ironic, infuriating, and disheartening (to say the least) to realise that, by all accounts, we are doing so much here in England, with scant resources, to bring Mexico’s Aztec/Mexica past to life for thousands of children whilst in Mexico every single initiative that we hear of to enrich the country’s history curriculum bites the dust for lack of institutional support. Dinorah’s negative experiences appear to be the tip of the iceberg; many Mexican schools that call themselves ‘bilingual’ turn out to be that in name only; over 100 native languages have died out since the Conquest; when we met Dr. Miguel León-Portilla (August 2010) he told us stories from his own experience of the most blatant discrimination received by indigenous communities trying to find support from government for education/language/literacy projects. Everyone we spoke to confirmed that, since the notorious education reforms of 1994, whole generations of Mexican children are growing up with virtually no awareness of the high civilisations that make up their rich past. This is shameful and a sad indictment, after 200 years of independence, of the priorities chosen by successive Mexican governments (including the present one).

Pic 7: Children in England playing the role of Aztec scribes; Dinorah does it for real...
Pic 7: Children in England playing the role of Aztec scribes; Dinorah does it for real... (Click on image to enlarge)

How do you feel the Mexica tlacuilo would feel today to see her modern-day counterpart shunned in this way? Is it because she’s a woman? Or does this reflect a more deep-seated discrimination that goes to the heart of Mexican society today?

We at Mexicolore remain at the service of anyone sharing our aims for a more balanced world, a world that can learn so much from those that made - and painted - history centuries before us...

Pic 8: Two beautiful Dinorah codex reproductions adorn the library wall, Freegrounds Junior School, nr. Southampton
Pic 8: Two beautiful Dinorah codex reproductions adorn the library wall, Freegrounds Junior School, nr. Southampton (Click on image to enlarge)

Photos by Ian and Phillip Mursell/Mexicolore.
• Image of a woman tlacuilo from the Codex Telleriano-Remensis

Tips for making your own codex...

See a slide show of just some of the schools we’ve donated Dinorah’s codex pages to...

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