The Tree of Jesse and the "Relación De Michoacán": Mimicry in Colonial Mexico

Article excerpt

In lhe first half of the sixteen tli century, less than twenty years after the Spanish arrived in what is today the state of Michoacán, Mexico, in 1521, tlie Spanish viceroy to Mexico, Antonio de Mendoza, commissioned a Franciscan friar to record the customs of the region so that he could govern it more effectively. The friar, who has been identified as Jerónimo de Alcalá,1 employed indigenous informants who were members of die local P'urhépecha-speaking nobility." Their verbal testimony was recorded in the manuscript's text, which was divided into three parts, preceded by a prologue. Alcalá also engaged four anonymous native artisLs to create the forty-four small paintings diat illustrate what is now known as the "Relación de Michoacán."3 Like the text, these illustrations presented the indigenous contributors wiLh a unique opportunity to shape die viceroy's views in hopes of caning out for themselves a place in the new colonial society. Their agendas were not uniform, however. Some of the contributors were members of the Pre-Columbian ruling lineage known as Uanacaze. The Uanacaze were the leaders of a group, referred to in the "Relación" as Chichimecs and Uacúsecha, who had allegedly migrated to Michoacán and conquered its local population. One of the other contributors, Don Pedro Cuiniarangari, was a non-Uanacaze noble and a descendant of local priests from one of Lake Pátzcuaro's islands; the people of these islands are referred to in the "Relación" as isleños, or Islanders. By allying himself with the Spanish armies, he had become governor of die region during die early colonial period. Since die differing testimonies of both parties can be seen in the "Relación de Michoacán," the manuscript prorides an excellent opportunity to examine the roles played by images in political disputes among colonized peoples.

Key to understanding how diese competing agendas played out through die images in the manuscript is the representation of a family tree. Its anonymous artist adapted the European Tree of Jesse motif by substituting the Uanacaze royal family for the lineage of Christ (Fig. 1). Tlie artistic choices he made capitalized on what I will call visual mimicry to picture die Uanacaze leaders as the rightful rulers. His aim was to help the Uanacaze overcome die claims of competing indigenous pretenders, including Don Pedro, as well as challenge contending claims by Spanish colonizers, in his analysis of mimicry in colonial contexts. Homi K. Bhabha has pointed out that disparities between the colonizers' models and those used by colonized people perpettiate the differences that maintain the boundaries necessary for colonial dominance. Although he acknowledges that this kind of mimicry poses a threat to colonizers by narrowing the gap between the racial and historical differences separating them from the colonized, Bhabha sees this slippage as a reflection of die colonizers' desire to convert the colonized into subjects who are almost, "but not quite," the same as them.4 Bhabha's argument therefore analyzes mimicry from die perspective of die colonizers. Of equal interest is mimicry's value to die colonial subjecLs in Michoacán, one of whom painted the Uanacaze family tree in die "Relación de Michoacán."

The picture of the Uanacaze genealogical tree, which occupies an entire page, follows a complex account of how the Uanacaze migrated to Michoacán during PreColumbian times and conquered the local inhabitants. The artist first drew its contour lines with charcoal, revised them with black ink, and filled them in with rich brown, blue, green, red, beige, and gray pigments. Changing his mind several times in the process, he made corrections to the tree by applying white pigment over parts of it and reapplying color. He drew small cartouches in the hands of each nobleman, in which the editor - presumably, Fray Jerónimo de Alcalá - dutifully inscribed dieir names. In its final form, the tree sprouts from the torso of a reclining man, named Thicatame, whose eighteen descendants perch on the branches above him. …