For many generations, the Nahuas of Mexico maintained their tradition of the xiuhpohualli (SHOO-po-wa-lee), or "year counts," telling and performing their history around communal firesides so that the memory of it would not be lost. When the Spaniards came, young Nahuas took the Roman letters taught them by the friars and used the new alphabet to record historical performances by elders. These written texts were carefully preserved and even expanded upon for over a century. The annals, as they have often been called, were written not only by Indians but also for Indians, without regard to European interests. As such they are rare and inordinately valuable texts. But they have also been difficult for recent generations to understand. They have often been assumed to be both largely anonymous and at least partially inscrutable to modern ears. Now Nahuatl scholar Camilla Townsend, by dint of careful research, has been able to deduce authorship in the case of most of the texts, allowing her to restore them to their proper contexts and make sense of long misunderstood documents.
She follows a remarkable chain of Nahua historians chronologically, generation by generation, telling of their lives and exploring what they wrote and why they wrote it. Sometimes they conceived of their work as a political act, reinstating bonds between communities, or between past, present, and future generations. Sometimes they conceived of it as art more than anything else, and delighted in offering language that was beautiful or startling or humorous. They were the writers of a literature that they hoped would be passed down to posterity. Their work did survive. Here for the first time, samples of their many creations have been brought together into one book, together with the stories of the writers' lives, to produce a work accessible to the people of today even as it remains faithful to the ethos of the past.