“Codex Scripts of Resistance: From Columbus to the Border Patrol” Damian Baca


In “Codex Scripts of Resistance: From Columbus to Border Control,” Damian Baca (Yeah CCR!) rocks the C & R Ranch with a compelling rhetorical analysis of Mestiz@ rhetorics of resistance and challenges us to reconceptualize our ethnocentric, alphacentric, hegemonic views and pedagogies of rhetoric and writing. Baca, more specifically, analyzes the pictographic rhetorics of the 2000 Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol and demonstrates an emerging rhetoric at work in the form of dialectical oppositions and reversals. These distinct rhetorical strategies, which fuse and embellish traditional methods of Mesoamerican pictography into Anglo-European inscription practices, “revise and displace the dominant historical narrative of cultural assimilation through continuous symbolic play with pairs, doubles, corresponding expressions and twins” (105). In addition, the Codex Espangliensis critiques Spanish colonization of the Americas, North American economic and cultural imperialism, the Northern Free Trade Agreement, in particular, and globalization’s impact on immigration, language, and popular culture (106).

Baca begins with a broad description of the Codex Espangliensis, and then quickly delves into the history of the Mesoamerican codex, which Baca describes as “semasiographic, a configuration of permanently recorded marks that signify thought, ideas, and imagery rather than visible speech” (111). Baca explains that Mesoamerican codices were denigrated and demonized during Spanish colonization. Replacing the Mesoamerican codices were colonial codices, which intended to colonize Mexican minds and reconstruct and reorganize Mesoamerican memory (118). These codices, even if crafted by Aztecs themselves, presented a historical narrative from the dominant Spanish perspective through illustrations set beside “the Spanish-Iberian alphabet and an alphabetized Nahuatl, the new prevailing tools of literacy and civilization in the borderlands” (119). Mesoamerican pictographic traditions did not disappear altogether, however; Baca explains that Mesoamerican rhetorics persisted in non-codex genres such as scrolls, lienzos, and techialoyan, otherwise known as “landbooks” (119) (See images below).

As a new era of economic and cultural imperialism and globalization arose in the 20th century, Chicano murals became a popular form of rhetorical resistance to contemporary injustices. Artists such as Diego Rivera and Alfaro Siqueiros employed ancient Aztec writing practices with new Marxist ideals, yet much art produced at this time was interpreted as separate from “true” Anglo-European concepts of writing (120). Baca makes clear, however, that Mesoamerican pictography has maintained a pronounced presence until the present day even if Anglo-European biases toward Mexican writing still persist, Aztec pictographic rhetoric is absent from contemporary conceptions of rhetoric, and Mesoamerican pictographic texts have been reduced to “quaint artifacts of an apparently extinct culture” (122).

Fortunately, Baca explains, anthropologists, archeologists, and art historians are working to revise conceptions of Mesoamerican codex writing. Two of the most important scholars engaged in this work are Elizabeth Boon Hill and Miguel Leon-Portilla. While Hill argues that Mesoamerican pictographs need to be interpreted as independent writing systems, Leon-Portilla “presents evidence for an Aztec pictographic rhetorical tradition and compares several alphabetic and pictographic versions of indigenous texts to show how ‘an authentic thread of the Mesoamerican cultural weaving’ can be reached” (124). In addition, Leon-Portilla working with Ines Hernandez-Avila demonstrates that Mesoamerican rhetorical manifestations of dual expressions and symbolic oppositions exist in contemporary writing practices, which they identify as “Yancuic Tlahtolli” (125). In this chapter, Baca analyzes these dual expressions and symbolic oppositions and interprets them as rhetorical strategies of resistance, which work against “a backdrop of colonial subjugation and resistances in the Americas…[and] revise the dominant narrative of assimilation” (125).

Baca begins the focus of his analysis on the exhibit The Chicano Codex: Encountering Art of the Americas, which Baca claims “illustrates syncretic rhetorical processes that express and enact commentary about these conventions and the hierarchical tensions between notation/illustration, writing/art, and temporal distinctions between sixteenth century Christianization and twentieth century global capitalism” (126). Baca draws on the artist Cherrie Moraga to describe the exhibit as a “anti-colonial map,” moving backward and forward in time between Mesoamerica and contemporary Mestiz@ codices to “advance a rhetorical process of reactivation and variation” (127). Baca uses the remapping as a framework to analyze the Codex Espangliensis, which he claims is “perhaps the most revisionist codex ever assembled and one that directly addresses colonial narratives of assimilation” (127).

The Codex Espangliensis is the product of a collaborative effort between lithographer Enrique Chagoya, performance artist and cultural critic Guillermo Gómez Peña and Felicia Rice, a book artist. Rather than summarize Baca’s rich rhetorical analysis of the Codex Espangliensis, I excerpt a number of compelling analytical insights that Baca presents throughout this section. (See the images from Codex Espangliensis in blog entry below.)

The manuscript conveys a tale of civilizing missions, colonial conquests, and rhetorical heterogeneity using Spanglish, Mesoamerican pictography, twentieth century Mexican iconography, and transnational corporate imagery to weave yet another mythic retelling of history (128-9).

The reversal of Europe and Mesoamerica in the Codex Espangliensis’ remapping of world history works to dislodge the integrity of Christianization and the dogma of European assimilation as they have operated in the past and continue today. Moreover, this retelling constructs a new perspective of global history that emerges from the lived experiences of the México/United States border (129).

Between the borders of Latin America and Anglo America, between a so-called developing nation and monopolizing capitalism, between the Aztec and the European, the Codex Espangliensis critiques across both real and imagined boundaries of a brutal, globalized world (129).

Because narrative and logical order are ultimately not fixed in the text, each folio or screen simultaneously functions as a potential beginning, middle, or end. Multiple reading orders represent an anti-colonial collage, a set of variations around themes of colonialism and civilizing missions. Fundamental Aristotelian laws of aesthetic invention and organization that demand a linear beginning, middle and end are therefore called into question. The material practice of reading the Codex requires a complex visual dance, forward and back, sometimes circular, other times broken (130).

Metiz@ rhetorics: “the available means of identification that are mediated at the intersection of knowledge constructed by the dominance of Western colonialism on the one hand, and on the other hand, knowledge emerging from anti-colonial perspectives in the borderlands” (131).

Rhetorical Strategies Identified in the Codex Rhetorics –

Intermediation: “satirical fusion of two language systems that, when intertwined, supports no intelligible meaning in either tongue” Ex.) Espangliensis

Difrasismo — Combining of different terms to convey new ideas and abstractions; ex.) Yancuic Tlahtolli

Syncretic play with pairs, doubles, corresponding expressions, and twins — repetitive invocation of dualism which is a “metaphorical communicative device central to Mesoamerican cosmology” (135). Baca explains that syncretic movement in the Codex, which relies greatly on juxtaposition of text and image, past and present, necessitates new ways of reading and knowing that “’invent between’” syncretic visions and revisions of geographical colonialism and economic imperialism” (130).

Symbolic oppositions and reversals – “Gómez-Peña’s symbolic reversals and expressions across borders subvert the hierarchies of power between opposites. By inventing between cultural paradigms, codex rhetorics enact possibilities beyond them” (140).

Through these rhetorical strategies, “The Codex warns of…a shift in diction from geographical colonialism to cultural imperialism, from Cortéz to Free Trade, from Columbus to the Border Patrol, a shift that maintains power structures through a thinly veiled rhetoric of popular culture and advertising. Critically reading such colonial power also provokes a global border consciousness, a strategic departure from the site-specific concept of the México/United States borderlands” (140).

Baca concludes his chapter by discussing how Mesoamerican pictography and Mexican iconography are valuable methods of inscription that disrupt the hegemonic view that Western literacy and alphabetic and syllabic systems are the apex of written communication. Drawing on semiotics, Baca challenges readers to expand their conceptions of “graphic interactions,” conceive of Mesoamerican pictographs as parallel and equally valuable systems of writing, and begin focusing on the significant role illustration and image play within language. One of Baca’s most important points is that “If, rather than theorizing rhetoric and writing based on the pedagogically vanguard “Composing-East-to-West” trajectory, specialists instead accept Mestiz@ codices as starting points, we are then left with expressions better suited to emerging non-Western rhetorics as well as current material realities in America and beyond” (143). Ultimately, this realization will help us confront the problematic tendency to link literacy with alphabetic writing–a deeply embedded notion that limits our understanding of “co-evolutionary or parallel histories of writing and rhetoric in the Americas” (144).


I really appreciate the work Baca has done here and the space he carves out for scholars like me who want to conduct similar scholarship. My interest in non-discursive and material rhetorics stems from the same desire he has to expand our conceptions of rhetoric and broaden our understanding of how ancient and contemporary “non-western” cultures use symbols to communicate persuasively. As Baca points out, at the moment, we have such a narrow conception of how inscription behaves rhetorically outside traditional Greco-Roman conceptions of rhetoric. His work is among many contemporary scholars attempting to broaden our perceptions; I hope his book is well received in the field.

I am very interested in the rhetorical strategies Baca identifies at work in the Codex, specifically how image-text works in the Codex to challenge the binary of word/image in our culture and in our field. Baca’s use of the word “inscription” is a clever means to encompass the full range of symbols used in the codices for rhetorical means. I was particularly fascinated with the juxtapositions between Mesomerican pictography, twentieth century Mexican iconography, and transnational corporate imagery and appreciate the humor in the codex’s satirical nature. (Lord of Cross-Cultural Misunderstanding especially cracks me up but strikes a disturbing chord as well.)

I am very curious about the similar rhetorical strategies I see at work between Latina/o rhetorics and Native American rhetorics. The use of difrasmismo, for instance, which Baca discusses, is a rhetorical strategy Powell employs in her discussion of survivance (survival plus resistance) and that Cobb uses in her discussion of communitist texts (community plus activism or activist). I notice that Baca describes the rhetorical strategies at work in the Codex as “tactics,” a concept Powell also employs. I wonder too if the Codex and the exhibit act as forms of communitism for the artists—a wondering that assumes that all art is cathartic in some way.

I admire the way the artists that Baca represents (Montoya, Moraga, Chagoya, Gomez Pena and Rice) enact a rhetorics of sovereignty and appreciate Baca’s challenge for us to honor those rhetorics in our pedagogies and our worldviews of rhetoric. I hear Baca asking for us to listen in similar ways as Powell, Lyons, and Bruegemann.

I want to know where and when this project began, how it evolved, and what Baca’s research process was? What were his major exams in (don’t laugh cohort!)? What figures, texts, theories, etc. do I need to draw on to understand the connections between globalization and rhetoric in global contexts?

I am interested in the fact that Baca doesn’t attempt to demonstrate how Mestiz@ rhetorics share features of traditional Greco-Roman rhetoric nor attempt to explain these rhetorical practices with reference to Western rhetorical theorists. I am curious to know if he makes connections across cultures and draws on Western rhetorical theorists at some point in his book. I imagine his answer will be no since he is determined for readers to see these ancient and contemporary rhetorical practices in their own right and not to conflate this form of writing with Western forms. Yet I wonder if he deems it valuable to make cross connections both in terms of practices and theories.


1 Comment

Filed under cultural rhetorics exam, historiography exam

One response to ““Codex Scripts of Resistance: From Columbus to the Border Patrol” Damian Baca

  1. Eileen E. Schell

    To my recollection, Damian tooks a major exam in rhetorical historiography. He took an exam in “managing diversity” that Louise was part of (that was a more practical exam on administration), and a third area on Latino/a subaltern studies. We can test my memory tomorrow! Thanks for your great summary, Laurie and the images.

    I, too, share your question about making comparisons and cross-references to other texts either in the Greco-Roman tradition or in parallel revisionist histories (Powell and Gilyard, for instance). Let’s ask Damian tomorrow.

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