Patterns of Understanding

Cholula Tlaxcala Map (1581). State of Puebla, Mexico.

The history of the mapping of America after 1492 shows that geographies were made and remade by a process of transformation in which members of both the colonized as well  as the colonizing culture were starting to interact. For instance, Mesoamerican physical forms of maps are very different from the book or atlas maps of early modern Europe. Pre-Hispanic maps were much more than mere geographical instruments; they maintained a  political, social, and economic memory of the past. During the 16th century, because Spanish cartographers were very few, viceroys relied mainly on the collaboration of Indian mapmakers to produce the maps. During 1570-1600 (decades corresponding to the elaboration of the Relaciones Geográficas of Gabriel de Rojas) indigenous mapmakers were forced to draw hundreds of maps that described the society and reality of the “new” colonial town. The indigenous mapmakers retained many of their old symbols and glyphs, like those related to rivers and mountains, but still required to learn and use the new signs imposed by the Colonial authorities. More specifically, indigenous mapmakers created new glyphs to design new things: grid plans of Indian pueblos, new Spanish estates such as estancias, churches with their bells, and so on.

cholula (1)

Courtesy of the Benso Latin American Collection-Univ. of Texas at Austin.
Dimensions of map: 31×44 cm.
State of Puebla, Mexico.

The Cholula Tlaxcala map was produced by an anonymous indigenous mapmaker in 1851. Cholula was one of the largest population centers in Mesoamerica at the time of Cortés’ conquest of Mexico. The map shows the typical Spanish grid plan, but with indigenous glyphs, like the one that identifies the city as Tollan Cholula (place of reeds). All of the pictographic elements and inscriptions in the Cholula Tlaxcala map are evidence of the strong pre-Colombian tradition.

The map of Cholula Tlaxcala demonstrates a modern colonial town. Images and places names are both used to show Spanish and indigenous influences. The indigenous mapmaker list two separate names for the town: one in Spanish and one Indian.  The “new Spanish town”, as stated in the map, had a crowded urban landscape that was integrated both aspects into one space. The most easily understood example of  Spanish colonization in the map is the overlapping of mission churches. The indigenous mapmaker reminds us that the map is dedicated for Spanish audience and that the Catholic Church has taken over the indigenous space and practices. As the map shows, six of the twenty-four urban blocks are dominated by churches, which are numbered and labeled as follows: (1) Sanct Miguel tecpan Cabezera; (2) Sanctiago Cabezera; (3) Sanct Joan Cabezera; (4) Sancta Maria Cabezera; (5) Sanct Pablo Cabezera; (6) Sanct Andres Cabezera.

Another interesting example of  in the Cholula Tlaxcala map is the hill and native imagery in the upper right hand section of the map. This image is made up purely of indigenous symbols. The section also has the local Nahuatl name for the city inscribed below it. Cholula had a numerous temples and was famed as a sacred pilgrimage center. Some Spanish chroniclers even compared Cholula to ancient Rome and Mecca. It was also home to the largest pyramid built in Mesoamerica, which today has only been partially excavated and is topped by a Spanish church built during the colonial period. Cholula was the key city in the cult of Quetzalcoatl, one of the most important deities in Late Post-Classic Central Mexico.

The exquisitely drawn map of Cholula Tlaxcala from the city’s Relaciones Geográficas, a fascinating product of the colonial encounter, shows us some of the early forms of cultural hybridity created between Europeans and the Nahua of central Mexico. The indigenous mapmaker  made it in response to a questionnaire sent out to American cities and towns by the Spanish crown in one of the first broad, systematic attempts to formulate a database about the Indies, as Spain’s overseas possessions were known. Several aspects of the Cholula Tlaxcala map makes it a striking example of a number of  issues involved in the study of colonial representation (of space). Today, most Latin American cities preserved the colonial architecture and urban organization that was started once by the Spanish conquistadores.


Elizabeth Mary, Haude. “Identification and Classification of Colorants Used During Mexico’s Early Colonial Period.” The American Institute for Conservation. Sixteen. San Diego, California: 1997. <

Lori Boornazian Diel. “‘Manuscript of a Dogging’.” Aztecs at Mexiocolore. N.p., n. d. Web. Web. <

Matt, . “oublié sur la carte.” Mapping Colonial Latin America: Relaciones Geográficas Map of Cholula (1581). N.p., 28 08 2007. Web. Web. <

The University of Texas at Austin, . “Relaciones Geograficas Collections.” Cabecera: CHOLULAE” Tlacala map 1581. Web. Web. <


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