Pages 9 to 13 of the Codex Borgia depicting the relationships between the 20 signs of the Tonalpohualli and Aztec divinities. (photo from the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamercan Studies, Inc. (FAMSI) via Wikimedia Commons)

The year 2021 will mark a difficult anniversary for the Indigenous people of Mexico: 500 years since the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. Ahead of the occasion, the Mexican government has requested the temporary return of several ancient Indigenous manuscripts in the Vatican’s library.

One of the books requested is the “Codex Borgia,” recognized as one of the best-preserved of the few surviving pre-Columbian painted manuscripts. The colorful and exquisitely detailed screen-fold book, created in the central highlands of Mexico, is known for its illustrations of Mesoamerican gods and rituals. It also includes visual representations of the tonalpohualli, as the ritual calendar was called in the Nahuatl language.

Page 10 of the Codex Borgia (via Wikimedia Commons)

Because scholars have observed no traces of European influence, the “Codex Borgia” is thought to date from the decades immediately preceding the arrival of the Spanish, likely the late 15th or early 16th century. It was sent to Europe at some point in the early colonial period; its whereabouts remained unknown until 1805, when it was discovered among the personal effects of Cardinal Stefano Borgia in Rome — consequently acquiring its contemporary name. The manuscript was transferred to the Apostolic Library of the Vatican in the late 19th century, where it is housed today.

Page 32 of the Codex Borgia (via Wikimedia Commons)

Most examples of pre-conquest codices suffered a worse fate. Catholic authorities in colonial Mexico ordered hundreds such manuscripts to be burned in the wake of the 1521 conquest.

The Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés and his army invaded Mexico in 1519. On August 13, 1521, a coalition of Spanish and Indigenous fighters captured the Aztec emperor Cuauhtemoc. The fall of the empire’s capital, Tenochtitlan, marks the start of centuries of Spanish rule in central Mexico. By the end of the century, the native population had dropped from 22 million to 2 million, ravaged by epidemics and relentless warfare.

In a two-page letter to Pope Francis requesting the manuscripts, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador also asked for an apology from the Catholic church for its role in the oppression of Indigenous communities. Native people, he said, deserve “a sincere commitment that never again will disrespectful acts be committed against their beliefs and cultures.”

López Obrador made a similar plea to the Pope and the King of Spain last year that was outwardly rejected by the Spanish government, who responded that “the arrival of the Spanish 500 years ago to present-day Mexican lands cannot be judged in light of contemporary considerations.”

Page 33 of the Codex Borgia (via Wikimedia Commons)

Some critics, however, have dismissed López Obrador’s demands for an apology from Spain as overly symbolic and inconsistent with the impoverished state of many local Indigenous communities in Mexico. Notably, the Nobel Prize-winning Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa spoke sharply of the president’s 2019 letter to Spain in a conference in Argentina last year.

“The Mexican president got the recipient wrong,” said Vargas Llosa, according to El País. “He should have sent it to himself and explained why Mexico, which joined the western world 500 years ago and has enjoyed full sovereignty as an independent nation for 200 years, still has millions of marginalized, poor, uneducated, and exploited Indigenous people.”

Valentina Di Liscia is the News Editor at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...