From Cantares Mexicanos

Kirt Edblom/Flickr
Kirt Edblom/Flickr

The Cantares Mexicanos, one of the major works of Indigenous American literature, is a codex that preserves 91 songs for musical performance in Nahuatl, the language of the people of central Mexico, including the Mexica, the group that later came to be called Aztecs. Dating from around 1580, the manuscript is a document of the period directly following the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the destruction of the Aztec empire.

John Bierhorst, the first scholar to publish an English translation of the songs (in 1985), held that most of them were composed in the post-Conquest period by “warrior-singers” who used poetry to “summon the ghosts of ancestors in order to swell their ranks and overwhelm their enemies.” This view of the Cantares as “ghost songs”—similar to the “ghost dances” of the Plains Indians around 1890—has been rejected by scholars who maintain that the song-texts belong to a tradition long predating the Conquest. That may be the case, but Bierhorst also might have been right in a sense. Because they preserve the voices of a lost civilization, the Cantares have a distinctly ghostly quality.

Edgar Garcia comes to these songs as a poet and a literary scholar. His translations are far from literal renderings. Instead, as responses and adaptations, they attempt to capture the homeless, unsettled spirit of the Cantares by combining touches of formal, courtly diction, rhymed stanza patterns, and contemporary imagery and references. The effect is provocatively anachronistic. Rather than treat the Cantares as precious shards in a museum case, Garcia is asking: What might these poems, so many of them songs of melancholy and dejection put to paper in a period of civilizational crisis, have to say to us in our era of war and disease, in which people crowd this nation’s southern border, fleeing barely imaginable poverty and violence?

In the song titled “CRISIS,” the “displaced and dead retinues” of Garcia’s Aztec singers have sore throats. Like pandemic-era people everywhere, they must “mask up” when they go out. The “masks” they wear are multiform. Garcia finds their spirits inhabiting hummingbirds, geese, and quetzals—those gorgeous birds from the highlands of Guatemala whose feathers once adorned the crowns of Mesoamerican rulers. Or are the migrant birds that Garcia describes—sad “whippoorwills in white sheets”—simply migrant people wandering the city “in search of things to eat”?

Garcia the translator comes forth as a character in prose sections that are no less wily and lyrical than the poetic texts they frame. Past and present historical emergencies blend when he dreams of serving “as a suicide prevention specialist in ancient Mesoamerica.” With no hotline to staff, he must go about the ancient countryside gathering songs, becoming a part of the story himself. This puts him in the ambiguous position of an ethnographer, in this case a visitor from another century. No wonder, then, that the author of Tristes Tropiques, Claude Lévi-Strauss, appears in the dream as an object of sympathy.

Vexingly, or consolingly, the ghosts Garcia is in search of are hard to grasp, having “retreated to a future time.” They may still be somewhere out ahead of us.—Langdon Hammer

From Cantares Mexicanos

Last night I dreamt that I was employed as a suicide prevention specialist in ancient Mesoamerica. We had no phones then so no hotline to call or anything like that. I held these gatherings going place to place for people to tell me their stories and songs and stories and songs about others. If anything seemed amiss with someone’s emotional ideation we would bring them into crafts therapy of various kinds, employing them meaningfully. Sometimes I would bring them to help me with my work. In my dream depression, anxiety, and suicide were pervasive in the gritty and unforgiving world of ancient times. I stayed so busy with my job. I knew it was a dream because in a few hours I saw Claude Lévi-Strauss in his hotel room in Brazil anxious about having to go out and do actual fieldwork in the Amazon and just hating it. He hated that he would have to go out there in the discomfort of all that; he just wanted to stay in his hotel room—smoke, write, sleep—and say he went out. Then I could see that he was writing to his mother. He seemed so full of familiar human folly. I wanted to take him with me to help me with my work. I kept saying to myself, “so human, all too human.”



Is there dragon fruit
or humming jade
for little birds
in shady colonnades?
Is there any multitude
for the displaced and dead retinues?
Subdued, like mountain ruins
in diamond lakes, they say:
“It sort of hurts to speak.
I think I have a sore throat.
You’re probably sick.
Mask up if you go out.”
I see them thus in masks:
prattling hummingbirds, barking geese,
quetzals in the guise of old lords,
whippoorwills in white sheets.
They cover the city
in search of things to eat.


Neither peace nor war was foreign. There were conflicts both regional and ethnic, as ineluctable and idiotic as always. As a consequence, there emerged conscientious objectors.


2. Conscientious Objector

Your magnificence I can barely address
In my shallow loneliness—how thin
What I might then expect from you is,
famous Tetlepanquetzanitzin.

You were called to this earth a while
To live in a child’s peace—but then
The fashions dressed you up,
And well you wore the war-skirt and sash.

But the bare truth is there’s war, always
War with its rage and hate,
Modifying even how friends congregate.
I saw you, Tetlepanquetzanitzin,

In troubled straits; and, speaking straight,
I said less than manly things: to hell
With empire and its overgrowth; to hell
With the flowers that conurbate;

To hell with the south and east; Goddamn
Them that injunct our ease with commands
To obtain without cause, to siege,
To bring bloody rain on neighbors’ walls.

You wanted all that but not for itself.
The problem is: though war we might hate,
It’s in war we learn whom to celebrate. Ah!
Hence this: Tetlepanquetzanitzin!


Many of the Cantares are political or social commentary, but some are not. Some are about the basic condition of depression, anxiety, and self-doubt. These are the ones I would be careful about. These are the ones whose moist exhalation leads to lightning in the blood. A child asked me if she could have lightning in her bones. I told her that the gods speak to us that way, with lightning in the body. Before the time of cities, we lived openly with the lightning. It was a terrible and proper but impossible time. There were no reflections or meditations. Ideas were like the crude rumble in the sky after you’ve seen a white flash along the earth’s rim.



Truest regrets I’m always upset;
Apologies I’m perpetually surly.
I try to help myself and yet
No luck reaches me particularly.

I don’t necessarily want for riches;
I wail and it’s ruefully wretched.
It’s time to die, I worry.

I may be then again with old friends
Happy, fortunate in their company.
Here, I hurry to scarcely depend
On the cheap will of inane functionaries.

I’ve neither the spirit nor the friends;
I wail and it’s timidly out of tune.
It’s time I die, I think.

Let no one’s heart be hurt to hear it;
My blues aren’t specially unique.
I caught a bad wind somewhere in my orbits—

Now I’m just another planet oblique.



The trees still bloom;
Companions still groom
Themselves to meet
In brightly lit rooms.

Why then all my gloominess?

The jaguar still prowls;
And javelins howl
Like eagles
On chalky athletic fields.

Why then all my gloominess?

I don’t know but it is
As clear as a fish
Out of water
Gasping for its turquoise.

I know it’s said
War flowers wither
When they’re not fed
Their dead soldiers.

And now there’s peace,
Supposedly peace.
Our importunate warriors
Have all left this place.

Why then all my gloominess?


Ancient landscapes hardly exist any longer. They’ve retreated to a future time. History comes at you that way in a world made by the hands and minds of countless bodies now dead. Ghostly heralds, and it’s not only humans. Our sidewalks are made of mineralized animal bone; the air is the sighed carbon dioxide of many trees long gone. When the Cantares were put to paper in the mid-16th century in colonial New Spain, the world of the singers of these Nahuatl-language songs—the world of the Mexicas, Texcocans, Tlaxcalans, Huexotzincos, Azcapotzalcans, and others, many dead who took with them the knowledge of their world—must have felt absent from their cities, whose streets were then an emotional compression of memory, forgetting, imagination, and wish. Some called to the old gods, others to the new, or even both at once, while still others addressed the crisis directly with acts of magic. The songs themselves, the Cantares, were understood in this spectrum of liability. Those who helped to circulate them, singers and the patrons of singers, could be imprisoned or killed for promulgating the wrong gods and wrong magic. The songs were as potent with the touch of these gods and this magic as an idol, ceremonial bundle, or ritual act. They were like ghosts uprooted waiting to be planted again.


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Edgar Garcia is associate professor of English at the University of Chicago and the author of the chapbook Boundary Loot. His collection of poems and anthropological essays, Skins of Columbus: A Dream Ethnography, won the 2018 Fence Modern Poets Series award.


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