Advice of an Aztec Father to His Sons
Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún recorded this text in the mid-16th century as part of an effort to gather information about native Aztec history and customs. Sahagún went to Mexico in 1529 as one of the first missionaries assigned to the newly conquered territory of New Spain. He remained there until his death, preaching and instructing youth in Spanish, Latin, science, religion, and music. He acquired mastery of the Aztec language and collected information to help missionaries and government officials convert the indigenous people to Christianity.
The 12-volume manuscript included text, illustrations, and a grammar of the Aztec language. Completed in 1569, authorities in Spain did not want the work published in New Spain for fear of encouraging the continuation of indigenous practices. It was first published in 1829 as Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España, with an English translation in 1831.
The document illustrates elements in the socialization of boys, whose way of life and culture by the time of Sahagún had been irrevocably altered by Spanish rule. It also illustrates the importance of respect for elders, and the refinements of rhetoric in the language of the Aztecs (Nahua). The advice given to the son reflects the Aztec (Nahua) philosophy of keeping personal balance in earthly life. Moral, psychological, and physical health, were related to well-being, righteousness, and purity. Compare the father's advice about duty, public behavior, and moral responsibility to his son with the mother's advice to her daughter. In what ways does the advice for daughters differ from that of sons?
O my son, O my youth, O boy, O servitor, listen, for our lord hath placed you here. And now, to you who are my son, who are my child, who are my precious necklace, who are my precious feather, who are my oldest, my second, my youngest son. I speak, I call out a word or two. Verily, now I form, I say, I reflect upon the word or two which I shall give thee of my motherhood, my fatherhood. I shall perform my obligation, lest tomorrow, the next day, our lord, . . . will have hidden us. Certainly no one enjoys the hard, the heavy. Certainly our living on earth is not assured. . .
Here is what thou art to do, what thou art to realize, that which. . . the old men, the old women…our forefathers, left as they departed. For they came to live on earth; for they came to live with others. And they came to occupy position and authority among the people. . . .
Behold still a word to finish my talk. Perhaps I shall deceive if I have hidden a word left by our forefathers as they departed, in order that you may dwell with others on earth, in order that you may be prudent in all things, in everything.
First: you are to be one who rises from sleep, one who holds vigil through the night. You are not to give yourself excessively to sleep, lest it will be said of you, lest you will be called a heavy sleeper, one who goes falling asleep, a constant sleeper, a dreamer. . . .
And second, you are to be prudent in your travels; peacefully, quietly, tranquilly, deliberately you are to go, to take the road, to travel. Do not throw your feet much, nor raise your feet high, nor go jumping, lest it be said of you, lest you be named fool, shameless. Neither are you to travel very slowly, nor to drag your feet, lest it be said of you that you are a dragger, you are a lout. . .
Also you are not to hang your head, not to incline your head much, not to stand up off balance, not to look sideways, not to look out of the corner of your eyes, lest it be said of you that you are an imbecile. . .
Third: you are to speak very slowly, very deliberately; you are not to speak hurriedly, not to pant, nor to squeak, lest it be said of you that you are a groaner, a gawker, a squeaker. . . .
Fourth: you are to pretend not to dwell on that which is done, that which is performed. Especially you are to depart from, to forsake evil. And you are not to peer at one, not to peer into one's face, not to stare at one...especially a woman. . .
Fifth: Guard, take care of your ears, of that which you hear. Do not gossip; let what is said remain as said. Ignore it. Pretend not to understand the words. If you cannot ignore it, respond not. And speak not; only listen; let what is said remain as said. . . .
Thus this is very necessary; you are to be prudent, O my precious son. Do not die somewhere in vice, do not die somewhere in vain. Take good heed, take care; see to it that your eyes are open.
Sixth: when you are summoned. . . you are to arise responding, to arise quickly. If you are to be sent as a messenger, you are to run, to be swift. If you are ordered to get something, you are to get it promptly. You are to travel swiftly, to travel bounding, in no wise sluggish; like the wind are you to go. . . .
Seventh: as you are to array yourself, as you are to clothe yourself, you are not to dress vainly, you are not to array yourself fantastically, you are not to place upon yourself the gaudy cape, the gaudy clothing, that which is embroidered. Neither are you to put on rags, tatters, an old loosely-woven cape. . . .
Thus are you to tie on your cape: do not tie it on so that you go tripping over it; neither are you to shorten your cape. Moderately are you to tie it on. Nor are you to expose your shoulder. . . place on you that which is always good, proper, all fine.
Eighth: Listen! Above all you are to be prudent in drink, in food. . . in this wise: when you are to eat, you are not to be hasty, not to be impetuous; you are not to take excessively nor to break up your tortillas. You are not to put a large amount in your mouth; you are not to swallow it un-chewed. You are not to gulp like a dog, when you are to eat food. . . .
And when you are ready to eat, you are to wash your hands, to wash your face, to wash your mouth. And if somewhere you are to eat with others, do not quickly seat yourself at the eating place with others. . . . And you, when you have eaten, once again are you to wash your hands, to wash your mouth, to clean your teeth.
In brief, these are the words as I give you. . . as many words lie guarded. . . Our forefathers, the old men, the old women, the white-haired ones, the white-headed ones, departed leaving them. The many words—O that you could later take them to heart!. . .
They went saying that on earth we travel, we live along a mountain peak. Over here there is an abyss, over there is an abyss. Wherever you are to deviate, wherever you are to go astray, there will you fall, there will you fall into the deep. . .
Bernardino de Sahagún (translated by Charles E. Dribble and Arthur J.O. Anderson), Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, Book 6—Rhetoric and Moral Philosophy, Chapter 22 (Santa Fe: School of American Research and the University of Utah, 1954), excerpts from pages 105-106; 121-126. (accessed February 15, 2010). Annotated by Susan Douglass.