Advice of an Aztec Mother to Her Daughter
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 advice given to a young daughter, likely near marriageable age, in this excerpt reflects the Aztec (Nahua) philosophy of personal balance in earthly life. Moral, psychological, and physical health related to well-being, righteousness, and purity. Compare this advice with the counsel offered to young boys. In what ways does the advice for daughters differ from that of sons, and how does each relate to the principle of balance and the dangers of earthly life?
My beloved daughter, very dear little dove, you have already heard and attended to the words which your father has told you. They are precious words, and such as are rarely spoken or listened to, and which have proceeded from the bowels and heart, in which they were treasured up; and your beloved father well knows that you are his daughter, begotten of him, are his blood, and his flesh; and God our Lord knows that it is so. Although you are a woman, and are the image of your father, what more can I say to you than has already been said? What more can you hear than what you have heard from your lord and father, who has fully told you what it is becoming for you to do and to avoid. . . .
Nevertheless, that I may do towards you my whole duty, I will say to you some few words—The first thing that I earnestly charge upon you is, that you observe and do not forget what your father has now told you, since it is all very precious. . . . If God gives you life, with these same words will you teach your sons and daughters, if God shall give you them. The second thing that I desire to say to you is, that I love you much, that you are my dear daughter. Remember that nine months I bore you in my womb, that you were born and brought up in my arms. I placed you in your cradle, and in my lap, and with my milk I nursed you. . . .
Take care that your garments are such as are decent and proper; and observe that you do not adorn yourself with much finery, since this is a mark of vanity and of folly. As little becoming is it, that your dress shall be very mean, dirty, or ragged; since rags are a mark of the low, and of those who are held in contempt. Let your clothes be becoming and neat, that you may neither appear fantastic nor mean. When you speak, do not hurry your words from uneasiness, but speak deliberately and calmly. Do not raise your voice very high, nor speak very low, but in a moderate tone. Neither mince, when you speak, nor when you salute, nor speak through your nose; but let your words be proper, of a good sound, and your voice gentle. Do not be nice in the choice of your words. In walking, my daughter, see that you behave becomingly, neither going with haste, nor too slowly; since it is an evidence of being puffed up, to walk too slowly, and walking hastily causes a vicious habit of restlessness and instability. Therefore neither walk very fast, nor very slow; yet when it shall be necessary to go with haste, do so,—in this use your discretion. And when you may be obliged to jump over a pool of water, do it with decency, that you may neither appear clumsy nor light. When you are in the street, do not carry your head much inclined, or your body bent; nor as little go with your head very much raised; since it is a mark of ill breeding; walk erect, and with your head slightly inclined. Do not have your mouth covered, or your face, from shame, nor go looking like a near-sighted person, nor, on your way, make fantastic movements with your feet. Walk through the street quietly, and with propriety. Another thing that you must attend to, my daughter, is, that, when you are in the street, you do not go looking hither and thither, nor turning your head to look at this and that; walk neither looking at the skies, nor on the ground. . .
Bernardino de Sahagún, Historia de Nueva España, Lib. VI., Cap. XIX, "Advice of an Aztec Mother to Her Daughter," in William Hickling Prescott, Wilfred Harold Munro, William Robertson, and George Ticknor, The Works of William H. Prescott (J. B. Lippincott, 1904), Appendix, Part II. (accessed March 5, 2009). Image from World Digital Library. Annotated by Susan Douglass.