UCLA Spotlight


Kevin Terraciano, History

  • By Meg Sullivan, Reed Hutchinson
  • Published Mar 1, 2003 8:00 AM

As a UCLA graduate student in the ’80s, Kevin Terraciano was struck by how much his professor, the renowned Mexican historian James Lockhart, relied on Aztec accounts for a Native-American perspective on the Spanish conquest.

“I knew that Aztecs were only one of many indigenous groups in Mexico at the time,” says Terraciano, now an associate professor of history. “So I asked, ‘What about the other groups? Did they write in their own languages? Where are these accounts?’ ”

More than a decade later, Terraciano is winning accolades for finding the answer to the question that stumped Lockhart.

Thanks to scholarly sleuthing south of the border, Terraciano has unearthed hundreds of long-forgotten documents written by indigenous scribes in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Using these 200- to 450-year-old wills, court documents, notes from government meetings and other records, the historian has pieced together a picture of colonial Oaxaca from the perspective of the region’s Mixtec Indians.

Extensive written accounts of the European arrival in the Americas have been found in only two other native languages: those of the Maya and the Aztec.

“Before Kevin came along, nobody thought the Mixtec had a written record, so this is a very big deal,” says John Kicza, a professor of Latin American history and associate dean of research at Washington State University. “It’s as though a historian suddenly found a treasure trove of documents composed by the Cherokee Tribe or Iroquois Confederation after the landing of the Mayflower.”

Kicza isn’t alone in his enthusiasm. Terraciano’s “The Mixtecs of Colonial Oaxaca” received an honorable mention from the American Historical Association’s Conference on Latin American History this year and was selected by the American Society for Ethnohistory as the year’s best book on indigenous peoples.

Following a hunch, the son of a Rhode Island machinist and housewife began poking around community archives in 1988 in Oaxaca, where Indians had a writing tradition in pre-Columbian times.

“I’d ask people, ‘Do you have anything that doesn’t look like Spanish?’ ” he recalls.

To read what he uncovered, Terraciano had to teach himself Mixtec. With his wife, Lisa Sousa, an assistant professor at Occidental College, he then helped the community archives systematize their holdings. One Oaxacan archivist was so grateful that he named his newborn Kevin, after Terraciano.

Today, the 2001 UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award-winner lives in De Neve Plaza as faculty-in-residence with Sousa and their baby daughter, Isabella.

He now holds the history department position once occupied by Lockhart, who in 1992 touched off a wave of interest in Native-American texts with “The Nahuas After the Conquest,” a seminal exploration of colonial Mexico as revealed in accounts by Aztec scribes.

“He’s my successor in many senses of the word,” Lockhart says. “I’m very proud of him.”