In 1524, twelve Franciscan missionaries were sent to Mexico from Spain to convert the previously unknown Indigenous people to Catholicism. To help facilitate this, the Spaniards constructed the Colegio de Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco in 1536, where young Indigenous nobles were trained in Catholic doctrine and taught to read and write using the Latin alphabet. These nobles held valuable insight into Mesoamerican cosmovision and helped determine how to manipulate it to serve the missionizing process.
These Indigenous aides would often use Mesoamerican vocabulary and concepts when attempting to translate Catholicism into Indigenous terms. Pre-existing names such as Ipalnemoani “He by Whom One Lives,” Tloke Nawakeh “Possessor of the Near, Possessor of the Surrounding,” Teyokoyani “creator of people,” and others were repurposed to represent the concepts of God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and other aspects of Christian belief (Christensen 2010, 357–58). When there were no pre-existing Indigenous names to properly convey a desired Catholic principle, Indigenous aides created new terms and expressions (known as neologisms) in their language that could adequately carry the necessary meaning (Pollnitz 2017). For example, the words teotlaxkalli (sacred tortilla) and iztak tlaxkaltzintli (little white tortilla) were both used to identify the Eucharist (Tavárez 2000, 24–25). As a result, an entirely new vocabulary to convert Mesoamericans to Catholicism was born. I refer to this appropriation and invention of Indigenous terms in the service of religious conversion as the Vocabulary of Conquest.