Articulating Aztec


Nahuatl, the language of the ancient Aztec Empire, is disappearing as speakers die off. But it has found new voices in Brooklyn eager to keep it alive. 

As a child growing up in Queretaro, Mexico, Jose Gonzalez, better known as “Cuco,” would listen to his mother singing in her native tongue. He couldn’t understand the words but remembers the passion. Cuco never learned to speak his mother’s language, Otomi. But here in the United States he has found a similar opportunity: learning Nahuatl, the most widely spoken language of the Aztec Empire.

“Cuco” Gonzalez, left, speaking to one of his classmates in the Nahuatl class at Mano a Mano. He was in the first group of students when the Nahuatl courses started last year and is now in the intermediate class. Credit: ALMA FAUSTO

“I want to know more about the culture — the original culture where we truly come from,” Gonzalez says. “That’s why I’m here taking these classes: to understand more about Mexico, and myself, too.”

Gonzalez studies the endangered Nahuatl language at Mano a Mano, a non-profit Mexican cultural and arts organization in Brooklyn. On Wednesday nights, anywhere from six to 12 students meet for either the introductory or intermediate levels. They’re taught by Irwin Sanchez, a day-time restaurant worker who grew up in a small Mexican town in Puebla with his grandfather, who spoke to him only in Nahuatl. His grandfather died in 2008, and, missing him, Sanchez wanted to find a way to speak the language with others.

“I couldn’t be there for him when he died. He died in Mexico and I was here,” Sanchez says. “So no one talked to me [in Nahuatl] anymore.”

After Sanchez read about the Endangered Language Alliance, a New York City initiative for language conservation, he decided to contact them. Since then he has been working with Daniel Kaufman, a linguist who helps Sanchez put together a curriculum and lesson plans.

“When Nahuatl is taught in universities,” Kaufman says, “it is taught in its classical form, almost as a dead language.”

Sanchez is not a trained teacher, but working with Kaufman, he has taught students the version of Nahuatl spoken in his hometown, La Resurrecion, in the state of Puebla. But when Sanchez uses written materials, Kaufman says, the version used is closer to the classical Nahuatl.

Today’s spoken versions, including the one Sanchez teaches, vary from the original Aztec in almost the same way that there are different versions of Spanish in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Spain, Kaufman said. “Structurally they appear quite uniform,” although an ancient speaker might struggle to understand Sanchez’s dialect and vice versa.

The Mexican census says more than 1.5 million people speak Nahuatl in Mexico, and each region has its own dialect. But Kaufman says that having so many versions is also a reason why the language is considered endangered – though there are many versions, the populations that speak each specific one are small and don’t have many descendants that will carry Nahuatl to another generation. The United Nations classifies a language as “endangered” in three levels:  “definitely endangered” is when children don’t learn the language at home; “severely endangered” is when it is spoken by grandparents and the parent generation understands it but doesn’t speak it; and “critically endangered” is when the youngest speakers are grandparents and older and don’t speak it often. Nahuatl is considered “definitely endangered” in the places it is still spoken in Mexico but in smaller regions with their own versions, it is “severely endangered.”

Kaufman also says that indigenous languages are stigmatized in Mexico, seen as “uncivilized,” and don’t get passed down to younger generations at the rate they used to.

A grammar and vocabulary guide provided at the beginner’s class. Nahuatl’s influence has spread to other languages. English words of Nahuatl origin include “avocado”, “chocolate”, “coyote”, and “tomato.” Credit: ALMA FAUSTO

Sanchez says Nahuatl is not very difficult to teach or learn; it’s about describing things when referring to them, like speaking in metaphors. “It’s very beautiful, because if someone wants to describe someone or something, it comes out sounding like a poem.”

Mano a Mano decided to work with the Endangered Language Alliance to start Nahuatl lessons in September 2011. “We had always wanted to do this,” said Juan Carlos Aguirre, Mano a Mano’s executive director. “We wanted to give more focus to indigenous languages so people could know that Mexico is very diverse and has more languages than just Spanish.”

Introductory Nahuatl classes are $150 for about three months, and $510 for a year’s worth of intermediate lessons, but Aguirre says there are special sponsorships for those that may not be able to afford the fee. “For those that can’t afford to pay the whole cost, we have them just pay whatever they can.”

Aguirre says the fee is only a fraction of what it takes to fund the entire class.“Every class we have here has costs: teachers, rent, electricity, but what we charge is just a minimal part. The rest of the funding we have is from grants.”

Mano a Mano was founded in 2000 as a project of the Center for Traditional Music and Dance. It later attained independent, nonprofit status in 2006. Now it receives funding from the Brooklyn Community Foundation, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and the New York State Council of the Arts, Aguirre said. The group raised about $55,000 in 2011, according to federal tax forms, and brought in less than $15,000 through fees for programs.

Luz Aguirre, the program manager at Mano a Mano and sister to the executive director, says the amount of support the group receives has decreased significantly due to a loss of grant money. Tax forms show Mano a Mano brought in about $95,000 in grants in 2008, but the amount has decreased every year since.

Aguirre cites “the economy” as the reason Mano a Mano keeps getting less money — the places the group ask for grants from have less to give out each year. She says the board members try to fundraise by finding large-scale Mexican sponsors like Jarritos, a soft drink brand, and Bimbo, a bakery company but aren’t successful in receiving actual money.

“Businesses that we approached like Bimbo and Jarritos only want to give us little things, stuff for their own benefit like publicity.”

Mano a Mano’s big expenses come when it puts on events. Aguirre says to save money the group reuses supplies from past events and look for displays and materials that other cultural exhibits or organizations can spare. Though the Nahuatl classes generate some portion of Mano a Mano’s funds, she says the contribution is small and the staff doesn’t depend on them or the fees from other classes.

Luz Aguirre says the teachers for each class are not paid as much as Mano a Mano would like to be able to compensate them. “They all get paid $40 an hour,” Aguirre says. For classes such as Nahuatl that are taught only one day a week for two hours, the pay is usually about $80. “We decided that even if it was something small we had to pay them something for their time.”

Cuco Gonzalez believes it is worth the cost and evenings he spends to learn Nahuatl. He is a performer in a Mexican folk dance group that celebrates Aztec traditions and has dedicated his life to learning about his roots. After 20 years in New York City, he is planning to move back to Mexico in the near future. He says he finds it interesting that he learned to appreciate his culture more only after he moved to the United States.

“I want to have that connection with the indigenous people of Mexico that I didn’t have before.”

He says that unlike many who return to Mexico because of negative circumstances, such as deportation, he’s happy to go back and take the language he has learned with him. “It’s very important that we don’t lose it because losing the language is essentially losing the culture.”


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