Ancient Aztec Language Finds New Speakers in Brooklyn
Even in Mexico itself, the ancient Aztec language Náhuatl is dying. But a group of Brooklynites, led by a teacher who works in a restaurant to support himself, are fighting to keep the language alive, El Diario La Prensa reported. Below is a translation of the article.
Brooklyn is home to a large community of immigrants from Mexican states such as Puebla and Guerrero, making it one of the major places outside of Mexico where many people speak Náhuatl at home. There are also individuals that decide to learn the language despite having no personal connections with it.
According to data from the 2010 Mexican census, more than 1.5 million people in the country are proficient in this ancient Aztec tongue, and each region has its own dialect. However, Náhuatl is one of the pre-Colombian languages that is on its way to extinction, which has led even technology giants such as Google to build initiatives to save them.
Irwin Sánchez, 33, an activist from Puebla who lives in New York, found a way to contribute to these efforts. The pain of losing his grandfather in 2008 made him decide to teach others the rich oral tradition of his indigenous culture. When Sánchez isn’t teaching, he works at a restaurant in Queens.
“I lived with him for more than six years, and he taught me the values, customs, and traditions of my people in Náhuatl,” recalled Sánchez, who is a native of La Resurrección, a town where few people communicated with each other in Spanish until nearly a decade ago. “When I think about him, it still surprises me that my thoughts are entirely in Náhuatl.”
With help from the Endangered Language Alliance, Sánchez developed the methodology and pedagogical materials for his teaching idea. Mano a Mano, an organization based in Brooklyn that promotes Mexican culture, provided a space, assisted with the logistics, and is now seeking sponsors so that Sánchez can give free classes.
Starting in September 2011, Sánchez and a group of six to 12 students gathered every Monday to get the project up and running, and they finished the first phase at the end of June.
Speaking in Metaphors
“Náhuatl is a metaphorical language,” Sánchez explained. He uses images to evoke concepts, instead of pointing to their literal meaning. One of his students, the Spanish teacher Paula Sánchez-Kucukozer, 33, was very surprised.
“Náhuatl has a very relaxed view of life, which struck me because I hadn’t observed that aspect in other languages before,” said Sánchez-Kucukozer, who is also a dancer from the state of Guadalajara. She lives in Brooklyn.
Sánchez-Kucukozer registered for the class so she could see the world from a different perspective, but also because Náhuatl isn’t foreign to the world of dance, she said. “I notice how many people actively use it, especially in cultural groups where many people grew up speaking it.”
In the class, students learn grammar and basic syntax. They also study literary genres like xochitlahtol, a type of poetry that translates as “to talk with flowers,” kokoxtlahtol (to express sadness), kuikatl (to tell stories or convey a message), and kuahtlahtoli (to express a sense of authority).
Emma Hulse, an educational consultant from Indiana, joined the group after being inspired by her experience working with indigenous communities in México and Guatemala. Hulse, 25, worked in a Náhuatl-speaking neighborhood in Puebla, where she was able to observe how adolescents no longer use their native tongues.
“In the place where I was, only elderly people who were 50 or 60 years old spoke Náhuatl,” said Hulse. She now works helping Latino parents in Brooklyn, where she also lives.
“I enjoy the class a lot, not only because it allows you to appreciate the beauty of the language, but also because it makes you familiar with the politics and culture of the people,” she said. Hulse plans to return to Mexico to study Náhuatl more in-depth and to work further toward improving education in Náhuatl-speaking communities.
The next session of Náhuatl courses offered by Mano a Mano will happen in September. For more information, visit www.manoamano.us.