Nahuatl, Indigenous Language of Mexico, Leaves UT Students with Another World View
By Maria Probert
Soft strums from a wooden guitar and the smell of warm tamales and green salsa that flowed together like a warm hug filled the air of Benedict Hall.
About 35 students and faculty gathered at the teachers’ lounge at the University of Texas to listen to Crispin Martinez Rosas, who goes by the artistic name Crismar, one of the two known monolingual Nahuatl writers who do not base their work on Spanish translations. The other monolingual writer is Professor Eduardo De la Cruz, who also shared his Nahuatl cultural experiences at the event.
There are 1 million Nahuatl speakers, a language that has stayed alive in Mexico since before its colonization. In addition to the concert, Crismar presented his new Nahuatl novela based on the same characters his song lyrics feature. It’s the first novela of the kind presented outside of Mexico.
At the event, Crismar explained that the characters he uses in both novels and songs are based on people from his hometown who live in between the outskirts of the Huasteca mountains in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. The pink and blue skies of his home fill the aura of his novela and songs with yearning of the town and the acceptance of indigenous cultural oppression during the 1970s.
Students of the language swayed sideways in their seats during the concert, and one student exclaimed wide-eyed, “I had never heard those verbs before!”
De la Cruz, the part-time Nahuatl professor, organized the event to highlight his mother tongue and expose it to a wider demographic.
De la Cruz taught for two years at UT Austin, but will be leaving this May because his particular indigenous language program only lasted four semesters. De la Cruz said students often get immersed in the language and look for ways to continue their studies after the usually short programs end.
The programs are usually short-lived because they don’t attract enough students for the university’s standards.
“I tell students that if you study another language it is so that you have another vision of the world, to understand the world differently and gain another perspective,” De la Cruz said in Spanish.
De la Cruz does not like to be flattered about his achievements. He describes himself as a stern yet bubbly man who originally left high school to the city of Guadalajara with the intent of becoming a pilot, but was rejected because of his short stature. Afterward, he worked for airport security, but was persuaded by his mother to study a degree. He ended up going to school in Zacatecas and learned through people from his hometown about a Mexican organization called IDIEZ, which focused on the dispersion of indigenous language learning. He joined, and found his passion for teaching but left after a dispute with the people leading the organization.
“But I remembered my great grandmother. She told me one time that if there was an opportunity to work with the language, then I should work with that,” De la Cruz said.
He returned to the organization, gained his master’s degree in education and eventually became the director of the program. He works on summer intensive courses in U.S. institutions like the University of Utah, and does online private lessons. At UT Austin he teaches six students for six hours a week.
In one of his classes, De la Cruz’s students shoved the classroom desks to the corners of the room, and as he lined them up in pairs he played happy violin tunes and drum beats from his computer. He started shuffling his left leg then right leg on a down beat, while he screamed and jeered periodically. The students soon started stomping their Vans and Converse shoes on the floor, shuffling and twirling in place and with each other. Then, De la Cruz signaled one student to screech as loudly as he could, signaling the end of the dance.
The dance, which is traditional of the Huasteca carnaval, is meant to satirically manifest the devil, but the only thing heard in the class was joyful laughter.
“I realized that if I want to teach a language, I not only need to teach the grammar and how to speak, I need to show the culture, the ceremonies and the customs that the people practice,” De la Cruz said.
In another class, the students analyzed some of Crismar’s songs, one called “Xinolah” about the relationship between an indigenous man and a mestiza woman, and one called “Tate Juan,” about Crismar’s main character in his novel. De la Cruz walked back and forth calling out different students and using jazz hands to express losing something, being close to someone or long flowy hair. The students guessed the verb or meaning of each word of the song, or looked them up in their personal dictionaries.
For neuroscience and pre-med junior Kennedy Cortez, who does not speak Spanish and joined the class late in the first semester, the class was especially hard as De la Cruz occasionally uses Spanish to translate. Nonetheless, Cortez has started to engage in Nahuatl poetry and learned about the class through the Native American and Indigenous Collective.
“It’s honestly very emotional for me because it’s very hard to get in contact with your culture, especially whenever your community is across the border,” said Cortez about connecting with her Nahuatl roots and hopefully teaching the language to more family members.
Erik Clay Peterson, government and Latino studies student who would break out in laughter during the dancing, said that even though Nahuatl is not his ancestral language he will forever be moved by the poetic and powerful context of each word. He said that words like library are broken down to house of growing corn, to signify how the brain grows as it reads and that poetry is called the language of flowers.
Peterson applied for a Foreign Language and Areas Studies Fellowship or FLAS so he can continue his language learning, but was denied the opportunity. He is working with De la Cruz to find a way to continue his studies.
“I’m not going to have Nahuatl next year, at the end of the day, what am I going to do?” said Peterson about the friendships and community he has in the class.
Playwriting and Latino studies major Demian Chavez’s favorite part of the culture is learning about the food, and he once hosted the class in his home to learn some of the professor’s recipes.
Chavez regularly wears his green Mexican soccer shirt to class, and said he likes the forthcoming nature of De la Cruz’s teachings.
“I don’t think he spoke more than 10 words in Spanish that first day,” Chavez said. “It was a very immersive learning day.”
As for De la Cruz’s experience in Austin, he wishes that the university gave more full-time positions to indigenous language professors so they can have more time and resources to expand their curriculum and disperse the language. He is currently waiting to see if he gets citizenship in the U.S. through his wife’s legal status, or if he will go back to teach in Mexico, where he said he wants to go back eventually for his people and culture.
“These are just words, but maybe tomorrow I will arrive at the house where I grew up in, where I lived,” translates De la Cruz from one of his soon-to-be published poems. “My heart is there, and it’s telling me to go back.”