Scholars discuss preservation of Nahuatl language, culture

On Wednesday, Nov. 14, SUNY Albany PhD students Abelardo de la Cruz, a Nahua anthropologist, and Alberta Martínez, a Nahua academic, gave presentations on their work with the Nahuatl community titled “Teaching, Exploring and Revitalizing our Nahuatl Language and Culture: A Methodological Proposal.” The event, sponsored by the Latin American & Latino/a Studies program and the Anthropology Department, was hosted by Professor of Anthropology David Tavárez. De la Cruz and Martínez, also husband and wife, focused on the preservation of Nahua language and culture of the Huasteca region of Veracruz, Mexico.

After Tavárez gave introductions, Martínez, an educator from the Institute for Teaching and Resources in Zacatecas and an online Nahuatl instructor at UCLA, began her lecture on Nahuatl women with an image of Tepozteco: “[Tepozteco] is a rural community with a population of about 500. It’s a place where the congregants still preserve a grand part of their customs, culture and language. Additionally, the town preserves a lot of the culture from the 1940s in relation to women.”

Martínez described life in a small Nahuatl community and what it means to be a woman there. To draw in the audience , Martínez present these perspectives through the lens of a real woman from the town. “Maria Magdalena, born in 1947 in the community of Tepozteco, eldest of four sisters, is a reflection of Nahuatl women from her era,” Martínez recounted. “She lived the hard labor of the field and the strict care of her parents. Her only education was the traditional teachings her mother shared with her.”

Women in Nahuatl communities had limited access to education. For example, Martínez elaborated, “Between the ’40s and ’60s the majority of girls were illiterate.” During this time, only men received formal education, a practice which continued until the 1990s.

Martínez went on to explain how education transformed the lives of women in Tepozteco. “From the ’90s onwards, with the immigration of students to cities and communication with cities, the condition of women began to change. Now, women were found in the classroom. They could leave their homes,” she said. These newfound freedoms, both physical and intellectual, allowed women to break out of the conditions in which they lived and to access more equal roles.

After Martínez finished her presentation, de la Cruz began his. He started by reflecting on the relative newness of his field of study: “It’s a pleasure to share our work… What we are doing is very new. In the 1980s, our town only had elementary education… it wasn’t until we left that we discovered the production of Nahuatl literature.”

De la Cruz shared some of the current efforts to preserve Nahuatl culture: “During 2013 and [2014], we were working at Yale University teaching our language in order to share our culture. We have had several generations of students. We are teaching Nahuatl language to undergraduates, graduates and researches. [Another] part of the work we do is teach how to work on the land and the cornfields.”

De la Cruz also indicated that he contributed to Nahuatl preservation in years prior. “Before I attended university,” he recalled, “I was working with my father in Mexico. In these classes, I was teaching what I learned from my father. We have had several generations of students. This year we were working at the University of Utah teaching Nahuatl language.”

In their talks, Martínez and de la Cruz placed strong value on sharing the Nahuatl language in academic contexts. De la Cruz, who has published his first scholarly article in the United States, explained how the article comprises a mission statement of sorts for his and other scholars’ efforts: “[The article was] written in Nahuatl with an English translation. It is my first article about what we think, what we have done, what we would like to do, how we would like to work with the research and our ideas.”

De la Cruz elaborated on the importance of these academic settings in preserving his culture, such as writing more in Nahuatl and attending conferences, like a travel grant to the United Kingdom he received in 2016.

In an interview following the lecture, de la Cruz further spoke about the importance of sharing his culture in a university setting. He indicated that participating in these types of settings can alter the perception of Indigenous people as different or uneducated: “The idea that an Indigenous person is ignorant and doesn’t have knowledge is different and lowly … [A] lot of Indigenous people are just not writing or publishing their books. I think that that idea of difference can be erased.”

Martínez then shared, “I think it’s to give our ancestors value and recognition for their struggle to preserve their language and culture. It’s important for the kids of today to learn about the efforts to preserve their culture.”

Speaking to the lecture’s impact on students and attendees, Ariana Salguero ’20 shared, “I think that both in classroom and informal settings, it’s often the case that people feel that they can speak for Indigenous communities regarding their wants and needs … It is crucial that we include members of Indigenous communities in such discussions rather than try and speak for them.”

Salguero added, “Although I had already been learning about Indigenous communities…I hadn’t actually felt pushed to learn an Indigenous language. Because of these encounters, however, I am currently looking into figuring out how I can begin to learn Nahuatl.”

Reflecting on the importance of sharing Nahuatl voices, de la Cruz expressed his hopes that students attending the lecture would recognize the value of protecting his culture. “Two people who identify as Indigenous visited and talked about their culture,” began de la Cruz. “It should be thought that [we the] Indigenous are working for our culture. We are not against people who aren’t Indigenous, we want to share our culture. We want to work in favor of our culture.”

Martínez added, “Something important to say is that Indigenous languages, inside and outside of Mexico, are important. It’s important to keep conserving and teaching our language to learn about where one comes from.”

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