Santa Ana man teaches classes in Nahuatl

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Feb 6 15:01:07 UTC 2006

>>From the Los Angeles Times,0,3957607.story?coll=la-news-learning

Ancient Tongue Linked to Aztec Past A Santa Ana man teaches classes in
Nahuatl, keeping alive a language that lets many students connect with
their heritage.

By Jennifer Delson
Times Staff Writer

February 5, 2006

For 15 years, David Vazquez has awakened each morning at 5:30 to clean the
pews and the patio at the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana.
His wife, Rosa, brings him lunch. When the musicians don't show up on
Sundays for the Spanish-language service, Vazquez plays the guitar. For
Good Friday, he weaves religious figures out of palm leaves and makes
church decorations for Day of the Dead. But what has attracted attention
among Mexican Americans seeking to learn more about their heritage is his
second, unpaid job. He teaches his native Nahuatl, a language spoken by
the Aztecs and still spoken in parts of central Mexico.

An estimated 1 million people, including more than 25,000 Mexican
immigrants in the United States, speak some form of Nahuatl (NAH-wa-tl,
with the "l" nearly silent). It varies in pronunciation from region to
region. For Vazquez and his students, learning the language is a way to
link themselves to Mexico's core. "Promoting this language helps preserve
my culture," he said. "This is our mother tongue and offers a direct route
to express yourself and understand the culture."

More Mexican Americans in Southern California are learning the language
"as a journey to their past," said Lupe Lopez, executive director of the
Indigenous Peoples Alliance, a cultural rights organization in Anaheim
that offers the classes. Books are being published in Nahuatl and classes
are offered throughout Southern California, she said. Vazquez, who has
little formal education, spends hours each day studying at home and
teaching the language at local community centers and colleges. He has made
more than 250 large posters to teach people such common phrases as "how
are you?" The posters include the phrases in English, Spanish and Nahuatl.

A modest man who wears a long ponytail and uses words sparingly, Vazquez
is "a real Renaissance man," said Rev. Brad Karelius, who welcomed the
Mexican immigrant to the Santa Ana church in 1989. "I've seen what he can
do in art, poetry and language. I know for him, [the church] is just a day
job." Vazquez lives in Santa Ana, but has big ideas that frequently take
him back to his hometown about 120 miles southwest of Mexico City, where
Nahuatl is commonly spoken. With money he has saved, he has built a
nine-bedroom house there and has plans for a Nahuatl learning center

He hopes the center, with the support of villagers, will not only promote
the understanding and use of Nahuatl, but also provide a place for him to
promote an entirely new Nahuatl alphabet he has developed. The center
would be located on 20 acres spanning two towns and communally owned by
villagers. Speaking in telephone interviews, officials of the two towns
said they are raising about $10,000 for construction costs.

"There are many communities that are losing their ties to Nahuatl," said
Gaudencio Cruz Aguilar, one of the local officials. "This is very
important for us and we think an alphabet will reinforce the language."
Groundbreaking is set for May 13. "This is a project that really comes
from my heart," said Vazquez. "We will be able to teach people a letter
system that has not been imposed on us from outside." Despite local
enthusiasm, the project faces many hurdles, in part because outsiders
question the need for a new alphabet.

"It's a very radical idea to remake a language. I think it will be very
hard to teach it," said Juan Jose Gonzalez Medina, a representative of the
Puebla State Cultural Secretariat. John Schwaller, a professor of Nahuatl
and Latin American history and literature at the University of
Minnesota-Morris, said there have been other attempts to create a Nahuatl
alphabet, but none have stuck. "A Nahuatl speaker has access to millions
of written documents in European characters. If they learn a different
orthography, that wonderful cultural legacy is closed off to them,"
Schwaller said.

Meanwhile, Vazquez is teaching classes at El Modena Community Center in
Orange. The two-hour classes, given in Spanish, are a tongue-twisting
experience for students repeating Nahuatl words. There are 12 ways to say
hello, and five ways to say "to eat," Vazquez said. Because there are
regional dialects, students must learn six ways to say "I." Janet Mendez,
a 25-year-old county employee, was among two dozen beginning students on a
recent Tuesday night who could not say more than a few sentences. The
struggle to learn more is worth it, she said. "I feel this is the only way
to reclaim our culture, to speak this language even if it is only a little
bit," she said. "It's great that he is here, because there's not too many
places where you can hear this language."

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