For the Past 20 Years, a Santa Ana Man Has Kept the Language of the Aztecs Alive

Para leer esta historia en español, vaya a “En los últimos 20 años, un residente de Santa Ana ha mantenido la lengua de los aztecas viva.”

“Okay, let's start with practice!” Davíd Vázquez says in Spanish to a dozen or so students seated in the basement choir room of the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana. His jet-black hair is gathered into a tightly braided ponytail; his tone is emphatic but patient. The 61-year-old proceeds to offer customary greetings in Nahuatl, the language of the Mexicas of Mexico, better known as the Aztecs.

Tanecic!” “Tiotaqui!” “Tayohuah!”

The class repeats those words (which mean “Good morning!” “Good afternoon!” and “Good evening!”) as Vázquez looks on. He's wearing huaraches and a buttoned-up, red-and-green-striped shirt whose sleeves flare slightly below the elbow. On the back is two beautifully embroidered Mexica images of half-turkey, half-eagle symbols intertwined in battle.

“Now, older persons, we treat and greet with respect—a teacher, a doctor, an elder,” Vázquez continues. “So we say, 'Nanon tanecic, nanon tiotaqui, nanon tayohuah.'”

Church bells ring in the background, as students recite the phrases in unison. They try their best to master the agglutinative tongue, with words cascading into one another to create strings of beautifully flowing sentences. They're in one of the best places in the United States to practice: in the presence of Nahuatl's unlikeliest ambassador.

“The word elotl is basically the same,” he next tells the class, pointing to a sign on the wall that says “elote,” its Spanish counterpart. “Corn cobs were the first harvest at that time, and the Mexicas would make an offering from it to Coatlicue, the goddess of mother earth.”

He then proceeds to hehecatl—”air.” “Think about it: Nahuatl begins with this word,” he tells his students, then asks them why.

“It's the first thing a baby does when it's born—it breathes,” a student responds in Spanish.

Vázquez nods, then motions to a symbol found in Nahuatl codices that represents breath. “This is what gives us life,” he says. “Without air, you die.” He repeats the thought twice in a measured tone to make the point resonate.

And the father of three continues like this for two hours: part history lesson, part grammar quiz, part religion discussion, part culture sharing, even part confessional. “My parents, my neighbors didn't speak Spanish; they spoke completely in Nahuatl,” he says. “For those of you who already know English and Spanish, Nahuatl is yours.”

Vázquez takes a few questions before concluding class for the day. “Here, we end,” he announces. “I'm not going to pick you up for next week's class. If you can come by Uber, it's fine by me.” Students chuckle before giving Vázquez a round of applause.

Long suppressed, Nahuatl lives on in a million-plus speakers in Mexico and the U.S., as well as in popular culture. Words such as “avocado,” “tomato,” “coyote” and “chocolate” trace their roots to it. As with Gaelic, Nahuatl has become a fertile ground for assimilated parents when naming their children, including Xochitl (flower) and Citlali (star). Chicano activists try to sprinkle phrases into their lives; Grammy-winning band Ozomatli named themselves after the servant to the Aztec god of dance. You even get Nahuatl at your local Chipotle, which takes its name from chilpoctli—”smoked chile.”

For the past 20 years, Vázquez has taught tens of thousands of students at community centers, universities and churches across Southern California. He's held classes at the Episcopal Church of the Messiah at least monthly since 1996, when the immigrant arrived to the United States and began working as a janitor for the downtown church. Though now approaching retirement, Vázquez still has big plans for Nahuatl. He wants to create language academies in Santa Ana and Mexico that'll continue his life's work and propagate an alphabet he created, Sequoyah-like, in order to keep the ancient language alive.

“My story is a difficult tale, but something pushes me, something obligates me to be a leader,” Vázquez says. “On one hand, I like it, and on the other hand, perhaps the divine worked through me to create something sacred, and that is in the Nahuatl writing system.”

*     *     *     *     *

The word “Nahuatl” translates as “clear speech.” It belongs to the Uto-Azteca linguistic group, which includes the languages of most of the Southwestern Indian tribes, lending credence to the Mexica founding myth that their homeland of Aztlán was north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Early speakers first migrated into central Mexico around the 7th century, following the decline of the Teotihuacan Empire. The language continued through the Toltec civilization, predecessor to the Mexicas, before becoming the dominant tongue of the Valley of Mexico from the 11th century onward.

“It was, in this part of the world, something like what Latin was to Western Europe, a sort of lingua franca,” explains Fermin Herrera, a Cal State Northridge professor and Nahuatl expert.

The language faced its greatest threat when Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztec Empire in the mid-1500s and proceeded to destroy codices, temples and culture along with people. But despite royal decrees against speaking the language, Catholic missionaries found Nahuatl useful as a way to evangelize the indigenous, keeping it alive while phasing out its original writing system in favor of Roman script. After Mexico became independent in 1810, Nahuatl and other indigenous languages became viewed by successive governments as backward relics hindering modernization, and the tongue was suppressed anew.


Yet it survives: The 2000 census found 1.5 million people in Mexico speak Nahuatl in its various dialects, accounting for a quarter of all indigenous speakers, but only 1.5 percent of the general population. Without resources or institutional support from the Mexican educational system, Nahuatl is primarily passed on as an oral tradition, which is fading as residents leave their towns in search of work, whether within Mexico or in the United States.

It was into this reality that Vázquez was born on Cinco de Mayo, 1955. He grew up in the remote town of Tlalmotolo, northeast of Mexico City, in Puebla's municipality of Ixtacamaxtitlán. Nestled in a plateau surrounded by lush green mountains, Tlalmotolo's few hundred residents primarily spoke Nahuatl, “receiving the wisdom from the elders in the town,” Vázquez says. “All of the knowledge that I have of this language is thanks to them; this is the product of generational learning passed down through our ancestors.”

Tlalmotolo suffered from poverty, like nearly every other Nahuatl-dominant community in Mexico. It was a three-hour trek across rocky hills and rivers to and from school. “I was barefoot most of my childhood, foraging for mushrooms in the hillsides to sell so that I could have money to buy food to eat,” Vázquez remembers. He also made and sold pulque, the viscous alcoholic beverage that predates the Conquest. Vázquez's parents regularly left town for work, returning on the weekends. At times, they'd go without eating when rainfall lasted for days.

He didn't learn Spanish until age 13, but he never lost his knowledge of Nahuatl. After dropping out of school, he worked in the sugar cane, coffee and rice fields of Veracruz. In his teens, Vázquez moved to Mexico City to become a construction worker; he made it a point to strike up conversations with other Nahuatl-speaking workers. “No matter what jobs I took on, I always pushed myself to figure out how I could incorporate my language and to push myself to be bilingual,” he says.

After a stint in the Mexican military, Vázquez returned to Tlalmotolo to start a family and build a home. But there were simply no opportunities there, or anywhere else in Mexico. He finally joined the Great Mexican Migration to el Norte and crossed over in 1989 at 34—relatively late among men of his village to leave. But more than just work, he searched for a way to keep Nahuatl alive.

“Most people born here in the U.S. have no idea about how many languages existed at any given point in ancient Mexican history,” Vázquez says. “I have to make people conscious of that history.”

*     *     *     *     *

The Episcopal Church of the Messiah's choir room speaks of Vázquez's life work. One wall features trilingual posters with neatly written sentences in Nahuatl, Spanish and English. A poster on the opposite end of the room has the Mexica numeral system, “the most ancient on Earth and in the world,” it proudly proclaims. Next to the board is his proudest achievement: a circular alphabet of Nahuatl, one Vázquez created himself.

Vázquez arrived here in the U.S. not knowing anybody. But through the kindness of church leaders, he quickly found small jobs setting up Sunday Mass and serving coffee to the congregation. His custodial work hours steadily increased, and Vázquez sent for his family eight months later. He has worked here since.

“Davíd has been very important to us because he has a deep sense and knowledge about this organization,” says church rector Abel Lopez. “He's been a great addition to this staff, and we really appreciate him both as an employee and parishioner.”

While Vázquez adjusted to life in the U.S., his Nahuatl itch continued. He began showing up at open mics across Orange County to recite poetry. One night in 1992, college students heard Vázquez and recruited him to join the Chicano Poet Society; he performed with the group at schools and churches across Southern California until it disbanded. The following year, Vázquez met Lupe Lopez, a Golden West College student and founder of the community group Alianza Indígena, during a UCLA hunger strike that created the school's Department of Chicana/o Studies. Activists were clamoring for slogans beyond “Viva La Raza!”—and in a language most had only read about in history books. Lopez asked Vázquez for an Aztec alternative; he offered “Mexica Tiahui” (“Mexica Forward”). “That became the symbol of the next generation of indigenismo, of Chicanismo,” Lopez says of the slogan that still gets chanted in rallies across the Southwest. “Many people don't know where that came from, but it came from Davíd!”


Lopez then connected Vázquez with court officials after they approached Alianza Indígena with a request for indigenous language interpreters. Tens of thousands of Mexican Indians had migrated to the United States after the collapse of the Mexican peso in 1994, speaking only their native tongues. Santa Ana, in particular, became a landing ground for Náhuatl speakers from Puebla, Hidalgo and Veracruz. “I made sure that Vázquez became known to many superior courts throughout the United States,” she says.

He began teaching legal clinics before doing official interpretation. “There would be two interpreters: one hired by the court to translate from English to Spanish, and then I would translate from Spanish to Náhuatl for the defendants charged with any criminal offences,” Vázquez says. “I've also translated over the phone in Oregon, Washington, Florida and D.C.”

Being a poet and a court interpreter allowed Vázquez to make some additional money, but teaching Nahuatl for free remained his true passion. He self-published La Voz de Tenochtitlán: La Lengua Azteca (The Voice of Tenochtitlán: The Aztec Language) in 1993, a Spanish-Nahuatl practice book with more than 500 study words. And all along, he worked with a new Nahuatl alphabet.

As Vázquez tells it, one day as a young boy in Tlalmotolo, he wrote random symbols on maguey plant leaves, putting them in no particular order at first and not knowing what he was doing. He didn't think of them as letters until finding out later that Nahuatl's original writing system did not survive the Conquest. Once Vázquez completed the alphabet around 1968, he practiced writing it so he could memorize the new system before sharing it with Tlalmotolo's elders; they approved. Vázquez finally revealed the alphabet to the public in 1994, writing the name of Cuauhtémoc, the last Mexica ruler, with his new letters on a sheet of paper during a ceremony before 5,000 people in Los Angeles. He held a similar inauguration in 2004 before his whole village.

“I've reached the conclusion that I have found the sequence of the true Nahuatl language,” Vázquez says.

The alphabet, which doesn't connect directly to the ancient codices but is guided by Mexica philosophy, is depicted in a circle with a “letter zero” symbol resting at the center, followed by 20 Nahuatl letters separated by four cardinal directions and grouped in pairs of five. “Every symbol has its own profound root, sound and place. The 'zero letter' is like the mother of the alphabet,” Vázquez says, explaining it's the sound that makes all other sounds possible: inhalation. “The new alphabet is absolutely necessary because the Latin letters do not complement the sounds that we need.” He plans to reveal more about his system in a book he's currently writing. “I've spent more than 40 years of studying the vocabulary to be able to put it in order, for me to put it into writing the way we have it now.”

Backed by a study book and an alphabet and the blessing of an Episcopalian priest, Vázquez began teaching Nahuatl at the Church of the Messiah in 1996. Lupe Lopez helped to organize classes at the El Modena Community Center in Orange, La Independencia Family Resource Center in Anaheim, and Golden West College. He began drawing up plans to self-finance a pyramid monument to his Nahuatl alphabet near Tlalmotolo, along with Nahuatl academies there and in Santa Ana. “What we have now, all of the material we have prepared, we are ready for the founding of the schools,” Vázquez says.

Only one thing is preventing his plans from moving forward: money. “Some colleges have given me an honorarium, but aside from that, I teach for free,” he says. “It will be difficult for me to continue teaching because I have nowhere to sustain myself from.”

*     *     *     *     *

The need to rescue Nahuatl on both sides of the border isn't quixotic. There's a demand for Nahuatl instruction by second-generation Mexican-Americans seeking to connect with their indigenous heritage. UCLA and Cal State Northridge offer courses to college students. Anahuacalmecac International University Preparatory (formerly known as Academia Semillas del Pueblo) in El Sereno has taught the language as part of its public charter multilingual curriculum for the past 15 years. Vázquez's Saturday-morning classes are the only ones in Orange County.

Two of Vázquez's most loyal students, Hector Bonilla and Mazatl Tecpatl Tepehylotzin, speak well of their temachtiani, or teacher. “I met Vázquez over 20 years ago,” Bonilla says. “He used to live right next door to me, but I didn't even know he spoke Nahuatl.”

Bonilla, who is Salvadoran, had noticed his grandfather speaking in what definitely didn't sound Spanish. He noticed the same thing in Mexico and, later, in the United States. Once Bonilla's brother told him of their neighbor's secret, he started learning at Vázquez's Santa Ana home. “He has all that experience and fatherly love that he shows for everybody,” Bonilla says. “For someone to step up and want to rescue his heritage, we need that kind of person for kids to look up to.”


The electrician has gained a high level of fluency, something that has allowed Bonilla to become an assistant of sorts to Vázquez. He's trying to help his teacher devise a system that will help future students gain fluency faster and has assisted in the creation of more than 250 trilingual posters. “Vázquez put all his knowledge and experience into that writing system,” Bonilla says. “Hopefully, it takes off and it gets recognized as a writing system that we can use for the Nahuatl language.”

Tepehylotzin met Vázquez at the El Modena Community Center 15 years ago through Lupe Lopez. The lessons extended far beyond the language for Tepehylotzin, who legally changed his name from Sergio Rivera to his Nahuatl appellation earlier this year after gaining U.S. citizenship.

“There were times I needed guidance and had questions about life—not just history, but our culture or identity,” Tepehylotzin says. “It was a psychological thing for me, too. Because of my color, I was discriminated against by a lot of white kids in Anaheim schools.”

He uses Nahuatl in occasional conversations both in Mexico and OC. “I have practiced with a lot of communities from Guerrero and Puebla here,” Tepehylotzin says. “They're the ones cutting your grass, doing your roofing and whatever hard-labor job, and you don't even know! When you go out there to check on them, they'll change back to Spanish!”

*     *     *     *     *

On a recent Saturday morning, Vázquez is readying for a two-hour Nahuatl class in the Church of the Messiah choir room. His vibrant green shirt featuring the tricolor stripes of the Mexican flag running down the sleeves matches his light, cheery mood. He has something special planned for his students but starts the day's lessons with the customary “Tanecic!” “Tiotaqui!” “Tayohuah!”

“We should be speaking the way our ancestors really did,” Vázquez tells the dozen students in class. He writes a number of sentences on the board, upping the difficulty from past lessons, stopping during one sequence to emphasize the word Ixachilan (“America”). “Ixachilan is from Alaska down to Patagonia,” Vázquez explains. “That is the continent of America.”

Vázquez writes two new sentences in Nahuatl, offering a media lesson along the way. “Neha niez ce tahcuiloqueh,” Vázquez recites. “I am a writer.” He repeats the sentence again, only this time ending with the word tatelhuiqueh (“reporter”).

“There's many who write but don't speak, and there's many who speak but don't write,” Vázquez says. “In these two forms, we know their important work of informing the community of what's going to happen, what's happening or what happened.”

He continues to proselytize for his alphabet; last year, Vázquez presented during a “Nahuatl Across Borders” symposium at UC San Diego. “I don't know if it's gained traction just yet,” says Marcos Aguilar. The principal of Anahuacalmecac, the El Sereno charter school that's the only one in the nation to teach children Nahuatl, attended the symposium. “I think it's a great idea in particular, in terms of the interest in decolonizing the language.”

“Hopefully, a lot more people will show up to [Vázquez's] classes and want to learn,” Bonilla says. “We keep the pyramids alive for tourism and all, but not when it comes to the language. It would be sad if we lost something like that.”

“We are decolonizing ourselves from those who came 500 years ago and colonized us,” Tepehylotzin says of returning to what he calls the “B.C.” era—Before Columbus and Cortés. “It's for us to be chicautl—to be strong.”

In the meantime, Vázquez teaches. When the church bells ring out at noon, the maestro pulls out a stack of certificates from his briefcase, each reading, “For having the courage to learn and rescue our Nahuatl language in Santa Ana.” He calls up each student by name to present their certificate.

Tlazocamati,” one student said, using the Nahuatl word for “Thank you.” Both touch at the fingers of opposite hands while bowing, a traditional Mexica greeting.

The class concludes with a group photo. “Where's Mazatl?” Vázquez asks loudly, fatherly. “Ay, that Mazatl!” His longtime student suddenly reappears in the hallway and takes a seat for the picture.

“I give to my country of Mexico what it has been missing, what many intellectuals never could do: an alphabet done by an indigenous person that knows his language, working from his heart,” Vázquez says. “As a native, this is what I'm going to leave my nation, and if they don't want to register it, I will leave it to the United States. I have my country here, too.”

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