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Language of the Aztecs alive and well in Los Angeles

Historian Kevin Terraciano, director of the UCLA Latin American Institute, is up to his ears in the language of the Aztecs: Nahuatl.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

“[Friar] Sahagún was steeped in the language and culture, totally bilingual and very sympathetic to these people. He really thought that they were on the verge of extinction — he says as much in different places in the [Florentine Codex]. He feared that they were dying off so fast that he wanted to record this great culture and language." Kevin Terraciano

Slider captions: Image 1: Aztec gods from book 1 of the Florentine Codex. On the original page, the two images on the left appear above those on the left.
Image 2: Pages from book 2 of the codex; the image shows food being offered to Chicomecoatl, the corn goddess. Each page has two columns of text: classical Nahuatl on the right and Friar Sagahún's Spanish translation on the left.
Image 3: Chapter 1, book 12, of the codex, which describes the Spanish Conquest of Mexico.
Image 4: Two images from book 12 of the codex. Left panel: "The Encounter" — Spanish soldiers (left) meet King Moteoczoma (right), with an interpreter in the middle. Right: Death of Moteuczoma and Itzquauhtzin; image shows Spanish soldiers dumping their bodies in a lake.
All images courtesy of the Laurentian Library, Florence.

UCLA International Institute, June 5, 2017 — The language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl [pronounced na’ wat], is alive and well today in Los Angeles. Beginning and intermediate classes in modern Nahuatl are offered at UCLA, with an advanced class slated to launch next year.

A few miles due north at the Getty Museum, historians and art experts are collaborating with Italy’s Laurentian Library on a long-term project to create an online, annotated version of one of the greatest works ever written in Nahuatl: the Florentine Codex. A virtual encyclopedia of Nahua culture compiled by a dedicated Franciscan friar in the mid-16th century, the work has never been accessible to the general public — much less to descendants of the Aztecs living in Mexico.

Last fall, an entire scene of a U.S. television show was shot in Spanish and modern Nahuatl, marking the first time that the Aztec language had ever been heard on an American broadcast. This coming September, a charter school in Lynwood will offer Nahuatl classes to its middle school students, courtesy of a UCLA graduate student. And that’s not to mention a dedicated native speaker who has been teaching Nahuatl classes for 26 years in a local church in Santa Ana (see KPCC story).

UCLA scholar rides a linguistic wave

Standing at the confluence of most of these linguistic streams is UCLA historian Kevin Terraciano, director of the Latin American Institute. A genial professor with a dry sense of humor, Terraciano was instrumental in making Nahuatl available at UCLA, beginning in fall 2015. It was Terraciano who translated English dialogue into Nahuatl for an American Crime episode during the show’s current season. (He later coached the actors, who had to learn their parts phonetically, at the actual shoot.) 

And because he participates in all the UCLA Nahuatl classes, it was Terraciano who recommended Luis Áviles, a graduate student in the Spanish and Portuguese department, to teach the language at  KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Comienza Community Prep Upper School in Huntington Park — not far from where Áviles himself grew up.

Kevin Terraciano, director of the UCLA Latin American Institute. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.) The UCLA historian, together with Diana Magaloni of the Art of the Ancient Americas Institute at LACMA, is a principal investigator on the Getty Research Institute’s (GRI) collaborative project with the Biblioteca Laurenziana, funded in part by the Seaver Institute, to create a high-resolution, interactive digital online version of the Florentine Codex. Two other PI's are UCLA alumni: Kim Richter of the GRI and Professor Jeanette Peterson of UC Santa Barbara. Professor Lisa Sousa of Occidental College, another UCLA alumna who has studied classical Nahuatl for many years, is also involved.

Perhaps most significant, the project team has involved a Nahua in the project. The addition of UCLA Nahuatl instructor Eduardo de la Cruz to the team means that the eventual online version will include a reading of the entire codex in the original Nahuatl. “This is an opportunity to truly involve native Nahuatl speakers on the scholarly side here,” says the historian.
Nahuatl, explains Terraciano, was the lingua franca of New Spain until it was eventually overtaken by Spanish. Most Mexicans, he says, consider it the language of ancient Mexico. “Nahuatl was still the majority-spoken language in the Valley of Mexico at the end of the colonial period (1521–1821),” he says. “Despite the fact that 90 percent of the population died over a 100-year period as a result of one epidemic after another, indigenous peoples were still the majority of the population of Mexico by the end of that period,” he adds.

Today, the Aztec language is spoken by only one to one-and-a-half million people in Mexico, many of whom live in the state of Veracruz on the western edge of the Gulf of Mexico. Yet modern Nahuatl is rarely taught in schools or universities, whether in Mexico or the United States. By contrast, classical Nahuatl (the version of the Aztec language spoken at the time of Mesoamerica’s encounter with the Spanish Empire) is better documented.

Terraciano has studied and worked with classical Nahuatl for over 20 years. A fluent Spanish speaker, he has also studied two other indigenous languages of Mexico, Mixtec and Zapotec. These languages and the materials written in them during the colonial period have enabled Terraciano and his peers to document the experience of Spanish colonialism from the indigenous point of view.
Ancient culture married to a modern technology

Three years ago, UCLA, Stanford and the University of Utah formed the Western Alliance for Nahuatl and successfully applied to the U.S. Department of Education for a Title VI grant to offer college courses in the language. The universities share resources, build curricula and train native language instructors in distance-learning pedagogy.

Eduardo de la Cruz (right), with Luz Maria de la Torre (left), UCLA's instructor of Quechua —  
an indigenous language of the Andes. Photo courtesy of Kevin Terraciano.

That’s right, Nahuatl courses at UCLA are taught from Zacatecas, Mexico, via teleconferencing equipment. Instructor de la Cruz hails from a tiny pueblo in Veracruz and learned Spanish as a second language. He was trained to teach his native language by IDIEZ (Instituto de Docencia e Investigación Etnológica de Zacatecas), a language and ethnology institute that promotes Nahuatl instruction and publishes language training materials, such as textbooks, readers and the first-ever monolingual Nahuatl dictionary.*


An elementary Nahuatl textbook published by IDIEZ, with an illustrated page. 

As Terraciano explains, “We connect with the native language speaker (usually Eduardo, but occasionally one of this peers from IDIEZ) in the Media Lab at UCLA Powell Library. He is up there on the screen, and the students from Stanford connect and are up on the screen, and our UCLA classroom is up on the screen. And we can all hear each other.

“We don't connect with the University of Utah because they are on a semester system, plus it's a different time zone,” he adds. “But we share resources with them and they do their own distance-learning classes.”

Cover of monolingual Nahuatl dictionary published by IDIEZ, with some "H" entries.

Nahautal reader written by Eduardo de la Cruz. Yet Terraciano is not simply a facilitator. “As the ‘instructor of record,’ I go to all the classes — I participate in them. Eduardo treats me like a student: he calls on me, he expects me to do the homework. He keeps me on my toes so I can't slack off!” he recounts. “In many ways, there's a remarkable correspondence between modern and classical Nahuatl — more than I ever thought,” he says.

The UCLA students — who can use U.S. State Department-funded Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowships to study Nahuatl — include undergraduate and graduate students in Chicano studies, Latin American Studies, art history, archaeology, history, comparative literature and Spanish and Portuguese. “We have a mixture of students of Mexican descent who already know about Nahuatl and understand its importance — some even identify as Mexica (i.e., of Aztec descent),” says Terraciano.

The amazing story of the Florentine Codex

Much of Terraciano’s current research is concentrated on the Florentine Codex. Codices, or illustrated books, were the primary book form of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica. Originally named “General History of the Things of New Spain,” the illustrated Nahuatl manuscript “is one of the most unique, lavishly illustrated and longest such works to have miraculously survived,” says the UCLA professor. The only known copy of the work resides in the Laurentian Library of Florence (hence the “Florentine” in its name). It consists of 12 books bound in three volumes and features 2,000 illustrations hand-painted by Nahua artists.

The creation of the codex and its survival reads like the plot of an Indiana Jones movie. Compiled over a period of roughly 25 years in the mid-1500s by Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan friar living in Mexico, it represents what is likely the first rigorous ethnographic research ever conducted on an indigenous culture. Sahagún solicited contributions from Nahua elders throughout Mexico and assembled these writings with the help of his indigenous students at the Colegio Imperial de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, a European college founded by the Spanish to educate and convert indigenous youth.

The friar persisted in compiling and protecting the codex despite numerous obstacles put in his way by the Catholic Church and the Spanish Crown. At one point, for example, a Church superior took the 12 books from him and distributed them to Franciscans in other parts of Mexico for “review.” Five years later, a different superior allowed Sahagún to retrieve the books and keep working on them.

The codex was completed during an extraordinarily tense period in the 1570s — the decade when the Spanish Inquisition arrived in the Americas. Bartolomé de las Casas, who had openly criticized the Spanish king for the genocide of native peoples, had only recently died (in 1566). “De las Casas,” explains Terraciano, “was the most eloquent, articulate, outspoken critic of the Spanish Empire and a defender of native peoples. He wrote volumes extolling native culture and criticizing the Spaniards for being profit-seekers.”

Then in 1577, “King Phillip II of Spain issued a decree declaring that anyone who was working on manuscripts involving the history or religion of the native peoples, or of the Conquest, should send them to Spain immediately (together with all copies),” says Terraciano. Sagahún finally sent the finished codex to Spain in 1579, when he was 80 years old. Unlike an earlier, unsuccessful attempt to send a similar ethnographic work, this time Sahagún chose a trusted friend to hand carry it to Madrid.

Yet instead of bearing the work to Spain, says Terraciano, “This friend seems to have instead brought it to a collector of manuscripts from around the world, Ferdinando d'Medici, who was a cardinal in Rome. This man later became the Grand Duke of Tuscany and placed it in his special library — the Laurentian Library in Florence — where it remained for 200 years until it came to light in a library catalogue.” Systematic scholarly work on the volume, he notes, began only in the early 20th century.

Page from book 9 of the codex, which deals with Nahua food. (Image courtesy of the Laurentian Library, Florence.) “Sahagún died not knowing what happened to this masterpiece,” remarks the professor. “He dedicates the codex to this friend, but the friend never told him what he did with it — he never sent him a letter….. We think that this friend never sent Sahagún anything because he wanted to protect the codex, and perhaps could not admit freely that he had not brought it to the king in Madrid,” says Terraciano.

Although the friar’s purported objective was “to document Nahua religious beliefs so that [the Catholic Church] could identify and then extirpate them,” continues the historian, “Sahagún was steeped in the language and culture, totally bilingual and very sympathetic to these people. He really thought that they were on the verge of extinction — he says as much in different places in the work. He feared that they were dying off so fast that he wanted to record this great culture and language.

“He wanted to create something in Nahuatl similar to what Virgil and Cicero had created in Latin — something for all time,” he explained. “So he had all of these very wise and learned Nahua men working with him and writing on all sorts of things.” The first two books of the codex deal with religion and cosmology; other books deal with Nahua society, moral philosophy and rhetoric, flora and fauna, and the cosmos.

“The very last book is on the Spanish Conquest from an indigenous point of view,” says Terraciano. “That’s the one I’m really focused on. It’s so unique, it’s by far the lengthiest and most interesting indigenous account of the encounter and the conquest that we have. And all in Nahuatl, with some 160 illustrations drawn by native artists.

“I'm writing right now on the difference between the Nahuatl text and Sahagún’s Spanish translation of this book,” he says. “The differences are very careful and conscious, they are not random. He was toning it down because he was already in the fire for doing this sort of thing, and these people are writing about the Spaniards as greedy and powerful cold-blooded killers!”

Asked if the friar knew that he was actually preserving the Nahua account of the Conquest under the cover of his translation, Terraciano answers in the affirmative. “Some of the most sympathetic Spaniards [in Mexico at that time] were the friars and priests who set out to destroy the devil and idolatry,” he remarks, “but who really sympathized with the people for the way they were suffering. Many of these friars were angry at secular Spaniards and the nonreligious, who were there just to make a profit at the expense of these people.”

*IDIEZ was founded by John Sullivan, currently a professor of Nahua Language and Culture at the Universidad Autonoma de Zacateca. Terraciano studied classical Nahuatl as a graduate student with UCLA historian James Lockhart (1933–2014), as did Sullivan. Lockhart wrote some of the earliest indigenous histories of the Spanish Conquest, based on Nahuatl. 

This article was first published June 5, 2017, and updated on June 16 and 18.

Click here to see a short video in Nahuatl created by IDIEZ.

Listen below to Eduardo de la Cruz introduce himself in Nahautl.


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