Celebrating indigenous Nahua culture

Attendees of a recent Nahuatl conference and festival were treated to panels and cultural workshops that explored the phonetics of the Nahuatl language, the modern Nahua people and their connection to the Los Angeles community.

Photographs from the Nahuatl conference and festival held at UCLA and the LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes in downtown Los Angeles, respectively, in early May. (Photos: Kevin Sprague & Jennifer Lainez/ UCLA.)

By Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)

UCLA International Institute, May 18, 2018 — On May 4th, members of the UCLA community joined 13 international scholars in the Kerckhoff Grand Salon to share research on the language of Nahuatl and Nahua culture. Nahuatl [pronounced na’ wat] is the language of the Aztecs and their contemporary descendants. Attendees included three native speakers of Nahuatl from the Mexican state of Veracruz and representatives from all member universities of the Western Alliance for Nahuatl, comprised of UCLA, Stanford and the University of Utah.

The 2018 Nahuatl conference was organized by the Western Alliance and made possible with partial funding from a Title VI/ NRC grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The event was cosponsored by the UCLA American Indian Studies Center, Center for Mexican Studies, departments of Chicana and Chicano Studies, Spanish and Portuguese and history; and the Chicano Studies Research Center.


Trilingual conference

“Many of today’s conference participants had the chance to study in both Spanish and Nahuatl — something which was not possible here at UCLA until 2015,” said Kevin Terraciano, UCLA historian and director of the Latin American Institute, in his opening remarks at the conference.

He explained that UCLA’s ability to offer courses in Nahuatl was made possible through collaboration with the Zacatecas Institute for Teaching and Research in Ethnology (IDIEZ), a nonprofit organization that promotes Nahuatl education via the production of Nahuatl-language resources such as storybooks and dictionaries. IDIEZ also curates monolingual learning environments for Nahuatl-speaking students at Zacatecas State University.

“We cannot talk about language without also discussing culture — the two are connected and inseparable,” said Terraciano. The historian emphasized that the conference’s goal was not just to explore the formal study of the Nahuatl language, but also to examine the cultural dynamics and histories of the communities where Nahuatl is spoken.

Conference panels were delivered in a mix of Spanish, Nahuatl and English and explored a wide range of topics. The first touched on the ritual role of Elote and the politics of gender in Nahua communities. At another session, panelists discussed advances in the study of Nahuatl, such as IDIEZ’s monolingual Nahuatl dictionary project and the ever-increasing ability to digitize Nahuatl education resources.   

Terraciano moderated the “Variations in the Nahuatl Language” panel, which focused primarily on phonetic shifts over time and the linguistic history of the Nahua people. Karen Dakin, professor of philology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, outlined multiple patterns of migration of the ancestors of today’s Nahuatl speakers and hypothesized that modern dialectal differences between the Nahuatl spoken in Central Puebla and the Valley of Mexico were due to this geographic separation.

Jeff Pynes of the University of Utah shared his research on the evolution of a linguistic unit that came to represent space in the Nahuatl of the Huasteca. The last panelist — Ricardo Garcia of California State University Los Angeles — addressed the particular form of Nahuatl spoken in Jalisco and Nayarit between 1580 and 1694, using colonial documents from New Spain to draw conclusions on linguistic patterns of the time.

At the day’s final panel, graduate students from UCLA’s Latin American Institute and the Nahuatl language program shared research of their own. Jennifer Cárcamo spoke on the migration patterns of Pipil-Nicarao Nahuatl speakers in Central America. Emma Hulse presented a historical analysis of how people spoke of indigenous identity in Mexico in the 1950s. Luis Aviles concluded the panel with a talk on the sociological and linguistic implications of the study of Nahuatl and Spanish as a means of understanding the situation of Nahuatl speakers in Mexico today.

Festival in downtown LA


The day after the conference, a Nahuatl Festival was held at the Plaza de Cultura y Artes in downtown Los Angeles, where community members were invited to enjoy language workshops, theatrical performances and cultural activities highlighting the connection between Mexico’s Nahua communities and the city of Los Angeles. The day's events were organized by the UCLA Nahuatl Club, who are all students of the language.

“It was amazing to see LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes filled with families interested in Nahua culture,” said Jennifer Laínez, program representative for UCLA’s Latin American Institute, who organized and helped with logistics for the festival.

“Kids really enjoyed the arts and crafts, cultural games and the play we put on,” she said, expressing excitement for future opportunities to spread and celebrate Nahua culture in the Los Angeles community.