Professor Takes Aztec Way of Life to Heart

Times Staff Writer

Fermin Herrera dashes an alphabet soup of letters onto the board, then slashes them apart, sending up little puffs of chalk dust.

He paces between glottal conglomerations such as Nezahualcoyotl and Moyocoyani, truncating reflexive suffixes and baring antepenultimate root words.

He easily reels out derivations, history, and linguistic anecdotes, drawing from the roots of Aztec, English, Spanish, Latin and Greek, until, finally, the baffling syllables yield their meaning and soft "ahs" of understanding rise from the class.

Herrera, an Oxnard resident who teaches at California State University, Northridge, is one of the few experts in North America on classical Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs and other native civilizations of central Mexico.

About 4 million of Mexico's 80 million people speak a simplified version of the language that has outlived these civilizations. The literature of those people, though, is far more obscure. Shelved in university archives or locked in museum cases, the poetry of the Aztecs is less familiar to native Nahuatl speakers than Beowulf is to the average American.

Still, Herrera draws a full house as he unveils the mysteries of Nahuatl. If the discipline seems obscure, it also is obvious; the 41-year-old professor does not hesitate to explain how Nahuatl gives focus to almost every facet of his life--from what he eats for breakfast to how he teaches.

Veracruz Harp

He credits Nahuatl with giving him the wherewithal at 25 to overcome a lifelong conviction that he was tone deaf and to go on to gain international recognition as a master of the Mexican folk instrument known as the Veracruz harp. He has performed in arenas as prestigious as Wolf Trap and played with recording stars Los Lobos in the movie "La Bamba."

Herrera also has a muscle magazine physique, the result of an irreproachable diet and a tough exercise program that is guided on an Aztec principle.

As if being a noted scholar, a virtuoso musician and a paragon of fitness were not enough, acquaintances say that Herrera is constantly helping others, giving his time to anyone who shows interest in his many areas of expertise, from linguistics to running. The habit, he says, stems from an Aztec concept of friendship.

Furthermore, many of his students say they've been spurred on to greater heights by the philosophy Herrera has drawn from those strange, glottal syllables of that nearly extinct tongue.

"Anybody who has ever gone through his unit on Nahuatl is more open, more willing to question, more willing to challenge, to probe, to be a true university student and seek for knowledge," said Jorge Garcia, a professor of Chicano studies at CSUN who studied the language with Herrera. "It opened up a whole new side of myself, made me reflect on what I'm doing, on what it means to be educated, what it means to be a teacher."

The Aztec influence on Herrera is not immediately apparent. His few replicas of pre-Columbian artifacts are stored in an Ethan Allan sort of curio cabinet that blends with the rest of the quiet furnishings in a ranch-style house in an Oxnard neighborhood. Less visual things, such as the Aztec and Mayan names of his five children, Xocoyotitzin, Motecuhzomah, Xilomen, Ixchel and Ixya, are testimony to his involvement in native Mexican culture.

Herrera's nearly six-foot frame is a solid mass of precisely chiseled muscle. Even in the animated pitch he reaches when he is energetically dissecting the names of Aztec deities, his speech maintains a measured, academic tone.

"It is thrilling for them to see the etymological connections," he said when asked why students are inspired by his class. "I find that, when I bring those out, there is a favorable reaction to it."

Deep Efforts

Those who know Herrera say they are impressed by the depth of effort he puts into every endeavor.

"When he has an interest, he will drill into it as far as he can get," said Al Torres, who was Herrera's basketball and football coach in junior high school and later studied Nahuatl with him. "He'll give you the European, the American and the Mexican view on any point. He knows the Iliad as well as some of the versos he plays on his harp." Herrera's odyssey into music is a case in point. It was launched as he was teaching the Aztec concept of the word teacher or tlamatini . The word literally means one who enables a person to develop a face and to give direction to his heart.

"In Nahuatl, heart literally means a person's movement, their potential," Herrera said. "Face is a metaphor for the specific direction, for the form they gave to that potential. If we have the potential to move hands, that is heart; if we learn how to play the piano that is face."

Practicing Aztec

"I was talking about this specifically in my pre-Columbian class," he said. Aztecs "saw people as potential to be developed. Then it dawned on me: If I'm talking about this, it should be real, it should be genuine, it should be a reflection of what I do all day, not a vague ideal that I probably won't even try."

Herrera had always had a reluctance to try music. He could never carry a tune and was sure he was tone deaf.

"I had a real fear of it," he said. "I decided this would be a good opportunity to apply this philosophy, to take my heart and give it some face."

Herrera immediately chose the Veracruz harp, an instrument that requires a complex and precise style.

"It sounds corny, but it was really a challenge," he said. "If I started with a guitar, it wouldn't have required the same degree of effort. I would have had some degree of doubt in my mind. If I could do it with the harp, I could do it with anything."

In the beginning, Herrera was so bewildered by music that he had to take movies of his harp lessons and run them back in slow motion, replaying and mimicking each chord endlessly. He didn't walk through the room that the harp was in without stopping to play it, said his wife, Carmen.

"He was so crazy about that harp, I cried," she said. "I didn't think he loved me anymore."

Months of effort yielded little progress. Herrera faltered and gave up the harp for another instrument, only to return to it a few months later.

"This idea of the face and the heart was haunting me," he said. "I just didn't feel I would be a genuine teacher if I didn't put it into practice."

He looked for the best musicians he could find to help him. When the Ballet Folklorico, which comprises some of the finest folk artists in Mexico, performed in Oxnard in 1974, "I hijacked them, and brought them to my house," Herrera said. He has cultivated friendships with many of the musicians, and some are now padrinos , godparents, to his sons.

Herrera became good enough to secure two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts to study with master harpists in Mexico.

That didn't satisfy him either. He wanted to get down to the roots of the Jarocho music of the Veracruz region and find musicians who had not been influenced by the commercial recordings of the 1950s. Herrera trekked through the jungles of Veracruz and found his way to sleazy cantinas of Mexico City in order to interview and record dozens of authentic Jarocho artists.

He formed a troupe with two of his brothers, a sister and his oldest son. It is considered the top group playing Jarocho music in the United States, said Dr. Tim Harding, a professor who lectures on Mexican music at UCLA and has played the Veracruz harp for 30 years.

The troupe, El Conjunto Jarocho Hueyapan, has played at the Smithsonian and won standing ovations at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, but Herrera says their crowning moment was when they were invited to play at a festival of Veracruz music in Veracruz.

"They caused a sensation in Veracruz," Harding said. "People were really amazed and impressed with their skill and style."

The mayor of Veracruz gave the group proclamations from the city, and the University of Veracruz invited them to give lecture demonstrations.

"I think I accomplished what I set out to do with music, to preserve Jarocho music here in Southern California," Herrera said. "But that basic metaphor of the face and the heart and our basic responsibility to harness the energy, that flow, into something concrete has many forms."

The metaphor guides him in weightlifting, teaching and even gulping down his daily breakfast of six egg whites. "I can't stand them," he said. "I tell my kids, don't eat something because you like it; eat it because it's good for you. I tell them that, and then I eat the eggs."

However, friends and family say Herrera always had extraordinary self-control.

He was introduced to hard work and discipline growing up in La Colonia, Oxnard's Latino barrio, where he would get up at 5 a.m. to work the fields and citrus groves. In the evenings, after working in the fields, after school and after homework, his father would make the five children study extra math problems or stand on a chair to recite speeches.

The family shared a single bedroom in a tiny house on Grant Street. The children made their own skateboards and other toys out of bits and pieces they scavenged from the streets.

Herrera said his father, crippled by polio since youth, was always a tough, hard-working man, who didn't take charity, provided for his big family and never paid a bill late. He pressed his children to find a better way of life, but son Fermin was always a step ahead.

He read biographies of Caesar, Napoleon and Alexander the Great. "I never had any doubts in my mind," he said. "I always thought in terms of Oxford University."

Goodby, Sweets

Herrera began his physical fitness program at age 11 after reading a Charles Atlas pamphlet. He gave up eating sweets and fried food. He lifted books, irons, canned food, old radios--anything he could find--until he saved enough money to buy a set of barbells.

"Fermin was rebounding," coach Torres said. "He asked me, 'How do I get the ball?' I said, you don't look to see how you get the ball, you just get it. That's something he says he's never forgotten. If there's something you want, you just go after it--never mind how."

Torres said that both Herrera and his older brother, Andres, were star athletes. Andres went on to be an all-conference player at UCLA, but, at 16, Herrera gave up sports to go into Catholic seminary.

He completed high school at the Jesuit-run Queen of the Angels Minor Seminary in San Fernando. He was the only student who requested, and received, classical Greek lessons when only Latin was required.

He went on to university work at St. John's Seminary, Camarillo, getting up at 5:30 to begin the rituals of the day and study theology, philosophy, Latin and Greek. Although the studious, structured life of the seminary agreed with him, he said he was never able to picture himself in the role of a parish priest. So, after two years at St. John's, he transferred to UCLA.

He graduated from UCLA with a bachelor's degree in Chicano studies, but his affinity for linguistics led him to apply for a graduate program in Greek and Latin in Padua, Italy. He was on the way to file his paper work for the course when a professor stopped him and told him about a Nahuatl program in Mexico City. Herrera was galvanized by the idea of understanding native Mexicans through their own language.

"From reading some of the literary works of the Greek and Roman authors, I got a sense of who they were," he said. "I guess I expected to find the same kinds of things in Nahuatl."

Most of the original Nahuatl scripts, written in pictographs on hides, the bark of fig trees or a paper made from the fibers of the century plant, have decomposed, have been lost or were destroyed in the conquest. Only one of the dozen or so surviving originals is in Mexico, Herrera said. The rest are preserved in museums worldwide.

Spanish priests in the 16th Century, however, had the foresight to take down a phonetic record of legends, literature and history from the Aztecs' strong oral tradition.

"Literally thousands of those transliterated documents have not even been classified," Herrera said. "The study of Nahuatl is just beginning."

In the meantime, the accounts written by the Spanish conquerors of the native Mexicans have been adopted as history. Many of them focused on the ritual of human sacrifice to the exclusion of all the other elements of the culture.

There are even a few scholars who dispute whether human sacrifice was ever practiced at all. Herrera, however, is not one of them.

"The point essentially is that one cannot deny the existence of human sacrifice, and I don't think one can justify it," he said. "At the same time, we can not reduce Meso-American civilization to that. I think one of the reasons we study a society is to seek some source of inspiration for our present and our future. We are not going to get that from the study of the Inquisition of Spain or the gladiators of Rome or the Holocaust in Germany or human sacrifice in Mexico."

Herrera found that kind of inspiration in Nahuatl literature.

"The thing that kept coming through in their poems is that it is important things that are enduring," he said. "They celebrated friendship and saw it as a uniquely human characteristic. That has affected me perhaps even more than my Catholic upbringing to think of charity, being kind and open to people on a more consistent basis."

Student Concept

Herrera uses the Aztec concept of student, momachtiani as a prime motivator in his classes. The word carries with it the idea of "one who enables himself to learn, to know, to grasp," Herrera said. "I think we should all be that way, to take responsibility for our own learning. I tell all my students to be students in the Nahuatl sense--not the English or Spanish sense."

Nisa Suarez, a 22-year-old CSUN student, says that aspiring to be a momachtiani has changed her outlook. Suarez had always been an outstanding student in the English sense. She was recruited into honors programs in high school and always achieved high marks.

"I probably would have kept getting good grades, but I wouldn't have consciously known what I was doing," she said. "Before, I'd just take classes because I had to and did well because I wanted an A or a good job. Now I'm doing it to learn, not for the grade or the degree."

Suarez changed her course from becoming an engineer for the prestige and pay to becoming a math professor for the challenge and gratification. She cut down her normal course load from 12 units to eight so she can get more out of the classes she is taking.

"I go to four, five, six, seven other books for each class," she said. "I treat each class as if it were my only one. I get a thorough understanding and not just a superficial one."

Besides her regular course work, Suarez takes harp lessons from Herrera and has become proficient enough to teach other students. She is studying classical Greek to better understand the Bible, which she reads daily. She also started weight training and running and has trimmed about 20 pounds in a year.

Suarez is just one of the latest of a legion of momachtianis who have been taught by Herrera over his 15 years at CSUN.

"I still call him maestro--he's still my teacher," said Vickie Perez of Oxnard, a financial planner with an insurance company. "When I am able to master a certain aspect of my life, I call him up and tell him. When I made regional vice president, he was the first person I shared that with."

She acknowledges, however, that it can sometimes be disheartening to try to live up to Herrera's example.

"The man is so disciplined, he is so unreal," she said. "Sometimes it makes you think like, am I going to make it?"

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