Teen-agers, senior citizens and a few people in between are learning the language and the history of their ancestors at the Chicano Resource Center at the East Los Angeles Public Library.
About 40 turn out the last Saturday of each month to hear Prof. Fermin Herrera of Cal State Northridge teach Nahuatl (pronounced nah-WHAAT), the language of the Mechicas who inhabited Tenochtitlan, now known as Mexico City, and discussions on the history of the Mechicas taught by poet Leo Guerra.
"People know about the Holocaust, but do they know that there were 25 million Mexicanos killed by the Spaniards between 1521 and 1570? In Tenochtitlan, there were 350,000 people killed," Guerra said.
"And these were advanced civilizations. Tenochtitlan was an island city, like Venice, but larger, with canals and bridges and buildings made from bricks, not mud huts. This is a little bit of what we're trying to do. It's a wake-up call."
Guerra, 44, who grew up in East Los Angeles, has researched the Mechicas on his own and is making it his life's work to spread the word about the history and culture that belongs to Mexicans and Mexican Americans.
The free classes are the result of Guerra's Chicano Mexicano Empowerment Committee, which is also working with organizers of a Mexican charter school in Montebello that will be designed by Mexican Americans to include the pre-Columbian history of the Western Hemisphere.
Guerra decries the use of Hispanic and Latino because, he said, they tend to blend the diverse cultures together and make the people sound generic.
His committee has also protested against KVEA-TV Channel 52 for its use of Hispano, on similar grounds. Spokeswoman Claudia Santa Cruz said the station uses Hispanic and Latino in its broadcasts. "It's a little bit difficult because you can't please everybody," she said. "They want us to use the word Chicano and to a lot of people, that's an insult."
Guerra said that the Nahuatl language can be heard in certain so-called Spanish words, such as cuate, or twin. The Spanish term is actually gemelos, but Mexicans don't use it. Mitote, which means gossip, is also a Nahuatl word.
"Part of what impressed me was how these words had survived," Guerra said. "There's an important aspect of who we are as a language. We're an Indian people who have been scarred by racial rape, which is something we don't like to talk about."
The Nahuatl class, from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and the Mechica history class, from 1 to 3 p.m., are taught at the library, 4801 East 3rd St. Guerra, who invites anyone to sit in on the history classes, wants to present another series after this one concludes in May.
Information: (213) 264-0155.