Ancient Tongue Linked to Aztec Past

Times Staff Writer

For 15 years, David Vazquez has awakened each morning at 5:30 to clean the pews and the patio at the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana.

His wife, Rosa, brings him lunch. When the musicians don’t show up on Sundays for the Spanish-language service, Vazquez plays the guitar. For Good Friday, he weaves religious figures out of palm leaves and makes church decorations for Day of the Dead.

But what has attracted attention among Mexican Americans seeking to learn more about their heritage is his second, unpaid job. He teaches his native Nahuatl, a language spoken by the Aztecs and still spoken in parts of central Mexico.


An estimated 1 million people, including more than 25,000 Mexican immigrants in the United States, speak some form of Nahuatl (NAH-wa-tl, with the “l” nearly silent). It varies in pronunciation from region to region.

For Vazquez and his students, learning the language is a way to link themselves to Mexico’s core.

“Promoting this language helps preserve my culture,” he said. “This is our mother tongue and offers a direct route to express yourself and understand the culture.”

More Mexican Americans in Southern California are learning the language “as a journey to their past,” said Lupe Lopez, executive director of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance, a cultural rights organization in Anaheim that offers the classes. Books are being published in Nahuatl and classes are offered throughout Southern California, she said.

Vazquez, who has little formal education, spends hours each day studying at home and teaching the language at local community centers and colleges.

He has made more than 250 large posters to teach people such common phrases as “how are you?” The posters include the phrases in English, Spanish and Nahuatl.


A modest man who wears a long ponytail and uses words sparingly, Vazquez is “a real Renaissance man,” said Rev. Brad Karelius, who welcomed the Mexican immigrant to the Santa Ana church in 1989.

“I’ve seen what he can do in art, poetry and language. I know for him, [the church] is just a day job.”

Vazquez lives in Santa Ana, but has big ideas that frequently take him back to his hometown about 120 miles southwest of Mexico City, where Nahuatl is commonly spoken. With money he has saved, he has built a nine-bedroom house there and has plans for a Nahuatl learning center nearby.

He hopes the center, with the support of villagers, will not only promote the understanding and use of Nahuatl, but also provide a place for him to promote an entirely new Nahuatl alphabet he has developed.

The center would be located on 20 acres spanning two towns and communally owned by villagers.

Speaking in telephone interviews, officials of the two towns said they are raising about $10,000 for construction costs.


“There are many communities that are losing their ties to Nahuatl,” said Gaudencio Cruz Aguilar, one of the local officials. “This is very important for us and we think an alphabet will reinforce the language.”

Groundbreaking is set for May 13.

“This is a project that really comes from my heart,” said Vazquez. “We will be able to teach people a letter system that has not been imposed on us from outside.”

Despite local enthusiasm, the project faces many hurdles, in part because outsiders question the need for a new alphabet.

“It’s a very radical idea to remake a language. I think it will be very hard to teach it,” said Juan Jose Gonzalez Medina, a representative of the Puebla State Cultural Secretariat.

John Schwaller, a professor of Nahuatl and Latin American history and literature at the University of Minnesota-Morris, said there have been other attempts to create a Nahuatl alphabet, but none have stuck.

“A Nahuatl speaker has access to millions of written documents in European characters. If they learn a different orthography, that wonderful cultural legacy is closed off to them,” Schwaller said.


Meanwhile, Vazquez is teaching classes at El Modena Community Center in Orange. The two-hour classes, given in Spanish, are a tongue-twisting experience for students repeating Nahuatl words.

There are 12 ways to say hello, and five ways to say “to eat,” Vazquez said. Because there are regional dialects, students must learn six ways to say “I.”

Janet Mendez, a 25-year-old county employee, was among two dozen beginning students on a recent Tuesday night who could not say more than a few sentences. The struggle to learn more is worth it, she said.

“I feel this is the only way to reclaim our culture, to speak this language even if it is only a little bit,” she said. “It’s great that he is here, because there’s not too many places where you can hear this language.”