When she was a child in Tecomate, Mexico, in the southeastern state of Veracruz, Sabina Cruz de la Cruz was scolded for speaking Nahuatl, her native language. Now, as an adult living periodically in the U.S., she teaches it.
Nahuatl is the language of the Aztec people, whose empire controlled a large portion of pre-Columbian Central Mexico from the 14th to the 16th century. It’s still spoken today by more than 1.5 million people.
But Nahuatl could become extinct — and Cruz is doing her part to keep that from happening.
“Nahuatl is my mother tongue, my primary language,” she said.
Cruz has been teaching Nahuatl at the University of Texas for the past two years. For their end-of-year project this spring, her students gave a presentation that included a song, a poem and a play in Nahuatl.
“Pan nopa tonatiuh,” one of the students said as English and Spanish subtitles were projected onto a screen above, “Chela huan Mela itzoqueh altauhco tlachicueniah huan iuhquinon zaniloah ica tlamachtiliztli then Chalino” (“That day, Chela y Mela were by the creek washing clothes and talking about Chalino’s studies.”).
Cruz learned Nahuatl “with my parents, my people,” she said.
And though Cruz spoke it as a girl, she didn’t learn how to write it until she grew up. “It was something beautiful and exciting for me,” she said.
Cruz has a law degree but has never worked as an attorney, she said. When she was on her third or fourth semester, she said, she was invited to help put together a Nahuatl dictionary, which she ended up co-authoring with John Sullivan, a professor of Nahua Language and Culture at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas, and seven to eight other collaborators.
In 2007, Cruz started giving Nahuatl classes during the summers at the Ethnological Teaching and Research Institute of Zacatecas. In 2009, she became an assistant professor of Nahuatl at Tulane University in New Orleans and taught there every two years. Since 2015, she has been a Nahuatl instructor at UT’s Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies.
A difficult start
When Cruz had to learn Spanish in Tecomate, it was a painful process because it came with a rejection of her native language. Cruz said teachers would tell her to “learn Spanish because Nahuatl is not going to be useful for you; Nahuatl isn’t good for anything.”
“We cried as children because we didn’t know any Spanish, just Nahuatl … it was hard because we were forced to learn,” she recalled. “We would be punished if we said a word in Nahuatl; they would hit us.”
Nevertheless, Cruz continued to speak Nahuatl at home and with her siblings, even after they had all left for college. “We would even feel embarrassed to talk to each other in Spanish,” she said.
She also felt embarrassed to speak in Spanish with her parents. “I’d feel weird,” Cruz said.
Nowadays, she said she feels her life finally has reached a balance between her two tongues and her two realities. On the one hand, Nahuatl helps her reconnect with her roots. On the other, “Spanish has helped me a lot to communicate outside my community,” Cruz said, adding that being able to speak two languages has allowed her to travel and get to know other cultures.
But if neither grandparents nor parents teach children how to speak Nahuatl, it might disappear forever, Cruz said.
“My hope is that it doesn’t get lost, that children learn to speak it in the classroom, because right now I’m not the only teacher interested in Nahuatl being learned,” she said. “There are more of us.”