The hills and fields of nopal cultivation draw the rural landscape of Milpa Alta, the second largest territory in Mexico City and, in turn, the least populated.
In one of his small municipalities, Santa Ana Tlacotenco, José Ortiz effusively displays some of his colorful works.
Blue tones stain one of the paintings, which symbolizes the
, something like the sound produced by water falling on a surface.
The title of the work maintains the sensitivity towards nature that has accompanied the Nahuatl people since its origin.
The town, which has some 11,000 inhabitants, and which has seen how its flagship language has lost strength in recent decades, now seeks to revitalize the Nahuatl identity through culture.
"The language may cease to exist, but we continue to think in Nahuatl," he says.
Ortiz is a kind of language philosopher, a contemporary sage who has tried to reflect the Nahuatl vision of the universe in a series of paintings and sculptures full of metaphors for nature and deities.
He is also the president of the Nahuatl Language Council.
He explains the essence of the language with enthusiasm, inflating the gestures.
“There is a kind of magic.
And magic is the same nature.
The same plants, the position of the sun with respect to the moon.
All of this is magical and in that period in which the moon and the sun change position, certain things can be done.
That belief is still preserved here,” he says.
The plastic artist José Ortiz Rivera, in his studio in the Milpa Alta City Hall, on March 23, 2023. Aggi Garduño
Mexico City has 9.2 million inhabitants.
Of them, 124,540 speak some native language.
With nearly 40,000 speakers, Nahuatl is the most widespread native language in the capital, according to the latest Inegi census of 2020. In Milpa Alta there is no specific count, but the data collected by the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples ( Inpi) showed how the muscle of a language that reached 9,506 people in 1940 (64.3% of the 14,785 people who then lived in the mayor's office), gradually deflated until it remained at the 1,909 that remained in 1990 (the 3rd % of the total, which in that year was 63,654 people).
The figures for the capital are just a small sample of the 7.3 million speakers of indigenous languages that spread throughout the country.
In Santa Ana, Ortiz has tried in recent years to bring together the 50 elderly people who still used Nahuatl as their mother tongue, to try to harmonize the popular language of the place.
“We made recordings and writings for them, and we even took them to the computer to see the vibration of the sound, to differentiate the nuances of their voices,” he explains.
Over time, the most knowledgeable people of the language have been dying, and now, the small town of Milpalta has less than 10 of those speakers.
The professor wants to maintain the survival of popular language: "I know the value [language] has and I am aware of the wisdom it holds."
In the background, the Council's spokesman, Alejandro Ortiz, qualifies the artist's responses: "Maintaining the language is defending an alliance and the preservation of nature."
Alejandro Ortiz Rivera and José Ortiz Rivera, the spokesperson and president of the Milpa Alta Nahuatl Language and Culture Council. Aggi Garduño
In the heart of the town, the Nahuatl teacher Javier Galicia walks through one of the humble classrooms that each weekend welcome about 80 students, in the Territorial Coordination building.
“Milpa Alta is a region of indigenous peoples, the last bastion where the Nahuatl language continues to be spoken [in the capital].
Here we have the last speakers who had it as their mother tongue.
And we are talking about an extremely small amount”, he affirms.
Galicia belongs to one of the civil associations that continue to fight to keep the language alive, and he knows that you cannot live by teaching this language.
“They don't hire you.
Each one [of the teachers] has his individual work, and dedicates a little time for this.
That is why [classes are] on Saturdays and Sundays”, he assures.
The teacher assumes that in about 10, perhaps 20 years, the language is in danger of disappearing.
He believes that maintaining its popular validity is important, beyond a mere academic perspective.
“Dictionaries are great, very important.
But they need a vision that has to do with the communities [...] there are translations that are given a spirituality that translations taken from dictionaries lose”.
Galicia says that young people come to the classroom to strengthen ties with their community and thus maintain their identity stamp.
But he takes into account the difficulties: "In a country where there is discrimination against the indigenous, being an Indian does not give you all the same opportunities."
The teacher, like Ortiz, believes that culture —traditional dances, music, or the act of sowing— will continue to occupy the space left by the language.
Javier Galicia Silva, Nahuatl teacher in Santa Ana Tlacotenco, on March 22, 2023. Aggi Garduño
In the square of the municipal building, two young people dance bachata.
On one of the benches, a sign invites you to join them: "Do you want to dance?"
During the patron saint festivities, the square takes a different turn: girls, young people, and adults dance traditional Aztec dances, accompanied by the sound of violins, guitars, and lyrics in Nahuatl.
The ethnomusicologist —expert in the study of music with cultural approaches— and tracalera dance teacher Taly Gutiérrez tells that the dance, although it has contemporary features, maintains a historical background that embraces pre-Hispanic culture: “It connects with that memory about the community , the memory of the original towns of Milpa Alta”.
She considers that dance serves as a strategy to bring new generations closer to a language that currently takes refuge above all in settings for the elderly.
“It helps to know it not only in the abstract or in linguistic structures, but in action.
The girls sing and dance, ”she sums up.
The classic lyrics that are sung at parties maintain the cosmology of nature that the Nahuatls internalized.
One of the songs that resonate those days is that of
Between stanzas, she says:
Totetlazo tlatonaltzin macenemihacac.
In Spanish, something like this: "Like today on this sacred day, on this joyous festivity."
The observation in this stanza is found in the reference to the day.
“He talks about today, about this day.
emphasizes the importance of a particular day, which in this case is the feast.
It's not just any day, but it's 'the day', he says.
The entrance to the Altepepialcalli Regional Museum, in the Milpa Alta City Hall, on March 22. Aggi Garduño
A phone and many expectations in Milpa Alta
Some 50 kilometers from downtown Santa Ana, the coordinator of the Altepepialcalli Regional Museum, Marco Laubarraquia, reflects from his modest office.
“The kids of today, the people of today, are not as identified as when our grandparents instilled in us the situation of the language and customs,” he maintains.
Minutes later, the head of Attention to Original Peoples, Gabriel Sánchez, enters the door with a cell phone in hand.
He says that from the Headquarters they propose a program to revitalize the Nahuatl culture and language in Milpa Alta.
“[Language] is a part of all cultural development.
The rest refers to gastronomy, dance, music and uses, customs and traditions.
What community life implies”.
From his mouth, as from the rest of the interviewees, two words stand out: “community” and “identity”.
Sánchez proposes a fight against individualism, focused on defending the idea of community.
He raises his arm and shows the phone.
“You can use technology to lock yourself in the roll of individualism, inside a phone;
Or you can use it as a tool to grow, to be able to propose social, cultural, political, environmental and economic models”.
A second later, she adds: "The process of revitalizing language and culture involves the use of new technologies."
For a few weeks now, the department where she works has been trying to launch an app to learn the language.
It is still in process.
In the small artistic studio in Santa Ana, José Ortiz continues to explain the meaning of his works.
He talks about deities, the maguey plant —the agave, with great symbolism for him— and the forces of nature.
He does it in Nahuatl.
Every time he finishes a sentence, Alejandro translates it into Spanish: “Here is the invitation, if you have any questions…”.
The teacher firmly believes that a disappearance of the language would not end the close cultural relationship of activities such as planting.
He has had a glass of natural pulque before entering the studio, and when he leaves it, he talks to the visitors: “Will they come back later?
It may not be there, I'm going to the field”.
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