Participatory Reading of Historical Texts in Nahuatl: A Tool of Empowerment and Decolonization

22 January 2019 Written by   Justyna Olko
Speakers of Nahuatl examine documents written by their ancestors. Archivo General de la Nación, October 2018 © Justyna Olko Speakers of Nahuatl examine documents written by their ancestors. Archivo General de la Nación, October 2018 © Justyna Olko































In axcan nican nel miec nipaqui, porque miec timocentilihqueh, nocnihuan, miac tihuallauhqueh, miec ticpiyah in tlahtol. Nimitzilhuia, amo tlamiz, es como tiquihtozqueh, ce cuahuitl, tictocaz miec inelhuayo quipiyaz, miac iconehuan quipiyaz. Ihcon totlahtol que amo ma tlami, ma titlahcuilocan. Yehon amatl ompa mocavaz. Toconeuan quihuelittah, toixhuihuan noiuhqui quihuelittah porque quihtozqueh: ‘¿De canin tochan? ¿De canin totlal? ¿De canin tivitzeh?’. Yahon si tiquihcuilozqueh, ompa yahon mocahuaz, para miec, miec xihuitl.

Now I am really happy here because many of us have gathered, my brothers, many have come, many have the language [Nahuatl]. I’m telling you that it will not end, it is, as we could say, like a tree. You will plant it, it will have many roots, it will have many children. Our language is like this, let it not end, let’s write in it. This writing will be preserved. Our children like it and also our grandchildren like it because they will say: ‘Where is our home? Where is our land? Where do we come from?’ If we put it in writing, it will be preserved for many, many years.  

These are the words of Guadalupe Flores Cuéllar, a native speaker of Nahuatl from Tepeyolloc, Puebla, and an indigenous translator, from our first collaborative workshop reading colonial Nahuatl documents in the Mexican National Archive (AGN) in 2015.¹  Since then, Guadalupe, along with many other speakers from all over Mexico, has participated in a number of historical workshops and other activities carried out entirely in modern Nahuatl that we have organized along with collaborating institutions and communities.²  As is well known, indigenous voices have long been absent, underrepresented, or misrepresented not only in historical research but also in the fields of anthropology, linguistics, sociology, and cultural studies. As a result of colonization, assimilation, marginalization, and pervasive discrimination, many modern indigenous groups, including Nahua communities, lack a strong sense of historical identity and pride in their language and cultural heritage.

As an ethnohistorian working on the long tradition of Nahua colonial writing and attempting to understand indigenous history though its own sources, I find this situation particularly painful and challenging. Any historian who has had the privilege of exploring the richness of indigenous perspectives and the strength of their resilience recorded in their own sources would probably find it very difficult to accept the ways in which indigenous history is present, or rather absent, in the awareness of the modern descendants of the Aztecs. In Mexico, knowledge about indigenous cultural and sociopolitical continuity in the colonial period is restricted to a narrow spectrum of scholars and is not part of a broader educational system. Lamentably, museums offer broader society the groundless vision of a rigid and unbridgeable gap between the glorious pre-Conquest past of Mesoamerican cultures and the traditions of the present people, whose languages and cultural practices are often seen as very remote from those of their glorious predecessors. As a result of this pervasive ideology, dating back to the formation period of the modern Mexican state, very few Nahuas identify themselves as descendants of the Aztecs or feel pride because of their ancestry.

But this situation can be challenged. I believe that we as historians should be part of this process. Along with John Sullivan, the director of Instituto de Docencia e Investigación Etnólogica de Zacatecas, and in collaboration with the Mexican National Archive, we have begun to organize regular workshops in which native speakers read colonial-era Nahuatl documents written by their ancestors and discuss them, speaking in their variants of the language. Quite aptly, archives have been compared to prisons or fortresses, where both the records and researchers are subject to strict surveillance. And indeed, the Palacio de Lecumberri, which today houses the Mexican National Archive, was a penitentiary from 1900 to 1976, before becoming a national archive in 1980. Indigenous documents are literally stored in former prison cells and access to them is usually restricted to professional researchers. When we gathered with the native speakers of Nahuatl in 2015 (and annually since), it was probably the first time in the history of the building as a national archive that its monumental halls were filled with the language of the authors of the colonial Nahuatl manuscripts it holds. Since then, dozens of Nahuatl speakers from a large number of communities in Mexico City and the states of Mexico, Puebla, Tlaxcala, Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Veracruz take part in the collaborative reading of legacy left by their ancestors. They not only work collaboratively on the transcription, translation, and interpretation of the texts but also personally examine the original documents. It has turned out to be a deeply emotional experience for all of us.

When planning these workshops, we attempt to select texts from the regions or places from which native-speaking participants originate. Reading local texts has a special meaning for them because sharing place-based knowledge can be a decolonizing practice in multiple ways. Moreover, these colonial documents often reveal indigenous forms of agency, such as defending local autonomy, confirming rights to land, questioning excessive tribute demands, and petitioning for removal of Spanish officials. Such situations become an important source of empowerment and agency for modern indigenous activists, students, and community members, offering their indigenous readers an opportunity to experience continuity with the past and to see their ancestors’ actions as examples for their own individual and collective resilience in the present. The modern descendants of the Aztecs realize that their ancestors had a tradition of alphabetic writing spanning five centuries, which, as expressed by Guadalupe, should be continued. Many participants, who are usually proficient speakers, have had little if any opportunity to write and read in their language. Very often their biggest wish is to learn to do so and to practice it in different aspects of their lives. History gives them strong inspiration and legitimacy in their present activities, although this had never been part of their education at school. Historical documents also contain many words and structures that have fallen out of use but can be reincorporated into the modern language. In fact, during our meetings, the Nahuas from different regions often compare their vocabularies and joyfully experiment with terms unknown in their own communities. On the other hand, we have also realized that using modern lexical resources and concepts allows us to better understand certain historical terms and concepts, which we, as scholars, had struggled to explain. These include, for example, specific terms for greetings, land measurement units, and legal expressions.

Historical and anthropological research has been profoundly decolonized over the last several decades through the inclusion of postcolonial and indigenous perspectives. But to what degree are the results of this research available to indigenous audiences? And to what degree have they decolonized us as scholars? Is our research useful for people who, as a result of colonialism and modern policies, have been deprived of their own sense of history and belonging to the past? I believe that it is the present to which the results of historical research should matter and meaningfully relate. This can be done in a number of ways that are yet to be explored and implemented. I see our participatory history reading with the modern Nahuas as a seed that carries the potential of actively involving them in the social process of history reading and history making. Access to the past can inspire indigenous people to reflect on their identity and their values and provide stimuli to act. And it also greatly enriches academic historians’ understanding of the past and its bearing upon the present.


uczestnicy enghum AGN 2018

Participants of the collaborative workshop Tototatahhuan Inintlahtol. Nahuatlapohualiztequitl (XVI–XVIII hueyixihuicahuitl), Archivo General de la Nación, October 2018. © Engaged Humanities Project, University of Warsaw,

1., accessed November 19, 2018. Return to text.

2. The organizers are the University of Warsaw and Instituto de Docencia e Investigación Etnólogica de Zacatecas. Return to text.

Justyna Olko is a professor at the Faculty of “Artes Liberales” at the University of Warsaw and director of its Center for Research and Practice in Cultural Continuity. She specializes in Nahua ethnohistory, anthropology, and linguistics as well as cross-cultural transfer between indigenous and European worlds. Olko is also actively involved in the revitalization of Nahuatl and endangered local languages in Poland. She is the author of Insignia of Rank in the Nahua World: From the Fifteenth to the Seventeenth Century and, with John Sullivan and Jan Szemiński, coeditor of Dialogue with Europe, Dialogue with the Past: Colonial Nahua and Quechua Elites in Their Own Words.


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