Many Indigenous languages are endangered, and few are taught in universities. For Rebecca Mendoza Nunziato, a master’s of divinity student who hails from Colorado, the study group represents an important step in dismantling colonial narratives and an effort to reconnect with her cultural roots. Her father is of Mexican descent and her grandparents were farm workers in Texas and Colorado.
“It’s partly to honor my ancestors, and to reclaim Spanish, and something that existed before Spanish,” she said. “I also wanted to reconnect with the wisdom and knowledge that have been lost, colonized, and erased.”
Reading antique manuscripts in the original language is a thrill, said Mendoza Nunziato, who was surprised to learn from the documents the origin of the name Aztecs — that they hailed from mythical Aztlan. The Aztecs also called themselves Mexicas.
“It was an ‘aha’ moment for me,” she said. “I had been taught that they didn’t call themselves Aztecs, that that was a name that others gave them later on. It was so cool to learn from their own words what they called themselves in a primary document from 400 years ago.”
The ability to read primary sources was no less a draw for Quinn Matos, a master’s candidate in theological studies who is studying medical and ritual traditions in the Americas and the African Diaspora. Matos, who will head to NYU Long Island School of Medicine in the fall, said he’s gained from the group a greater understanding of ancient medicinal practices and a deeper appreciation of Indigenous languages — especially Nahuatl, which is made up of strung-together morphemes that tend to build long words.
“It’s a poetically gorgeous language,” said Matos, “and it sounds beautiful.”
According to Leeming, the longest word in Nahuatl comes from a Nahuatl drama titled “The Three Kings,” which was probably written in the 17th century: itlaçomahuizÇenquiscatlaçomahuizqualtilispepetlaquilisXayacatzin. The ethnohistorian and anthropologist Louise Burkhart translates it as “[his] precious, wondrous, utterly precious, wondrous, good, and shining face,” and refers to the face of baby Jesus.
“I studied Nahuatl because I became fascinated with the language,” said Leeming. “It’s beautiful, poetic, and full of metaphors.”
As for Contreras, she would like to use her Nahuatl knowledge in the classroom to help younger generations preserve a cultural heritage that is often overlooked and underappreciated.
“When we speak our Indigenous language, we are breathing life into a past that others tried to erase,” she said. “By remembering the past, we can co-create a new future that includes Indigenous languages. The future includes Indigenous peoples and language is one way to make sure we are not forgotten or forget ourselves.”
The Daily Gazette
Sign up for daily emails to get the latest Harvard news.