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The Making of a nahuatlahtoh – a Scholar of Nahuatl and Aztec history

by | Jul 24, 2017 | Doctoral Funding Mentoring Program

This post is part of a series of blog posts written by incoming and second-year graduate students in the Early Graduate Fellowship Mentoring Program. Students were asked to provide a brief description of their research interests and how they came to those interests. 

I have always been interested in human cultures and nations. Growing up in San Diego, one of my favorite places to visit was the famous Museum of Man, an entire museum dedicated to anthropology. Although that museum has, to this day, featured a permanent exhibit on the Maya, and has frequently hosted exhibits on Mexican cultures and anthropology, I had little interest in anything relating to Mexican history. This is all the more ironic given that I myself am a first-generation Mexican-American. Perhaps coming from that culture made its history all the less exotic and intriguing. The academic path I was taking also gave me few opportunities to investigate Mexican history. I was a math major for my first years in college, and like so many STEM majors, I had a disparaging, belittling view of the humanities and social sciences as being, at best, curious diversions.

What sparked the change that led me to the present day was a chance trip to Mexico City. A cousin of mine living in the Mexican capital, built on the site of the famed Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, was going to graduate from law school, and my immediate family and I had been invited to his graduation. As it was my first time visiting Mexico City, my relatives there offered to introduce me to the key sights of the city, which included breathtaking archaeological sites and extensive collections of artifacts. For example, in the central square of Mexico City, el Zócalo, across from the church, lie the excavated ruins of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan, which is available for tourists to visit first-hand.

It was at these museums that I learned of stories far more fascinating than any others, fact or fiction, that I had ever heard before. It was there that I learned of exotic cultures so different from others that I had learned of before. In my new found eagerness to learn as much as possible, I purchased as many books on Mexican history as I could from the gift shops at the museums.

Some of the books I bought had to do with the language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl. The unusual (to speakers of Indo-European languages) features of the language, such as the fact that any noun in the language is inherently also a sentence, captured my curiosity for a while after my return. There was something about learning the grammar of the language and using it to translate that somehow felt akin to math. I suppose the process of starting with a mysterious string of words in Nahuatl, and then applying knowledge of grammatical and syntactical properties, along with logic, to render it into an understandable chain of  information in English, felt like taking an unverified mathematical statement and then using theorems and logic to prove it true.

Regardless, what started as a hobby gradually came to consume more and more of my time and mental energy. Coincidentally, at UC Davis, the school I was at, there was a Native American Studies department, which was home to a linguist specializing in Native American languages. She came to be on the receiving end of a great many of my questions. Eventually, she was able to put me in contact with the late James Lockhart, who was the premier scholar of Aztec and Nahuatl studies. Being impressed with the progress I had made despite having only studied the language for a short while, he agreed to tutor me in the language. Seeing that there was a vibrant scholarly field that studied the history of the Aztecs (which owes its existence to a surprisingly large corpus of Nahuatl-language texts available for scholars to research), and seeing my grades in my math classes declining due to devoting so much of my time to studying early Mexican history, I made the decision to change my major to history.

I was so devoted and passionate as a newfound student of history, that I finished my degree requirements for my BA in history in only a year and a half. After graduating, I applied to the MA in Latin American Studies department at UCLA, where Lockhart himself taught many of his most famous students who went on to publish several seminal works on the history of Mexican indigenous history. Lockhart wrote a letter of recommendation for my application to UCLA shortly before his death; it was the last letter of recommendation he ever wrote. After finishing my MA, I came to Rutgers, where I am now a second-year PhD in history, to study with Camilla Townsend, who James Lockhart once said was his intellectual successor.

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