María Anzures
MexicoFellow since 1992

Maria Anzures is a writer and artist devoted to the rescue and propagation of Mexico's ancient Aztec past. She has established a center for the study of the Nahuatl language and culture, the largest and most diffuse of the indigenous cultures.

The Person

Maria went to Paris in the mid-sixties to study French, sociology, and journalism. When she returned to Mexico in the early seventies, she began promoting through the press and speaking engagements her particular vision of Mexican culture and traditions, in both Mexico and the U.S. Many people who heard her suggested that she create a center for cultural information, so in 1977, she founded the first of her three institutions, the Center of Pre-American Culture. She followed that in 1983 with the National Council for the Defense of the Original Languages of Mexico, and now has begun the National Council for the Nahuatl Culture. She has published various books and articles on Nahuatl culture and has produced a cassette of Aztec songs. She is also an active member of a 300,000-member dance order called Danza de los Concheros. For Maria, being an Indian is not a biological question. "The Indians are those who practice our cosmological vision, our religion, our language, our customs, those things that pertain to our everyday life and give us a defined personality." Through her work, Maria hopes to strengthen that identity.

The New Idea

Mexico has 56 indigenous cultures, including what Maria calls "the mother of Mexican culture," Nahuatl. Spoken by four million Nahuatl Indians in 28 of Mexico's 30 states, Nahuatl has a rich history that includes some of the earliest writings on botany, medicine, architecture, astronomy, and more. Ignored, however, by centuries of European-dominated intellectual and political leadership, Nahuatl struggles to remain relevant to Mexican culture and a source of identity to the long-discriminated-against Indians. Maria is encouraging Nahuatl's resurgence by supporting scholarship and dissemination by the Nahuatls themselves.To do this, Maria has founded the National Council of the Nahuatl Culture and has made two important distinctions between it and other places where Nahuatl is taught. First, her center is primarily for Nahuatl Indians, for people who, as Maria says, "exercise our cultural and religious rituals," and not just for "sympathizers or followers." Second, her linguistic teaching is based on the strict tradition of the high Mexican civilization of Tenochtitlan, not the regional Nahuatl dialects that most institutions offer, which vary widely among the regions and lack grammatical structure. This training will allow her Nahuatl students to translate documents of their ancestors. For Maria, this is preferable to translations done by "researchers foreign to our idiosyncracies, who not having our oral tradition, nor the key to our philosophy, alter the contents of our documents and monuments."The training over the next three years will provide the groundwork and prepare a faculty for what she hopes will become the Indigenous University of Mexico, which will offer an integral education in sciences, art, linguistics, and Nahuatl philosophy. Maria feels this is an important step in offering Indians an education appropriate to their heritage, and hopes it will lead to introducing indigenous language in the national school system. Maria says these steps are "necessary if our country wants to be democratic and just with all its inhabitants, respecting its rich and integrated ethnic and cultural plurality."

The Problem

Until recently, a child that spoke his or her native language was teased and chastised in school, an overt manifestation of the prejudice that exists in Mexico against Indians. This racism persists, even as Indians have made "indigenous rights" a prominent national issue and have gained modest ground in their quest for equality. The Mexican education system, for example, now allows schools to offer Indian as well as European languages for the students' required second language, but few schools are adequately prepared to teach it. Nor do schools treat pre-Columbian civilization in the depth that it merits. Little wonder. The Hispanic conquest of Mexico cut off Nahuatl's rich written tradition and left the culture to survive primarily through the oral transmission of songs, dances, rituals, beliefs, and values. With language splintered into many informal dialects, and very few centers where non-academics can study Nahuatl, few Indians today can read the surviving books and documents from Nahuatl's golden age.

The Strategy

Maria's strategy follows the principles of Aztec organization. The center that she is creating is a calpulli, the basic unit of Nahuatl society. The calpulli (taken from two words, calli=house and pulli=group or conglomeration of houses) is a house that follows a common purpose; it is self-sustainable and autonomous - in effect a community organization that must possess its own territory or physical space and that may be linked by democratic decision to other calpulli. Maria has started her calpulli in Mexico City, and her students range from 8 to 70 years old. The calpulli sustains itself through student fees, although some students qualify for scholarships based on economic need. In addition to the language classes, the center offers instruction in Nahuatl philosophy and traditional song and dance. The calpulli also functions as an important cultural center in the city, hosting productions, conferences, and seminars focusing on indigenous culture and minority rights. In addition, center members have formed ceremonial and dance groups that attend the ritual events of the Indian calendar, and members produce books, tapes, musical instruments, ceramics, sculpture, and jewelry. These activities raise the center's visibility as well as earn extra income. The center will end its first year with 85 students, a number higher than projected. Some of the first graduates will join the faculty of the institution as they build the groundwork for the Indigenous University, which Maria wants to open in 1992. The university will offer degrees for one-year programs, and it will serve as an important center for other institutions, including governmental ones concerned with national education and national cultures.