Anthropology Student Prompts Creation of Language Workshop

By Staci Wilson, Student Intern, CHASS Dean’s Office
January 20, 2011

Thanks to a dedicated team of staff and students, UCR’s very first Nahua Language Workshop meets for the first time this Thursday, January 20, 2011. The workshop was originally conceived by undergraduate Miguel Nunes, whose thirst for knowledge prompted him to seek support from not only the CHASS department chairs, but specifically from Dr. Leon Garcia, visiting professor of history with a specialty in sixteenth century Mexican cultural studies.

After learning of a personal connection to Nahua and its surrounding culture as a child (he had a grandfather who was fluent in the language), Dr. Garcia was inspired to learn more on his own. He soon recognized a passion for history in himself and, treasuring the reason behind this early interest, Dr. Garcia went on to earn both his B.A. and his PhD in history from the University of California Los Angeles. His dissertation advisor, Professor Kevin Terraciano, author of the award winning book, The Mixtecs of Colonial Oaxaca, became a mentor and an inspiration to Garcia through his vast knowledge of Mexico’s history and culture. Later in his academic career, Garcia took the opportunity to actually travel to Zacatecas, Mexico, where he conducted field research and studied under Professor John Sullivan. Much of Garcia’s own knowledge of the Nahua language developed during this time, especially as he befriended several native speakers on staff at the university.

Of the sixty-three languages spoken in Mexico today, the Aztec language of Nahua is the most extensive and constitutes the most abundant collection of written sources, including some incredible literature. Nahua is, however, a rural, native language spoken by some of the poorest people in the country, as well as an older language that has had to withstand time and colonization by Spain. Although there remain a number of native speakers and even writers keeping this beautiful language alive, it has found itself threatened over the years by economic, colonial, and ideological pressures for it to disappear.

There are currently only two institutions in California that offer university level courses in Nahua: Cal State Los Angeles and UCLA. If the workshop receives enough support, however, a course may be offered at UCR for university credit beginning in the spring. The workshop goals are to teach the basics of Nahua written language, meaning basic grammar and vocabulary, which will facilitate some level of access to the vast Nahua literature available. In addition, a portion of the workshop time will be dedicated to pronunciation and the spoken language (at a beginning level, as all those involved still consider themselves on a learning basis with this complicated and noble language). As a first time endeavor, the course will certainly be a learning experience for all, but one which Dr. Garcia hopes will, “promote an appreciation for indigenous cultures of the Americas, and indeed of the whole world.”

There are countless cultures in this world- so many civilizations that have recorded wise and useful information, but if we let these languages and dialects die out through lack of use, the knowledge they recorded will also be lost to us. UC Riverside, known as one of the most diverse campuses in the country, seems like the perfect place to begin preserving these languages, the cultures they come from, and the knowledge bases they hold.

“This workshop has been a real collaboration of students, faculty, and administration,” explains Randolph Head, chair of the history department. Beginning with a student’s request and finding life in a professor’s passion, this workshop’s success does depend heavily on the reaction of the UC Riverside community. The workshop has received backing from the Comparative Literature and Languages Department as well as the Anthropology Department, and is currently generating interest in the History and Ethnic Studies departments. Making the Nahua Language Workshop an official course spring quarter, however, will depend on students with a genuine interest and dedication to learning the language and its intricacies participating this quarter. The workshops will be held in the library of the History Department, HMNSS 1303, Thursdays from 5-6:30pm. Everyone is welcome to attend, and interested parties should contact Dr. Garcia for more information at lgarcia@ucr.edu.

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