“HOW DO YOU say ‘all my relations’ in Nahuatl?”
A dear friend of mine, a relative who has followed the path of the Sundance Ceremonial life for more than twenty years, asked me this question not long ago. With only these nine simple words, this dear relative touched so many deeply complex and profound aspects of what a lot of us Mexican/Chicanx practitioners of our Indigenous cultures experience every day here in “el gabacho,” “el Norte,” “gringolandia,” “America,” “the land of the free” (free to develop a whole range of consumeristic addictions, mind you).
Axcan nican tichantih. We now live here. Yes, many of us now live here in Xučyun (Huichin) Territory, unceded Ohlone Land, also known as the Bay Area, California. We came here uninvited; uninvited guests in this sacred land, we are. Most of us came running away from violence, whether physical, sexual, or economic—or all of the above. For others of us, the horrific wound called “border” crossed our lives, leaving separated families with members on each side of that wound.
Some of us who are Nahua people brought our full Nahuatl language, culture, and cosmovision along, which has given us strength. Others of us, unfortunately, carried only vague memories of a forgotten Nahua ancestry.
All of us, however, came looking for work, for a better life. All of us dedicated ourselves to learning as much as we could. All of us worked hard to survive. Most of us were confronted with dehumanizing work conditions that, in some cases, allowed us to send much-needed funds to our families on the other side of the wound. Long hours, long shifts, long days, over and over again. Exhausted and depleted on the outside, but with peace of mind on the inside, we worked, knowing our work was helping our loved ones survive. This knowledge brought some much-needed comfort to our wounded souls.
Sometimes, however, when we came back home exhausted, painfully craving our mother’s tortillas de comal, hechas a mano, when we were painfully yearning for our pueblos, our old towns, for the beautiful, delicious smell of the soil when it’s raining, one of those days when the only thing we could do was to cry, alone, we were heavily confronted with that very present or long-forgotten ancestry. To different extents, whether we were practitioners of our Nahua culture or thought we had forgotten it, we all felt like orphans. Orphans of our culture, we felt naked and vulnerable while having to face the monster of capitalism, a predatory monster that engulfed our lives, our sanity, our health, our bodies, and ultimately our souls, our spirits, our willpower.
Fortunately, that’s exactly when some of us, lucky enough to have paid attention, lucky enough to have opened our eyes and hearts, found the “All My Relations” philosophy, or Aho Mitakuye Oyasin in Lakota. Or should we say that All Our Relations found us? We were then no longer orphans in front of that monster. We knew pretty well that we were not Lakota, but that didn’t matter because we knew we were their kin. We felt it, we loved it, and we appreciated it.
This kinship saved countless of us from both horrific physical and unbearable spiritual deaths. Without consciously knowing it, we had opened one of the doors to nepantla, the middle, the in-between, and we walked in—this time, though, joyously invited. We had found a home far from home, one where, if respectful of the Traditions, we would not only be respected in return but, most importantly, taken care of, supported, listened to, attended to. In reciprocity, we offered our hearts, our work, our loyalty. And, when given permission, we offered sacred copalli, Nahuatl healing cantos, and Nahuatl prayers. Some of us, a lucky few, were allowed to offer Cauhpohualli, the Nahuatl Counting of Time and Space. Some of our people started being trusted among our hosts, who then gave us important ceremonial cargos, or responsibilities. “Nepantla characterizes a particular kind of process or activity: one consisting of middling mutuality and balanced reciprocity,” as scholar James Maffie* points out.
And then, after decades of living the Sundance Ceremonial life, some of our Mexican/Chicanx relatives started verbalizing long-held questions, such as, how do you say so-and-so in Nahuatl? Do Nahua communities also do so-and-so? Always eager and hungry to know an equivalent in the Nahua Tradition, they were trying to find “mirrors” of each recently learned or long-practiced ceremonial movement, element, or prayer.
WHEN MY FRIEND contacted me exclusively to ask, “How do you say ‘all my relations’ in Nahuatl?” I was elated to try to answer that question, and knowing that this wasn’t going to be a direct-translation type of answer, I started typing a long email to respond. Nahuatl is such a complex, beautiful, deep, philosophical language that does not deserve to be translated directly; we lose a lot of meaning when we try. It was already late, so I went to bed and decided to continue writing the next day. But that night, and for several consecutive nights, my dreams reminded me of the beauty and complexity of the word nepantla. No, there is no simple translation, they, my dreams, told me. No, you know that any relationship is not as simple as a direct translation.
As a Nahua woman, my heart fully knows that there are many beautiful and complex layers to our being here as uninvited guests. One of those layers is how we Nahua learn, practice, share, and talk about Sacred Traditions from our relatives here in the North. We live in our own unique nepantla: we are Mexica danzantes or Nahua curanderxs; we attend sweat lodges; we pray with cedar; we sing some cantos in Nahuatl. We love what we do, and we love being in Huichin, sacred Ohlone Land. Can you be in love with two or more lands and Sacred Traditions at the same time?
As Maffie notes, “Nepantla functions both descriptively and prescriptively in Nahua philosophy. It plays a central role in Nahua metaphysics’ account of the nature of reality and of the human condition. It also plays a central role in Nahua wisdom, ethics, epistemology, and aesthetics, e.g., in their normative conceptions of the good life for human beings, good conduct, good cognizing, and good art. Nepantla accordingly figures prominently in Nahua prescriptions concerning how humans ought to conduct their lives in all respects: how to behave, think, feel, judge, speak, sing, dress, eat, create, weave, and work.”*
In the Nahua Tradition, everything (whether we can see it or not) is a living being, an animated being, a being with consciousness and at least one soul, and all of this is sacred since Tloque Nahuaque, the Great Spirit, granted it. As I learned with maestro Gerardo Roque, Nahuatl language notemachticatzin, my venerable maestro: everything is connected; everything is related to everything—the above with the below, the far with the near, the water with the fire, the earth with the wind, the living with the dead. We, macehualtin (human beings), are connected to each other and with the cosmos, and the cosmos is connected with nature. Everything is in relation to everything.
Since everything is interconnected, and given that we are but only a small fraction of that everything, whatever we can see, as well as what we can’t, is an extension of us. Therefore, we are an extension of that immense vastness—a vastness so profound, so deep, so complex that we might never be able to comprehend it. Because everything is an animated being, everything is living—a table, a rock, a chair, animals, the water, the wind, and so forth. Because it is living, everything has consciousness and at least one “soul.” (You see, we macehualtin have at least three “souls,” according to maestro Alfredo López Austin). Any animated being, any holder of a soul, deserves the utmost respect and is therefore venerable. If we ever hurt anything that surrounds us, we will eventually feel that harm in our own body, as notemachticatzin, my venerable maestro, says. We will feel that harm in any of our at-least-three souls.
Reciprocity is core to the life of every community. In our Tradition, everyone gathers to share in tequio, or community work. Those who don’t honor reciprocity are thought to be relinquishing their humanity. They have decided, one way or another, to turn themselves into beasts, which also means something like relinquishing membership in the cosmos, as if they could move to another cosmos, detaching themselves from this cosmos, our cosmos.
This reciprocity is embedded in the language: nocniuhtzitzinhuan, my venerable dear relatives; nonantzin, my venerable dear mother; notahtzin, my venerable dear father; noconetzitzinhuan, my venerable dear children. (By the way, do you think that if we raised our children to know they are venerable, they would go to sacred Maya lands during spring break to disrespect not only that sacred land but also themselves?)