Living Nahuatl-Hopi Treasure

Nahuatl, Mexicano or Macehual is the language of millions

By Roberto Rodriguez
Published on LatinoLA: November 25, 2005

Living Nahuatl-Hopi Treasure

Maestra Angelbertha Cobb of Puebla, Mexico should not exist. By all rights, she defies the rules of Western knowledge? defies the accepted historical, archaeological, anthropological and linguistic narratives of this continent.

Maestra Cobb is a living treasure, a repository of memory and a link to all of Indigenous America. She can speak with Hopi elders in mutually intelligible conversations in her own native Nahuatl language. Nahuatl, Mexicano or Macehual is the language of millions. [It was also the language of Emiliano Zapata.

Hopiland and Puebla, incidentally, are at least some 2,500 miles apart.

As simple as this proposition is, I can predict that it will be at least ten years before this is understood by Western scholars.

Recently, a professor at the University of Wisconsin became very agitated at the suggestion that this might actually point to a living connection between Nahuatl-speaking peoples from southern Mexico and Hopis from northern Arizona. Linguists have long known that [some of] the Hopi are part of the Uto-Azteca or Uto-Nahuatl language family group - a language family group that extends from Canada to Central America, and possibly even into Peru). Yet linguists do not believe that there's any kind of recent [the last 1000 years] or living connection or relationship between peoples from the north and south - that if any such connection ever existed -- that it would have been limited to those that were part of indirect trade networks. It also would have been very far back into the remote past to the point that they would be unintelligible today? or from post-European contact [Tlaxcaltecas that accompanied the Spanish in the 16th century]. The Uto-Nahuatl family (at least 53 groups) includes such peoples as the Shoshone, the Utes, Pauites, the Hopi, Comanches, Yaquis, Tarahumara, the Nahuatl peoples of California and Mexico, all the way down to the Pipil in Central America.

Because the existence of this language family group is not news [to linguists], one has to wonder why such a development and such conjecture would elicit such a hostile response? The truth is, 2,500 miles is not a very large distance to cover over thousands of years. There are no physical barriers [except in the minds of Westerners] on this continent that would have prevented continual migrations and exchanges of foods [maize], goods and technology.

The fuller story of Maestra Cobb is quite amazing. Years ago, Maestra Cobb was removed from a Hopi ceremony, purportedly for making fun of an elder. She had laughed because she had understood what an elder had said. After this was cleared up - after both came to the realization that they indeed could understand each other -- she remained in Hopiland for several weeks speaking to many elders there.

I recently spent a couple of days with her in California and again, came away, shaking my head because her very existence unquestionably threatens the master narrative we've been taught about this continent. In one sense, she is not unique as she does not speak an obscure language. Nahuatl is a major language. What's amazing is that what this reveals is also not news. There are enough clues in archives for researchers to have pieced this together long ago. For example, Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, in her 1980 classic book, Roots of Resistance, notes that when the Spaniards first entered the Southwest, they encountered Nahuatl-speaking peoples in the northern regions, including Pecos Pueblo in New Mexico. [Spaniards had brought Nahuatl-speaking auxiliaries along with them]. It is also clear that peoples from the south (long before the Aztecs) had brought agriculture northward [and southward] some 5,000 years earlier and maintained continuous contact or influence in these regions. This included the exploitation of the turquoise mines at Cerrillos, New Mexico. [This is not to suggest that the contact was all friendly and welcome? no different than contact/clashes that occur anywhere in the world.]

Despite this clear evidence of contact and connections, there's a reason why this revelation, embodied by Maestra Cobb, has not earlier come to light. And there's more to be revealed in the future. Yet, one thing is already clear: as much as academics have studied these regions -- including the Mississippi River -- there is still a reluctance by Westerners to acknowledge these wider connections. To do so might involve changing the way Western society views the continent [as Indigenous] - or the way it sees or situates itself. Or even more importantly, Westerners might just have to rethink how they view living brown-skinned peoples in their midst.

? Column of the Americas 2005

* For a copy of our bilingual Amoxtli San Ce Tojuan documentary [which includes the fuller story of Maestra Cobb] or more info re future screenings contact us at - 608-238-3161 - or go to:

About Roberto Rodriguez:
We can be reached at: 608-238-3161 or or Column of the Americas, PO BOX 5093 Madison WI 53705. Our bilingual columns are posted at:

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