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New York’s native speakers of Nahuatl

Ed Lefkowicz | New York, United States

Irwin Sanchez talking with Victor Hernandez in Irwin's kitchen. Both are native speakers of Nahuatl, one of the Aztec languages of Mexico. Mexico officially discouraged Nahuatl until the 1990s, and native speakers were discriminated against both in Mexico and in the U.S.

I accompanied Daniel Kaufman of the The Endangered Language Alliance (ELA) as he recorded three native speakers of Nahuatl, one of the Uto-Aztecan languages of central Mexico. Nahuatl was officially banned for a time in Mexico, and has only recently been accepted there. Speakers have faced discrimination, both in Mexico and here.

I moved to New York in early 2011, in part because of its ethnic diversity. I like languages, toyed with the idea of becoming a linguist at one time, and was astounded to learn that there are over 800 languages spoken in the city of New York. I got in touch with Daniel Kaufman at the Endangered Language Alliance, whose mission is to record, codify and preserve those languages most in danger of disappearing. Kaufman was working with some native speakers of Nahuatl, one of the Uto-Aztecan languages of central Mexico. Irwin Sanchez, one of the speakers, had already started work on a grammar and textbook for the language.

We spent an afternoon at Irwin’s apartment in Queens, recording conversations, talking about what it was like for them to come to New York as speakers of Nahuatl, and trying to fit in with no English, and little Spanish. (Nahuatl was until recently discriminated against even in Mexico.) As usual, conversation is a bit more relaxed over a meal, and we shared a turkey mole, prepared by Irwin and his wife Marissa Senteno and Perfecta Villegas.

I met with Victor Hernandez later for some more formal photographs. Victor is close to his family in Mexico, and visits them when he can. He’s also taking violin lessons, so he can play traditional music like his maternal uncle.

ed Lefkowicz - photography


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