Regarding the launch of the book The Devil’s Tongues. Language, cosmovision, and re-existence of the peoples of Abya Yala (2020), published by tumbalacasa ediciones, we present this interview in Nahuatl, Spanish, and English with the intention of continuing to question the monolingualism that limits the potency of the political imagination around the processes of decolonization.
TUMBALACASA (TLC): The revival of Indigenous languages cannot be divorced from land sovereignty, the economy, and concrte lifestyles. This is a premise that dominates the book you helped coordinate, Las lenguas del diablo. Lengua, cosmovisión y re-existencia de los pueblos de Abya Yala (The Devil’s Tongues: Language, Cosmovision, and Re-existence of the Abya Yala Peoples), compiled by J. Ángel Quintero Weir. We share this understanding as a collective, and are curious to know how you see it play out in Cuauhtotoatla, Tlaxcala, Mexico?
Arte A 360 Grados (AA360): Almost all of the population in Cuahtotoatla (and its boroughs, San Isidro Buen Suceso and San Nicolás) and Canoa, at the foothills of the Matlalcueyatl volcano, Tlaxcala, and Puebla, is of Nahuatl origin. Despite the diglossia and linguistic shame that surrounds Nahuatl because of Spanish’s dominance as an official language, many inhabitants are bilingual with a growing tendency to Hispanic monolingualism. Amongst other contributing agents, we can blame the Mexican monolingual public education system, the supposed locus of “true knowledge.” Nonetheless, many of the children in these boroughs struggle with Spanish literacy—they have the capacity of distinguishing, describing, and naming their surrounding environment in Nahuatl.
This knowledge allows us to name, narrate, and map our territory and material & symbolic existence. This is important for Las lenguas del diablo because, as Cuahtotoaquences, it is indispensable to rescue and practice the memory of our own rationality, which colonialism has partially erased. As it builds self-knowledge, a living Nahuatl is foundational to the region’s land sovereignty and territorial defense. Those who live in their language and engage in its continuous transmission express and develop something that goes beyond mere translation: its territory, body, sustenance, respiration; it’s akin to planting, making a home, living.
If this is forgotten, we could always rename things but we would do so from a colonized framework. We want to debate against the Western, modern, murderous, colonial rationality that feeds the educational system of contemporary nation-states—whom, in spite of, we continue to exist. We seek to strengthen the use of mother tongue as the enunciatory site for subjects in a context of intercultural diversity, without stopping support for our peers and family members developing Spanish literacy, as it aids in building and understanding their vital relationship with other national and foreign communities (be they Indigenous or not).
TLC: How did the book come to life? What instances of difficulty and kinship did you find with collaborators of other latitudes?
AA360: We began in 2017 with various families from San Isidro Buen Suceso and San Nicolás, with the support of the Patronato de Arte Contemporáneo (PAC-LIFEWTR). First, we pursued fieldwork on Nahuatl in the region: documenting the negative perception surrounding speaking the language, its association with the Devil, and evil connotations surrounding Nahuatl since the colonial period. The collective Ruido 13 then joined us to create sound installations using megaphones. Since then, we have focused on the problem of language, memory, and knowledge of Atlepetl–Cuauhtotoatla. The Secretariat of Education tends to homogenize Indigenous languages, but we know that there are still microworlds within each one: for example, the Nahuatl of Tula is very different from that of Hueytlacuahuac. And so, the inter- or trans-disciplinary project became a decolonizing force, as we had to interrogate within instead of searching outside of. We wanted to make a book centered around asking people of San Pablo del Monte why they felt ashamed of speaking an Indigenous language, but we soon thought it more urgent to create tools and build bridges, and so we held an open call. We also held various workshops from 2018 to 2019, talking with families, groups, and individuals. We did this from within the community but always holding outside relationships in mind. We wanted a book that chronicled other cultures and communities; we began with our Me’phaa and Ñuu Savi colleagues. Then we met Dr. Quintero Weir, and we commissioned him to compile a book stemming from the collective reflections generated in Cuauhtotoatla. The book’s first part is titled On the motivations of the devil’s tongues and on what makes us fearful to speak our own languages. A Log of Evil, or, From the Scarecrow To the Devil.)
By the beginning of 2019, we had a draft and were facing the problem of publication. And so we contacted you, as we had previously worked together on the project Minerales en disputa (Minerals in Dispute). We were ecstatic to find mutual encouragement, as other publishing houses said that the text was not written in proper Spanish. They would tell us that we “wanted to talk like the feminists, changing every word, everything would have to be redone.” For us, it was another way of writing Spanish. Another barrier was reputation: it seems that if no-one famous is involved in your book, it is not worth publishing.
When it comes to the actual compilation, we see that the process of language revitalization varies, as the language’s representation changes between communities and personal experiences. In the book, Hubert Matiúwàa speaks to the link between body, language, and land as seen in the Me’phaa of the mountains in Guerrero; Bessa Freire of the Kaingang communities expresses a shared pain due to the violence of the monolingual education system; Wiñay Mallki writes about Quechua’s orality to express the land’s language. Each iteration of and fight for languages has its own means, its own forms of representation, its own symbolism. These range from epistemologies of the heart (López Intzin) to the strategic use of human rights for linguistic resistance (Alicia Moncada).
Another problem: although female voices are definitely present in our communities, the majority of our contributors are male. Women are not accurately represented, and we must acknowledge and address this problem. The open call did not have a gender requirement, yet we received more submissions from men. Machismo exists in our Nahuatl community, as it does in any other. On the other hand, conservatism, fear, and the threat of physical violence impede us from listening to these voices—it’s a true problem in the region.
TLC: The book opens with the question: Why is it important to speak an Indigenous language in the here and now? The answers situate the act of speaking as an active form of protest in the face of language death through extermination, and in favor of recognizing the philosophical applications of language. Yasnaya E. Aguilar writes that “the existence of languages that have survived the nation-states conjures the dangers of having a single world history, a solitary and predetermined grammatical path with which we narrate and from which only one poetic form is possible.” How can we use this exercise as a process for inventing new sensibilities and other forms of knowledge?
AA360: Each language has its own territory, a body that gives name to its memory. Recent efforts such as the UN’s International Year of Indigenous Languages (2019), and the declaration of the Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022–2023), end up being empty events and conferences to gain legitimacy.
Are they truly saving languages not to mention communities’ knowledge? Cuahutotoatla is yet to see change. We continue to resist the dispossession masquerading as cultural appropriation. Museums, institutions, and academies tell us that we must not lose our language, that it is part of our Mexican heritage, and that we must go to these events and speak “on the topic.”
We refuse. Language is not just letters, it is also a living territory that is currently being ravaged and has historically been repressed by the Mexican state. How can we consider the disappearance of languages without considering the cultural, social, natural, and economic decline of the place in which we live? If the Altépetl Cuauhtotoatla disappears, as is happening due to unmoderated deforestation, what are we going to name, to communicate?
For the State, language is simply a “cultural expression” of society. We think that language traverses and reveals the world: it is something political. Speaking a language is a process of reinvention, as well as a time for necessary action, an ethical implication to “return” and so develop new sensibilities and different forms of knowledge. A learning/teaching to speak/listen with the world in its territorial being.
TLC: In the book, Emmanuel Tepal problematizes the notions of “native people” and “mother tongue;” as while they permit identity formations, they also can be weaponized as purity filters, gatekeeping communities in favor of building an “ideal” speaker. Is the “native people” a fiction part of the Nation-state’s impulse for Othering, that not only destroys but administers alterity in favor of its interests?
AA360: For us, “Native people” and “mother tongue,” are strange terms, as they are indeed weaponized by the State. We do not seek a “return to the origin.” Furthermore, we have been territorially dispossessed. What we seek is a complete reconfiguration of our earth-water-mountain-air-sky, despite the conflicts between San Pablo del Monte and Cuauhtotoatla. By using our language, a new vision of the world emerges, a language and land, and if we use Spanish we only appear in the world as a social class, as cities, workers, Indians. To talk only about being “native” or to only talk about “class” would be an ideologization of dispossession.
This is how we aim to resolve this tension:
A) To find the locus of feeling and living in the world from within ourselves and not from the perspective imposed by modernity, B) To uncover the aestheticization of culture as part of the systemic process of territorial dispossession
C) To recover notions that allow us to perceive water and its relationship to the land and the mountain.
To resolve these tensions implies to reconfigure ourselves, re-appropriate ourselves, and reassert our territory as Altépetl. We do not require the “Indigenous” or “native” to explain ourselves. Altépetl involves a community of human and non-human beings, animals, minerals, stones, climates, environments of the air, the cold, and the heat. Altépetl is a horizon, the shape of the cupula above our heads where we see the lights in the night sky. This concept is not just found in social or class spheres. Nonetheless, your original question remains important as, when we contact colleagues from elsewhere, we need to employ those very bridge-words between our understandings.
TLC: What does Abya Yala mean to you? We ask in light of the Latin American context in which leftist or “Indianist” governments weaponize Otherness, and the subsequent response of Indigenous communities’ development of an un-essentialist “tactical ethnicity,” which has sometimes served to protect from further extraction…
AA360: Abya Yala can mean Mature Earth, Living Land, or Blooming Land. The Kuna people, residing between what is known as Colombia and Panamá, use it to name the territory that is currently called America. We use it to name a group of communities that are in alliance with other life forms, engaged in a constant search, struggle, and revitalization efforts. Tepal, Elena Aguilar, and Cusicanqui urgently ask us to reconsider how we name territorialities, who we are inside and outside of them. The abusive cultural appropriation at the hands of nation-states is narrated as an homage to Indigenous roots as if we were reserves to feed their apparatuses. Saying Abya Yala means to refuse this. But we underscore that not only words are at play. The fight is not just for an isolated language. We need to reflect from within language, but we exhort action against issues that actively affect us, such as Altépetl, deforestation, and human rights. We must defy notions of what is biological and social, go beyond nation-state borders, aiming towards concrete reciprocity from within our inter-territorial expressive modes.
TLC: Decolonization is said to begin at home. What does your project, Tequiocalco, consist of? In retrospect, what has changed and how have you allied yourself with other collectives and artists?
AA360: We are autocritical: in the beginning we wanted to modernize Tlaxcala’s artistic practice, bringing in artists from outside the state, hosting events. We were sick of discrimination. Then, we understood that we were facing an economic, political, and cultural system that the very aesthetic we aspired to was complicit in. In 2008, we attempted to build an experimental, transdisciplinary min-lab in a plot in San Nicolás, with the goal of stimulating community participation through synergetic art, science, and technology. But its research process led us instead towards autodetermination. There was a lot of conversation between the huehuetzitzi, and through the oral memory of the Cuatlalopetzi Cuauhtotoatla community, we found fragments of knowledge. From within our “macehual listening,” we worked on orality, which is different from sound art. To listen to our environment—our Altépetl—produces a specific life ethic, not necessarily just a sonic object or artwork. Through oral history, we witness the development of Cuauhtotoatla’s historical rationality. The creation of a historical narrative is part of a language, and its fulfillment puts a purposeful worldview in praxis.
Then, we became aware of the devastation that surrounded us, and we realized that we needed a home, a place to reconfigure and re-territorialize ourselves. We began conversations with the Romero family, José Quintero, Brenda Hernández, Maurilio Sánchez, professors Guadalupe Arce Gachupín and Delfino Primitivo Gachupín Pérez of the Nawi Xochitelpoch dance group, Enrique Maraver, the engineer Rodrigo Amador, Joél Martínes, and COMUNAL ARQUITECTURA. And we came to Tequiocalco: our right to continue existing can toyuhcatiliz, including knowledge and transmission. Here we fostered inhabiting our forms of reality. A space in which we could come, once again, to trust our own knowledge. A refuge—a wellspring for those thirsty for the understanding of tonelhuayotl (our roots), totlamatiliz (our knowledge), toyuhcatiliz (our culture), totlahtoltzin (our language), tocuahtla (our mountain), toaltépetl (our altépetl).
As an organization, we seek sovereignty and territorial defense through five areas: food, healing, inhabiting, cohabitation, communal aesthetic making, and the recuperation and bolstering of technological autonomy. A living architectural space, formally and aesthetically designed for the feeling-thinking of the Nahuas of the Altéptl-Cuauhtotoatla. We conceived it as the architecture of an Altépetl in constant flux, part of a process of communal interweaving that responds to our current problems, a participatory architecture for development. This demands a dialogue of rationalities and technicalities (architectural, editorial, scientific, artistic). We fight for the recovery of the world in all its complexity—its physical, biological, chemical, geometric, mathematical, dimensions (amongst others)—as an articulation of our worldview: the production of material goods and symbolic expression of complementarity with other communities of humans and non-human beings.
Translator’s note: altépetl is the Nahuatl word for a political entity, usually tied to a specific location and environment. In solidarity with the self-determination efforts expressed by AA360 in this interview, we are not providing a Western translation for this concept.