[ Kurly Tlapoyawa ]
Kurly Tlapoyawa originally presented this lecture at the 2017 Northeastern Group of Nahuatl Scholars conference at Yale University.
[Update 2/18/2019: edited for clarity and minor grammatical errors.]
The years following the Mexican revolution saw an upsurge in a form of nationalism characterized by the exaltation of Mexico’s indigenous past. As a result, Kuauhtemok – the last sovereign Tlahtoani of the Mexika Empire – was elevated to a symbol of national pride and unity. The Declaration of Kuauhtemok is a text in Nawatl that has been circulated since the late 1960s within the Mexicayotl movement, where it holds the status of a foundational and prophetic document.
This movement claims that it is the final decree given by Kuauhtemok prior to the fall of Mexiko-Tenochtitlan on August 12, 1521. Allegedly, this message was memorized and spread throughout Mesoamerica by a series of runners and has subsequently been passed down via oral tradition to this day. It is the position of the Chimalli Institute of Mesoamerican Arts that the text actually dates from the mid 20th century and is best understood as part of the mythologizing of Kuauhtemok in his role as a cultural hero. Nonetheless, analysis of the text, its origins, and the means of its circulation provide important insight into the formation of contemporary folklore in the context of nationalist movements.
It can be said that the figure of Kuauhtemok is the embodiment of indigenous nationalism in Mexico. The son of Awitzotl, the eighth Tlahtoani of the Mexika empire, Kuauhtemok was only 20 years old when he was elected Tlahtoani following the death of Kwitlawak in 1520. It was Kuauhtemok who led the final defensive stand of Mexiko-Tenochtitlan against the combined might of Hernan Cortes’ Spanish forces and Indigenous auxiliaries. It should come as no surprise then, that the image of Kuauhtemok has come to symbolize the resilience and resistance of the Mexican nation.
During the Porfiriato, Mexico’s intellectuals sought to integrate the indigenous people into the Mexican national identity. Though as Christopher Fulton notes, “In most expressions of the time, the Indian was regarded in Romantic terms, not as an important actor in his own right but as the primeval source of the mestizo race, which was understood as the progressive agent in the nation’s history.” In the hands of Porfirian elites, Mexico’s Indigenous past was celebrated at the expense of its living indigenous communities. This view of Mexico’s indigenous people underscored the formation of cultural nationalism from the Porfiriato through the 1970s. This view is made all the more pronounced when we consider that Porfirio Diaz himself was known to powder his face white in an attempt to conceal his indigenous features. The policy of Indigenismo grew under the presidency of Lazaro Cardenas, and the slogan “Mexicanize Indians, don’t Indianize Mexico”  became the rallying cry of the day.
On September 26, 1949, Mexican archaeologist Eulalia Guzman excavated the church at Ichcateopan, Guerrero. She had been sent to investigate claims that the body of Kuauhtemok had been buried there in the 16th century by none other than Motolinia himself. Following clues contained in documents belonging to Salvador Juarez, Guzman recovered a collection of bones located under the altar of the church. Guzman determined the bones were authentic, and news quickly spread that the tomb of the young Tlahtoani had indeed been discovered, sparking celebrations across the Mexican countryside. Ultimately, a Grand Commission was formed by INAH to verify the authenticity of the bones and concluded that the entire event was an elaborate hoax perpetrated by Salvador Juarez himself. Guzman was ostracized by the archaeological community for her sloppy fieldwork, and most likely went to her grave thinking that she had, in fact, found Kuauhtemok’s bones. A shrine to Kuauhtemok was established at the church, his alleged bones on prominent display for all to see. The town of Ichcateopan remains the destination for a yearly pilgrimage where hundreds gather to commemorate and honor Kuauhtemok – to this day.
The mythologizing of Kuauhtemok took a leap forward with the appearance of the alleged “Declaration of Kuauhtemok.” The first printed appearance of the Declaration is found in the October 30, 1967 issue of Izkalotl, a periodical published by the organization known as the Movimiento Confederado Restaurador de la Cultura de Anauak (MCRCA). This organization was established in the late 1950s by Rodolfo Nieva-López, with the intention of reclaiming an Indigenous Mexican identity and reestablishing the glory of pre-conquest Mexico. While I can certainly sympathize with these objectives, the approach taken by the MCRCA to accomplish them has proven to be grounded in fantasy rather than reality.
The membership of the MCRCA is known for producing highly questionable scholarship containing a bizarre mixture of pseudohistory, mysticism, and rabid xenophobia. Much like the Afrocentrists who promote a highly inaccurate and distorted view of African history, the MCRCA presented an image of Mesoamerica that had very little to do with historical fact. In the MCRCA version of Mexican history, Nawa culture is preeminent above all others and responsible for much of world civilization. According to the MCRCA, the ancient Nawa people traveled to Egypt where they introduced concepts such as pyramid building and aspects of Nawa cosmovision. These beliefs were circulated via their official publication Izkalotl, as well as the book “Mexikayotl” published in 1969. For those unfamiliar with the Declaration of Kuauhtemok, we present the text as it appears in the book Mexikayotl published by the MCRCA, along with translations by Dr. Magnus Pharao Hansen:
|Nawatl Text & Translation||Spanish Text and Translation|
|1.- Totonal yemotlatih “Our day/sun now has hidden”||Nuesto [sic] sol, se ocultó, “Our sun has hidden”|
|2.- Totonal yoixpoliuh “our day/sun now has dissappeared”||nuestro sol se perdió de vista, “our sun is out of sight”|
|3.- iuan zentlayouayan, “and in a completely dark place”||y en completa obscuridad, “and in complete darkness”|
|4.- o tech Kahteh, “it has left us”||nos ha dejado. “it has left us”|
|5.- Mach tikmatik man Ka okzepa ualla, “[mach] we do know that it comes once more”||Pero sabemos que otra vez volverá, “But we know that it will return once more.”|
|6.- man Ka okzepa Kizakin “That it will come out this way once more”||que otra vez saldrá. “that it will come out once more”|
|7.- iuan yankuiotika tech tlauiliz. “and newly will illuminate us”||y nuevamente nos alumbrará. “and it will illuminate us again [nuevamente]”|
|8.- Mach inoka ompa Kah mitlan [sic] maniz “[mach inoka] there it is in the land of the dead it will extend”||Pero mientras allá esté, en la mansión del silencio. ”But meanwhile it will be there in the mansion of silence”|
|9.- manzanueliui tozentlalikan, totechtechokan, “And just quickly we will reunite, we will become near to one another”||muy prontamente nos reunamos, nos estrechemos, “very soon [prontamente] we shall reunite, we shall become close”|
|10.- iuan tozolnepantla, tiktlatikan, “And in the middle of our heart we will hide it”||y en el centro de nuestro corazón, ocultemos, “and in the center of our heart we will hide”|
|11.- nochi intlen toyolkitlazohtla, “All that which our heart loves “||todo lo que nuestro corazon ama, all that which our heart loves|
|12.- Ki ueyi tlatkiomati. “ it recognizes it as a great property”||que sabemos es gran tesoro. “that we know is a great treasure”|
|13.– Man tikin pohpolokan toteokalhuan, “let us destroy our temples”||Destruyamos nuestros recintos al principio creador, “we will destroy our sanctuaries to the creating principle”|
|14.- Tokalmekahuan, totlachkohuan, “Our calmecacs our ball courts”||nuestras Escuelas, nuestros campos de pelota, “our schools, our ball-courts”|
|15.- totelpochkahuan, tokuikakalhuan. “Our telpochcallis [commoner schools] our cuicacallis [song houses]”||nuestros recintos para la juventud, nuestras casas para el canto. “Our sanctuaries for the youth and our houses of song”|
|16.- Man mozelkahuakan to ohtin, “So that alone our roads shall remain”||que solos queden nuestros caminos, so that only our roads will remain|
|17.- iuan man tochanzakuan “And may we close ourselves in our homes”||y que nuestros hogares nos encierren “And that our homes enclose us”|
|18.- Kin ihkuak Kixouaz toyankuiktonal, “Thus when our new sun comes out”||hasta cuando salga nuestro nuevo Sol, “until our new sun comes out”|
|19.- In tahtzintzin [sic] iuan in nantzitzin, “The honored fathers and mothers”||Los papacitos y las mamacitas “The dear fathers and mothers.”,|
|20.- Man aik kilkuaukan Kimilhuizkeh itelpochhuan “That they may never forget to tell their youths”||Que nunca olviden conducir a sus jóvenes, “May they never forget to lead their youths”|
|21.- iuan matechnazkeh mo pipilhuan inoka nemizkeh, “and … your children [inoka] they will live”||y enseñarles a sus hijitos mientras vivan “and teach your/their children while they live“|
|22.- uel kenin yoko,||como buena ha sido “as has been good”|
|23.- kin axkan totlazoh Anauak “untill now our beloved Anahuac”||hasta ahora nuestra amada Anauak, “untill now our beloved Anahuac”|
|24.- in tlanekilis iuan tlapeluiliz in tonechtoltilizuan, “the will and assistance our promises”||al amparo y protección de nuestros destinos, “the protection and support of our fates”|
|25.- iuan zan ye nopampa tokenmauiliz iuan tokem pololiz, “and just now because of our KEN-respect and our KEN-loss”||por nuestro gran respeto y buen comportamienteo, “by our great respect and good behavior”|
|26.- okizelihkeh totiahckatzitzihuan, “Our honored leaders received”||que recibieron nuestros antepasados, “that our ancestors received”|
|27.- iuan tlen totahtzitzin auik yolehkayopan “and which our honored fathers XXXX”||y que nuestros papacitos muy entusiastamente, “and which our ancestors very enthusiastically”|
|28.- oki xi nachtokateh toyelizpan. “They sowed as seeds on our beings”||sembraron en nuestro ser. “sowed in our beings”|
|29.- Axkan tehuan tikin tekimakah in topilhuan, “Now we give work to our children”||Ahora nosotros ordenaremos a nuestros hijos, “now we will order our children”|
|30.- Amo kin ilkauazkeh kin nonotzazkeh mopilhuan, “They will not forget to talk to your children”||no olviden informar a sus [sic] hijos, “do not forget to tell their children”|
|31.- uelkenin yez, kenin imakokiz, iuan uelkenin chikahkauiz “as it will be, how it will lift itself up, and as it will become strong”||cómo buena sea [sic], cómo se levantará, y como bien alcanzará fuerza, “as it will be good, how it will rise up and how it will reach strength”|
|32.- iuan uel kenin kiktzon kixtitin [sic] iueyika nehtoltiliz, “And as it will xxx take out its great promise”||y cómo bien realizará su gran destino, “and for good realize its great destiny”|
|33.- inin totlazohTlalnantzin Anauak “This our beloved land-mother Anahuac.”||ésta nuestra amada madre tierra Anauak. “this our beloved mother earth Anahuac”|
The MCRCA adopted the romanticized figure of the Aztec warrior as the core symbol of Mexican ethnic identity, and the group had its main influence in urban middle and working-class communities (Friedlander 1976). Its practices mixed Mexican nationalism, neo-Aztec religion (also prominently influenced by New Age ideas), the use and promotion of the classical Nawatl language, including the practitioners taking Nawatl names, and a new form of Aztec dance.
In his book, Nieva-López claims that the declaration of Kuauhtemok was revealed to him by Estanislao Ramírez Ruíz (1887-1962), a chemical engineer from Tlahuac and a participant in the investigation of Kuauhtemok’s alleged tomb in Ichcateopan, and that Ramírez had himself received the tradition from his parents. Nieva-López adds that he wrote it down with the help of Nawatl speakers from Tepoztlán and the Huasteca.
If the Declaration was indeed passed along to Nieva-López by Estanislao Ramírez, why is it never mentioned in any of the documents written by or about Ramírez? Also worth mentioning is the notable absence of the alleged “declaration” in any respectable history book or collection of Indigenous literature. Surely a work of such profound historical significance would merit a place in scholarship dealing with the fall of Mexiko-Tenochtitlan. Also, why wait until after Ramirez had died to reveal the declaration? These questions alone are enough to cast doubt upon the Declaration’s authenticity.
Dr. Hansen’s linguistic analysis above reveals the following:
- The Nawatl text is a translation of the Spanish text and not the reverse. Some words in the Nawatl text are employed in ways that are uncommon or unknown in colloquial or classical Nawatl, but which could be consistent with a word-for-word translation from Spanish. For example, Nawatl does not have a word for “but”, but the text uses the word mach, which usually is a negation particle, to correspond to Spanish pero (but). Several other constructions in the Nawatl texts stand out as suggestive of a too-direct translation from Spanish. Particularly revealing are two instances in which the Nawatl text switches without motivation to using second person singular possessive forms where the Spanish uses the ambiguous possessive pronouns “sus” which in the Spanish text refers back to a third person plural, but which can also be understood as second person singular if taken out of context. This suggests that the translator asked someone (presumably a native speaker) for a literal translation without providing sufficient context for the speaker to recover the plural reference and that he or she did not themselves know enough Nawatl to realize that the translation they were given was a second person form. Another revealing glitch is the use of yankuiotika (newly) in correspondence with the Spanish “nuevamente” – the Nawatl word is not common and would be understood as “newly” not as “again” as is the intended meaning here.
- The translator was not a native Nawatl speaker, but had probably studied some classical Nawatl and occasionally used a colonial dictionary in producing the translation. Two words suggest that the translator read the word he wanted to write in a source that used a traditional colonial orthography, perhaps a dictionary, and erroneously transliterated them into the orthography favored by the MCRCA. The overall character of the Nawatl text, however, does not suggest a good command of colonial Nawatl. The fact that words are arbitrarily divided throughout the text shows that the translator could not have studied colonial Nawatl in any depth and that they do not have a solid grasp of the grammar of the language.
- Many word forms are different from their forms in colonial Nawatl and suggest that the translator may have been familiar with a 20th-century colloquial variety of Nawatl, or that the translator may have had help from native speakers to help with the translation of specific parts of the Spanish original. The arbitrary division of words also suggests that the translator, after hearing them from an oral source – perhaps a native speaker, wrote down phrase-by-phrase or word-by-word direct translations.
- The entire grammatical and syntactic structure of the text is atypical for both colonial and modern Nawatl, and it does not show either the rhetorical traits commonly associated with early colonial Nawatl oratory (e.g. metaphors, couplets, diphrasisms, cohesion) or the kind of formulaic language that would suggest an oral source of transmission (e.g. repetition, simple short phrases, topic-comment cohesion).
Consequently, it is our conclusion that that text was most likely not passed down through oral tradition from Kuauhtemok, but that it was probably produced in Southern Mexico by Rodolfo Nieva-López and Estanislao Ramírez with the aid of some of their Nawatl speaking associates in the 1960s. While many cultural educators and practitioners of Aztec dance may certainly draw inspiration from the alleged “declaration,” it is without historical merit. Further distribution of the document is discouraged, as doing so only encourages the propagation of pseudohistory and ignores the actual cultural inheritance of Mexico’s indigenous people. Instead, it is the position of the Chimalli Institute of Mesoamerican Arts that the alleged “Declaration” be replaced with the following excerpt from Alvarado Tezozomoc’s Cronica Mexicayotl, as the message is far more inspiring and most importantly, it is not a work of fiction.
Thus they have come to tell it, Thus they have come to record it in their narration, And for us, they have painted it in their codices, The ancient men, the ancient women.
They were our grandfathers, our grandmothers,
Our great-grandfathers, great-grandmothers,
Our great-great grandfathers, our ancestors.
Their account was repeated,
They left it to us;
They bequeathed it forever
To us who live now,
To us who come down from them.
Never will it be lost, never will it be forgotten,
That which they came to do,
That which they came to record in their paintings:
Their renown, their history, their memory.
Thus in the future
Never will it perish, never will it be forgotten,
Always we will treasure it,
We, their children, their grandchildren,
Great-great grandchildren, Descendants,
We who carry their Blood and their Color,
We will tell it, we will pass it on
To those who do not yet live, who are yet to be born,
The children of the Mexicans, the children of the Tenochcans.
Alvarado Tezozomoc: `Cronica Mexicayotl.’ 
I would like to thank Magnus Pharao Hansen, PhD for contributing to this article.
Interested in learning more? Our “Our Slippery Earth: Nawa Philosophy in the Modern Age” is available on Amazon.com. In it, I discuss basic themes of Nawa philosophy, and how these themes can be practiced in the modern age.
Kurly Tlapoyawa is an archaeologist, filmmaker, author, and ethnohistorian. His research focuses primarily on the interaction between Mesoamerica, Western Mexico, and the American Southwest. Kurly has lectured at UNLV, University of Houston, and Yale University on topics related to Mesoamerica. His book, “Our Slippery Earth: Nawa Philosophy in the Modern Age” was published in 2017. Kurly lives in New Mexico.
Follow Kurly on twitter @KurlyTlapoyawa
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