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Do Chicanos in New Mexico speak an “ancient” and “pure” form of Spanish?

[ Kurly Tlapoyawa ]

The short answer? No. Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous.

In fact, the truth is FAR more fascinating!

Perhaps the most pervasive myth among New Mexican Spanish speakers is the notion that New Mexican Spanish is an “archaic” and “pure” form of Spanish. This idea comes from the misconception that New Mexico existed in a continuous state of isolation, separated from the rest of New Spain and the later Mexican Republic by hundreds of miles and for hundreds of years, causing its colonial inhabitants to retain the language of sixteenth-century Spain. This idealized vision of Spanish “purity” has been repeated so often, and with such near-religious zeal, that is has come to be accepted as fact in many circles. However, this romanticized version of New Mexican Spanish simply doesn’t exist.

To cling to this myth is to ignore the complexity of New Mexico’s colonial-era history, which in reality is quite different, and far more fascinating than any notion of Spanish “purity” can offer. The Indios Mexicanos that made up the bulk of New Spain’s northward expansion brought with them many rich linguistic and cultural traditions, the impact of which can be felt to this very day. These Indios Mexicanos spoke a variety of Mesoamerican languages, but it was the Nawatl (Nahuatl) language of the Aztecs that would have the largest impact on the way Spanish is spoken in New Mexico.

Nawatl language loanwords are known as aztequismos, and their prominence in New Mexican Spanish is testament to a Mesoamerican legacy that is often ignored by mainstream New Mexican historians. It is quite possible that this “historical amnesia” is intentional, stemming from the fact that the mere presence of these aztequismos represents an inconvenient truth, dispelling the myth of New Mexico’s Spanish purity. As noted by Bills and Vigil, “It is the contribution from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec Indians of central Mexico, that provides the most palpable demonstration that New Mexican Spanish is really Mexican Spanish, not “pure” Castilian Spanish.”

So prevalent is the impact of Nawatl on New Mexican Spanish that in many cases, commonplace Spanish language words are ignored in favor of their Nawatl-based equivalent. Examples of this are cuate “twins,” chapulin “grasshopper,” tocayo “namesake,” zacate “grass,” popote “straw,” zoquete “mud,” jicara “bowl,” and tecolote “owl.” There are also two prominent New Mexican neighborhoods that bear Nawatl names – Atrisco in Albuquerque (from Atlixco, “facing the water”), and Analco in Santa Fe (“on the other side of the water”). Situated across the street from the historic San Miguel church in Santa Fe is a plaque commemorating the establishment of Analco by Mesoamerican settlers.

Barrio de Analco.png

Barrio Analco in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Of course, the most obvious example of Nawatl influence is the very name of the state itself, “Nuevo Mexico.” The name is a combination of two words: the Spanish word “Nuevo,” meaning “new,” and the Nawatl word “Mexico,” meaning “the place of Mexihtli.” The Codex Chimalpahin makes numerous references to Yancuic Mexico, a literal “New” Mexico located to the north where the ancestors of the Mexikah may have originated prior to settling in the valley of Anahuac. It was this search for a Yancuic Mexico that motivated the northward expansion of New Spain, a task carried out by Mesoamerican auxiliaries labeled simply as Indios Mexicanos in colonial documents.

It is worth noting that the Mesoamerican legacy of New Mexico and Southern Colorado also lives on in the genetic imprint of their Chicano populations. (On principle, this author rejects Eurocentric labels such as “Hispano,” and the even more culturally confused “Indo-Hispano” popularized by millennialist cult-leader Reies Lopez Tijerina, but that is another discussion altogether). A 2004 genetic study reveals that the average Chicano living in the San Luis Valley is at least one-third indigenous, with an overwhelming majority of that native blood coming from their mother’s DNA. Despite this, so-called Hispanics living in New Mexico and Southern Colorado tend to reject any sort of indigenous identity, and desperately cling to the myth of Spanish purity.

This is not to say that it’s impossible to find archaic expressions in New Mexican Spanish. But this is common in all regional dialects of any language, and is certainly not a phenomenon unique to New Mexico. Nor is the existence of a handful of archaic terms proof of some magical connection to a “purer” form of Spanish unknown anywhere else. The reality is, the Spanish spoken in New Mexico and Southern Colorado is a blend of Spanish, Nawatl, North American native words, regional slang, and even a few words in Arabic. The idea that New Mexican Spanish is “pure” anything is patently absurd.

My book “Totacho: Our Way Of Talking” represents a modest attempt at accelerating the demise of this long-held myth. A demise that, in my opinion, is both welcome and long overdue. The influence and contributions made by Mesoamerican people to the state of New Mexico and Southern Colorado have been ignored for far too long. Recently, I was pleased to discover that the Albuquerque Museum unveiled a new exhibit depicting Mesoamericans as part of the settling of New Mexico. Hopefully, this represents a coming shift in the way New Mexico’s history is presented, and the presence of Mesoamerican people will finally be fully recognized. Regardless, Mesoamericans have left an indelible mark on New Mexico, and totacho – our way of talking – ­remains.

Interested in learning more? Check out my book “Totacho: Our Way Of Talking” available on Amazon.com. In it, I detail the major influence that the Nawatl language has had on the “Spanish” spoken by Chicanos and Chicanas in the Southwest.

Click image to order

Kurly Tlapoyawa is an archaeologist, 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 recent book, “Our Slippery Earth: Nawa Philosophy in the Modern Age” was published in 2017. In addition to his work in Archaeology and Ethnohistory, Kurly is a professional stuntman with over 35 credits to his name.

Follow Kurly on twitter @KurlyTlapoyawa

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