New York is full of campesinos from Hispanoamérica, and that’s a great thing.
Often, when I’m in the subway, I make it a point to go over and speak to a person that looks like a campesino, by which I mean an indigenous person from Latin America. The other day, while on the E train, I saw this woman with a child.
I approached her and said hello in Spanish. She said hello back. Then I asked her from where she was.
“Mexico,” she replied.
“I know that,” I answered, “but where in Mexico, since Mexico is a very big country.”
“Puebla,” she answered.
“Oh, so do you identify yourself with a specific nation?” I asked.
She looked puzzled, smiling.
“I mean,” I explained, “do you consider yourself, by linguistic preference, Mixtec, Totonaco, or Nahautl?”
Her face lit up with pride.
“Nahautl,” she replied, meaning the language of the Aztecs.
“So, you’re Aztec,” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied. “I’m an Aztec.”
It was such a delight to meet an Aztec on the E train in New York. I was headed to Chambers Street, near the World Trade Center. She was getting off at Spring Street, in SoHo, she said.
I asked her if she spoke Nahuatl. She said she did.
I asked her to say something in Nahuatl. I wanted to hear it.
She smiled. Then, in Spanish, she asked what she should say.
Whatever pleases you, I answered.
Then, she spoke: ¿Quenin timotōcā?
What does that mean, I asked. “¿Cual es tu nombre?” she replied, in Spanish. “¿What’s your name?” she had asked.
I told her my name. She smiled.
Then she asked me what indigenous language I spoke.
I told her I had a home in Mérida, Yucatán. Maya is the predominant indigenous language there, spoken by more than one million people throughout the entire peninsula. It is the most-widely spoken indigenous language in North America and you have to be rather dense not to know a little.
She had never heard Yucatec Maya, she said.
“Well, you’re about to hear it,” I replied.
Then I spoke: ¿Tu’ux ka bin?
In Spanish, this means, “¿Donde vas?” In English, it’s, “Where are you going?”
The first thing she said was that Yucatec Maya was a melodious language when spoken. She liked that.
Then she answered my question, in Spanish. She said she was going to work in SoHo. She works for a family, a family that’s odd. “They keep their parents away, at asylums for the old. That’s very disrespectful. But they say their lives are too important to be bothered with their elders,” she confided, with a tone of disapproval.
“Assisted living centers are where the old end up here,” I said.
She nodded her head. Then she whispered that it was wrong to live that way. Her employers showed more concern for their pets than for their parents.
The train pulled into the station, she wished me well, and she was on her way.
But before she left, she turned and said, “¿De quién es este cielo, de quién?”
I knew from where she got that phrase.
We smiled, and the doors to the train closed.
On the streets of New York I have met Mixtec, Zapotec, Maya, Aztec, Otomí, and Tzotzil individuals.
“Manhattan” is derived from the Unami language spoken by the Lenape people, the original inhabitants of what is now New York. The Bureau of Indian Affairs does not recognize any Lenape people living in Manhattan. The Bureau of Indian Affairs does not recognize any Mixtec, Zapotec, Maya, Aztec, Otomí, or Tzotzil people living in Manhattan.
In fact, the last time around the Census Bureau missed most of them simply because the firms they subcontracted to count the indigenous peoples were founded by Latinos who have neither ever lived among the indigenous nations of Hispanoamérica nor do they understand their migration patterns.
But, as happened to me recently, if you are receptive to the exuberance of discovery, you might just encounter an Aztec on the E train.
Aztecs in New York? This, you understand, is the true meaning of Moctezuma’s revenge.