A couple from Queens offers cooking classes to keep a dying indigenous Mexican language alive in New York City. I produced this story for WNYC news. Click on the link to hear the piece.
Chocolate, tomato and avocados are everyday foods many of us enjoy, but they come from a language we don’t hear too often — Nahuatl. It’s a descendant of the ancient Aztec language, and it’s one of the most widely spoken indigenous languages in Mexico.
Although around 1.5 million people still speak Nahuatl, linguists consider it endangered because it’s not being passed on to the next generation, partly as a result of the legacy of colonization and the stigma still attached to speaking indigenous languages in Mexico.
But a couple from Queens, Irwin Sanchez and Marrisa Senteno are trying to save it by offering cooking classes through their initiative, Tlaxcal Kitchen.
Throughout the class, they explain the etymology of the dishes the students make, like the spicy chocolate sauce mole.
"Mole means to move. Ole, Olini means move." said Sanchez. "It used to be cooked in clay pots so you had to constantly stir it, move it, so that it didn’t stick."
He said other well-known recipes that require movement all share the same ‘ole’ root, like the spiced sweet drink atole and the soup posole.
Even though Sanchez’s first language was Nahuatl, Spanish took over, and after moving to the U.S., he was losing the connection to his language and culture. But his grandfather's death around 10 years ago inspired him to get back to his indigenous roots. Now he’s the only one left in his family who regularly speaks Nahuatl, so he sees it as his obligation to pass it onto the next generation, especially his young son.
Sanchez also maintains that if you don’t know your past, you don’t know where you’re going, which is important for immigrants like himself.
"Many Mexican Americans, they’re looking for their roots, and when they start looking for the history of their own families, they realize that they are indigenous also."
His wife, Marissa Senteno, said that there’s a lot at stake when languages disappear — they’re not just words, it’s a whole knowledge system.
"When you lose a language, you lose an entire culture."