By Ever Reyes
First Chorus: The Past
The warm grains of sand swish under our feet as we walk through the New Mexico desert. My grandfather kneels next to me as his hands wrap around a dry weed. This memory rattles like an old film reel at the end of a movie. He shares with me a message, a way of knowing, a philosophy about the desert. I often share this story with my son, never really sure if it will take hold the same way. I keep my grandfather’s words close to me: not all things are up for academic extraction.
First Verse: Connections
I have a personal connection to Indigenous language. My grandfather spoke Rarámuri. He kept the details of his Indigenous heritage from his children. Still, he could never hide his excitement when speaking Rarámuri with the community on family visits to Chihuahua, a state in northern Mexico. By the time I was born, my grandfather had gone entirely deaf, so the only communication I had with him was through sign language.
I was never able to learn Rarámuri from my grandfather, but when I had the opportunity to take a Nahuatl language class at UC Berkeley, I jumped at the chance. Nahuatl is an Indigenous language spoken largely in Southern Mexico in the Huasteca region. However, the language is spread around Mexico and travels with the Mexican diaspora to the United States. Though the languages are not the same, I feel connected with him every time I speak Nahuatl. There is a harmonization I feel between us .
When first learning the language, I journaled about my experience:
“It’s like I can taste the words. The words carry with them a legacy and sweetness. They are a testament to something I cannot yet explain but that I feel to be there. The words whisper a message underneath the sounds, something I am close to hearing.”
I did not grow up in Rarámuri culture, nor did I grow up in Chihuahua, Mexico. As a result, learning Nahuatl provides me some connection to Indigenous culture in Mexico. And since my grandfather was multi-lingual, I relish in the thought that he may have spoken or understand Nahuatl.
Second Chorus: The Present
I put my son on my back as we race for the bus. I push his stroller in front of me and chuckle. It’s only on the days that we are running late that he refuses to ride in his stroller. We see the 52 bus sitting at the bus stop. The sliding doors squeak as they flop open. I hop onto the bus frazzled and with urgency. Out of breath, I swipe my AC transit pass as my son is giddy with joy. Our weekly routine is running after the bus, so we are not late for class. We ride the 52 to the UC Berkeley Latinx Research Center to take a Nahuatl class. Professor Arturo Davila-Sanchez graciously teaches the course as my son wanders around the room, asking the question: “how do you say cat in Nahuatl?” I know that I will retain less information as I try to learn Nahuatl and watch my son. But it is far more important to me that he hears Nahuatl.
Every now and then, he falls asleep on the bus ride back. He snuggles with me tightly as the bus bounces around University Ave. The moments I share with my son remind me of the early memories with my grandfather in New Mexico. I feel the past and present harmonize or rhyme and ponder about the future. My heart warms as I think about how my son will carry our memories and Indigenous ways of knowing forward. I can’t even imagine the future that will come from us learning Nahuatl together.
Second Verse: Importance
Indigenous language revitalization is powerful because language provides a connection to culture while paving the way for Indigenous futurism: it creates a possibility for healing. By speaking Nahuatl, I actively participate in this future: and it is in this space of possibilities that my research grows.
My research focuses on how Indigenous language and sound/music sustain Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination. Currently, I am in the early stages of creating a collaborative documentary about Indigenous radio in Canada with Brian Wright-McLeod (Dakota-Anishnabe) and Dave McLeod (Ojibway/Métis). For my dissertation, I aim to examine how Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination are accomplished through Indigenous language revitalization, music, and technology. I am interested in what Trevor Reed calls sonic sovereignty and how music and performance create a type of Indigenous governance in opposition to settler law. For me, sound, law, and sovereignty are interrelated and a point of resistance for Indigenous artists across Turtle Island.
Third Chorus: The Future
It’s Fall 2020. The tiny little boxes on my blue screen move every time a new student enters the Zoom classroom. I move around in my seat and try to get comfortable as Professor Abelardo de la Cruz goes over the syllabus. The Nahuatl course I took with my son was not a formal class. As I go back and forth over the Nahuatl workbook, trying to understand the language’s pronunciation and agglutination, I realize that this is the first time the university will formally recognize my Nahuatl studies. Receiving credit for my work on Indigenous language gives me a sense of pride. But even if the class were not recognized, my body would still be in front of that screen.
A semester later, I still struggle with identifying intransitive words, but the language is sticking. In the mornings, I say to my son, “Queniuhqui tiitztoc?” (How are you?) “I’m good,” he says as he runs off to play. Professors Davila-Sanchez and de la Cruz give me a gift that I can pass down to my son.
I am grateful that the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) supports the Nahuatl language course in partnership with the University of Utah. As I reflect on CLAS and Nahuatl’s importance, I think of Beth Piatote’s (Nez Perce) book, The Beadworkers: Stories. Piatote writes about the sweet and often overwhelming feeling of language revitalization. She writes,
“There were times I was discouraged, when I faced the entire ocean of words and I feared the undertow would pull me under, like an eagle who is dragged into the current of a river, talons locked on the back of a salmon. Later, I would learn another word, and I would hold it just as close, say it to myself, to the sky, say it to Phil and those who spoke: pá·yca pá·ytoqsa. I am coming. I am coming back.”
I hold close the word, niahciz. Nahuatl for, I will arrive. The ‘z’ at the end of the word denotes the future: I look forward to the possibilities I cannot even imagine.
 This harmonization is reflected in the choruses. The similarity between these themes is meant to mimic the rhyming of choruses. Yet, the content is different, moving along the song.
Ever Reyes (Rarámuri descent/Chicanx) is a Ph.D. student in Ethnomusicology at UC Berkeley whose research focuses on Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination through music and technology. He is studying Nahuatl and is part of the Indigenous Language Revitalization Designated Emphasis and Indigenous Sound Studies Working Group.