Meet the Santa Ana Man Who Has Dedicated His Life to Teaching Thousands of Students to Speak Nahuatl

“Tanecic!” “Tiotaqui!” “Tayohuah!” In the basement of the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana, about a dozen students repeat the Nahuatl words for good morning, good afternoon, and good evening as their teacher looks on. For more than 20 years, 61-year-old Davíd Vásquez has taught the language of the Aztecs. 


Sugar skulls, tamales and spirits (the alcoholic kind) — these are things you might find on ofrendas, or altars, built this time of year to entice those who’ve passed to the other side back for a visit. These altars in homes and around tombstones are for Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, a tradition on Nov. 1 and originating in central Mexico.

The Aztecs developed the ritual some 3,000 years ago because they believed one should not grieve the loss of a beloved ancestor who passed. Instead, the Aztecs celebrated their lives and welcomed the return of their spirits to the land of the living once a year. That’s where the food, drink and music offerings come in.

Hayes Lavis, cultural arts curator for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, says that mourning was not allowed because it was believed the tears would make the spirit’s path treacherous and slippery. “This day is a joyous occasion; it’s a time to gather with everyone in your family, those alive and those dead,” he says.

During the Spanish conquest, Catholic leaders exerted their influence on the tradition, and the resulting mash-up created the Day of the Dead celebration as we now know it.

Decoding The Food And Drink On A Day Of The Dead Altar

Photos: Karen Castillo Farfán/NPR

Patti Smith, 1976, by Lynn Goldsmith. 

“I don’t consider writing a quiet, closet act: I consider it a real physical act. When I’m home writing on a typewriter, I go crazy. I move like a monkey. I’ve wet myself. I’ve come in my pants writing….Instead of shooting smack, I masturbate – fourteen times in a row…I start seeing Aztec mountains…I see weird things. I see temples, underground temples, with the doors opening, sliding door after sliding door, Pharaoh revealed – this bound-up Pharaoh with ropes of gold. That’s how I write a lot of my poetry.”

~ Patti Smith in 1971, from Patti Smith: An Unauthorized Biography, by Victor Bockris and Roberta Bayley 

Martin Luther, Albrecht Durer, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Christopher Columbus, Abravanel, the Hongzhi Emperor (only monogamous Chinese emperor ever), Sulayman the Magnificent, Ivan the Great/Terrible, Moctezuma II, King Henry the VII, and Askia Muhammad Toure were all alive at the at the same time during the year 1500.

The Aztec calendar is the calendar system that was used by the Aztecs as well as other Pre-Columbian peoples of central Mexico. It is one of the Mesoamerican calendars, sharing the basic structure of calendars from throughout ancient Mesoamerica.

The calendar consisted of a 365-day calendar cycle called xiuhpohualli (year count) and a 260-day ritual cycle called tonalpohualli (day count). These two cycles together formed a 52-year “century,” sometimes called the “calendar round”. The xiuhpohualli is considered to be the agricultural calendar, since it is based on the sun, and the tonalpohualli is considered to be the sacred calendar.

The calendric year may have begun at some point in the distant past with the first appearance of the Pleiades (Tianquiztli) asterism in the east immediately before the dawn light. But due to the precession of the Earth’s axis, it fell out of favor to a more constant reference point such as a solstice or equinox. Early Spanish chroniclers recorded it being celebrated in proximity with the Spring equinox.

The signs as old civilizations

Aries: Ancient Egypt

Taurus: The Mayans

Gemini: Ancient Greece

Cancer: Ancient Rome

Leo: Ancient Middle East

Virgo: Ancient China

Libra: Ancient Japan

Scorpio: Medieval Europe

Sagittarius: The Aztecs

Capricorn: The Vikings

Aquarius: Mesopotamia

Pisces: Victorian France