Gary Francisco Keller Ph.D.

Nahuatl and Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe

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In 1570, King Felipe II decreed Nahuatl the official language of Nueva España, now Mexico. The term Mexico references the Nahua Aztec tribe, the Mexica. King Felipe’s father, Carlos V, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, had the opposing policy: indigenous Mexicans must be taught in Spanish.

Carlos’s decrees failed, and the teaching of Christianity by missionaries was similarly unsuccessful. The Indian population resisted. Politically, New Spain was in profound crisis due to the confrontation between civil and religious authorities. Mexico’s first bishop-elect and Protector of the Indians, Franciscan Juan de Zumárraga, did not have official, authoritative status and was nearly assassinated by Nuño de Guzmán and his rapacious henchmen. Sixteen months before the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Zumárraga secreted a letter to Carlos V, telling him that the situation was so bad that only a miracle of God could redress it.

That miracle came in the form of Guadalupe’s apparitions and loving instructions in Nahuatl on December 9-12, 1531, to humble Saint Juan Diego, whose birth name, Cuauhtlatoatzin, translates to Talking Eagle in Nahuatl.

What followed in short order was without historical precedent. Zumárraga was soon convinced of the miracle, and within seven years, solid civil rule had taken root and some nine million native Mexicans enthusiastically received their catechesis in their own tongues and were baptized.  Little wonder that law followed reality and Felipe made Nahuatl the official language.

A robust body of literature ensued. To name a few examples: the Florentine Codex, a twelve-volume encyclopedia of Aztec knowledge compiled by Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún; the Crónica Mexicayotl of the Aztec royal lineage by Fernando Alvarado Tezozómoc; Cantares mexicanos, a collection of traditional songs in Nahuatl, and the Huei tlamahuiçoltica, a Nahuatl description of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.

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