Today we had a surprise guest, Irwin Sanchez of Tlaxcal Kitchen and Rescatando Al Idioma Nahuatl, or Rescuing the Nahuatl Language.
I had first heard of Irwin’s important work of teaching Nahuatl in cooking classes through this story on WNYC. I had also heard about Irwin’s class on Remezcla. Irwin and I had emailed one another about the college class, and I asked him if he would be willing to come speak to the students at some point. Because of some timing issues, just a few days ago, we were able to confirm a time, which turned out to be this class. The students weren’t expecting him, but they were able to learn some of the Nahuatl roots of Mexican food, to learn more about ancestry, language, and cultural knowledge through foodways. Certainly everything Irwin spoke about resonated with what we read in Profe Cintli’ls libro about the centrality of corn for the Mesoamerican axis mundi.
Irwin started thing off with a poem, one of his own.
The combination of story and music in this poem by Iriwn demonstrated to us to centrality of foodways for thinking about cultural transmission of traditions, languages, and knowledge. The translingual poem in recorded forms moves between and across Nahuatl and English. During Irwin’s chat with us, he mentioned that he speaks Spanish and English at roughly the same level in his mind.
While Irwin was speaking, he opened up a Word document to offer some Nahuatl writing examples to think through the significance of ingredients, stories, and how the language offers a window into the culture.
He began with his interpretation of the etymology of the word “taco.” There are different discussions about the etymology of the word, as there allegedly different places where the dish emerges. Irwin offers the Nahuatl root, “Tlalhco” which he says means “half.” This idea of the folded tortilla would certainly make sense. As one view of the etymology, it makes sense, or as much as “taco” being for “heel,” or a stick of dynamite, or a pool cue (other thoughts on the etymology of the word.”
Another word that I hadn’t considered is quesadilla, which I assumed was rooted with the word queso, or cheese, but Irwin locates the root as “quetzal”. He did something similar with chilaquiles, which he noted as “chilli aquil”. This also tells us that chilaquiles are a very old food, with still living variations. Next, he spoke of tamales, using the roots “tamal-tohtoma” meaning to wrap, followed by “amatl” which is a leaf, what we think of us a leaf of paper.
Turning to corn, we recalled how Profe Cintil described the different names for corn based on its location in the growth cycle. “Tlaoli” Irwin said, translates to the kernel of corn. “Elote” is the ear of corn. “Cintli” is the cob. And “textli” is the masa, the dough from which tamales, tortillas, and other forms of ground corn are used to cook from.
What really struck me is when Irwin spoke about nixtamalization, which he described in symbolic terms. He described the ingredients as cal + maiz + agua, or calcium carbone (pulverized, burned limestone), corn, and water. Irwin said our bones have the same calcium in limestone, and that the bones are also sacred. He described the creation story of people from the god Quetzalcoatl, how he took corn, ground bones, and mixed them with his blood to produce the masa to make people. Irwin said this story is the story of nixtamalization–that blew my mind. The stories are allegorical foodways stories that transmit cultural knowledge, and there it was for us to see, from Maestro Irwin.
Irwin finished class taking questions from students. Crystal had questions regard healing that Irwin had touched upon. Not only did Irwin speak about Indigenous Mexican foodways, he also turned to homeopathic medicine, and traditional medicines used by Indigenous people. Crystal’s question was about mental and physical health, and Irwin noted that both cannot be separated. To be healthy in the head is to be healthy in the heart he said, and they are close to one another and deserve equal care.
There were also questions about racism both in the USA and Mexico. Irwin explained that encountering racism in the USA was not new for him because in Mexico he had already known it. He spoke about the treatment of Indigenous folks in Mexico that spoke to some of the structural history Profe Cintil referred to as the inculcation of shame for Indigeneity among Mexicanos today. He also pointed out the contradiction of Mexican people beaming with Indigenous pride for their Aztec/Mayan heritage, with the national park monuments today, but will also turn away from the plights and issues facing Indigenous people today.
I’ll end this post with one last poem from Irwin, “That Which Lifts Me.”