Saturday, May 12, 2007

Otomi, anyone?

At least seven per cent of the Mexican people speak an digenous language as their native tongue, among them the women in aprons who sell jewelry in the Guanajuato Jardin. These businesswomen from Guerrero speak both Nahua and Spanish.

I use the word Spanish even though scholar David Wright, who teaches translation and history at the University of Guanajuato, says we shouldn't really be saying espaƱol or Spanish, we should be saying castellano because Spain has several languages too.

Professor Wright specializes in indigenous languages. At the university, among other courses, he teaches the translation of Nahua into Spanish. I recently went to the Museo del Pueblo to hear him talk on locating manuscripts in classical Otomi in two important North American libraries. With some detective work, Wright found Otomi manuscripts from colonial times in the Newberry Collection, Chicago and the Princeton University library. Otomi is spoken in Guanajuato state by some of the people in San Miguel de Allende, where the language has changed since the colonial period.

Wright explained that one of the principal collectors of colonial Otomi manuscripts was Edward E. Ayer from Illinois who as a young man defended a mine near the Mexican border against indigenous attack. War. Soon afterward, he came across a copy of Prescott's Conquest of Mexico, became interested in the culture, and went on to a successful business that included an exclusive contract to supply railway ties to the Mexican railway:

"I served during the war of rebellion in New Mexico and Arizona...Of course we came in contact with tribes of Indians that every man's hand had been against for 300 yars, and they hated us. I don't think that anyone hated an Indian more than I or knew less of the subject. Since I have commenced to read about him, and put myself in his place, my views have changed very materially. We have simply destroyed a great race of human beings, in many of the virtues our superiors..."

The quote above is from a footnote in English in Wright's book on Otomi manuscripts available in Spanish from Rana Press. The Press is above the library near the DIF building on Paseo de la Presa, Guanajuato.

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