Human compassion in a foreign lingo


Mexico officially recognises 68 native languages, although some of these are spoken by fewer than 100 people and seem destined to disappear along with the culture and customs to which they gave expression. From openDemocracy.

Jeremy Fox
13 October 2013

Some years ago, I led a study on the feasibility of converting an unused downtown building in Ottawa (Canada’s capital city) into a community arts centre. Towards the closing stages of the work, we held a public meeting to present preliminary findings and to seek feedback from local artists and the wider community. Interest in the project exceeded our expectations: every seat in the hall was taken and people stood along walls and the entrance doors, eager both hear what we had to say and to say their piece. For over an hour, all went well. Excitement was palpable, suggestions for what should take place in the building came thick and fast. Then a middle-aged man stood up in the middle of the audience and began to speak in a language neither I, nor any of my colleagues, nor most of those present either understood or had ever heard before.  A hush fell over the hall.

“You will not have understood me,” the man said at length in English, “because you do not know my speech, nor my people. I am of the Ottowa and my tongue is Ojibwe. We are of this land and were here long before the white man. This city bears our name. Yet you look through us as if we do not exist. No one has asked for our opinion.”

I responded with an apology for my ignorance and asked if we could meet later to discuss how we might incorporate his views and those of his people into our report. To this he agreed.  What happened subsequently is a story of its own and I mention it here because it came to mind recently in a quite different context and in a different country: Mexico.

In late September this year, Mexico’s coasts were hit by severe hurricanes.  Damage was widespread. Rivers burst their banks, bridges crumbled, roads were washed away,  avalanches of rock and earth tumbled down hillsides burying everything in their path. Several villages in the west were virtually wiped out. Some native communities living in isolated areas lost all their possessions, including their crops - source of their livelihood.  Even the famous resort of Acapulco was cut off for a while.

Government sent in the military to rescue the stranded, promised financial help for flood victims, and organised repositories in the large cities where the general public could contribute cans of food, toilet paper, soaps, towels. Anxious like every good politician not to let a good disaster go to waste, President Enrique Peña Nieto had himself filmed wading through the waters of a swollen river, trousers wet but hair immaculately combed and sporting a spotless white shirt. Someone had probably told him that mattresses were among the pressing needs of flood victims, so that as he posed for the cameras still ankle-deep in water, he made mattresses the government’s first priority.

Rosario Robles, Secretary of State for Social Development has taken on the role of organizing longer-term government support. She flies in with a coterie of reporters to a meeting in Tlapa de Comonfort, a country town in the hard-hit state of Guerrero. Native peoples have walked for hours from villages in the mountains to talk to her. A woman from one village recounts through tears how the swollen river has washed away houses, children, the cemetary. No one has offered help.

“Did you understand me,” she asks.

“No,” the minister replies.

“Well that’s exactly how much we understand you when you talk. You’ve no idea who or what we are…” [1]

The woman had been speaking not in Spanish but in Me’phaa (Tlapaneco). Others who follow her to the microphone give their accounts in Nu saavi (Mixteco) and Nahuatl (language of the Aztecs). Ms Robles and her officials look on uncomprehendingly.


Mexico officially recognises 68 native languages, although some of these are spoken by fewer than 100 people and seem destined to disappear along with the culture and customs to which they gave expression. Along with these languages come ways of being and thinking that from time to time continue to find public expression. In early October, a timeless corner of one of Mexico City’s oldest and best-preserved neighbourhoods celebrates the festival of Saint Francis of Assisi, the local patron saint. The streets and the parish church of Cuadrante de San Francisco  and the adjacent Barrio del Niño Jesús burst into colour and bustle. Flowers are everywhere, streamers hang from post to post across the narrow cobbled streets, a fairground fills most of the church precinct with games and rides. Mexican street food sizzles and smokes from grills and hotplates, the odours mingling with that of freshly-baked breads including the inimitable “pan de pueblo” (village bread) with its delicious flavouring of piloncillo (pure raw sugar).


Space has been left before the church for the traditional raising of three crosses, and for a ceremony that one might expect to be religious were it not for the fact that no ecclesiastical figures are to be seen. Instead, over the tinny strains of fairground music we hear the rhythmical beating of drums; and within moments, a group of dancers emerges into the clearing dressed not in the sober weeds of the Catholic church but in the ceremonial trappings of those who occupied these lands long before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors. As they dance, one senses in their gestures and facial expressions a poignant mixture of hope and resignation: hope because, even if the ancient gods have given ground to the Christian one, rituals such as this have somehow endured to challenge the meaning of the Conquest; resignation because the odds of survival remain small, and the struggle is so unequal.


Watching from the sidelines, the thought occurs that the arrays of flowers might yet sustain a dual meaning. Outwardly they are strictly Christian: saintly messages adorn the floral displays over the entrance to the precinct and the church door. Flowers in ancient Nahua culture, however, had more than one role. To be sure they were representations of beauty and frequently occur as such in Nahua poetry. But they were also symbols of the human hearts that periodically had to be cut from live bodies and offered to the gods in return for their protection and benevolence.  Securing a supply of hearts for the purpose meant going to war - not to kill - but to take prisoners for later sacrifice. Such wars were known as ”guerras floridas” (flower wars).   Could there be a faint reminiscence in the drumming and the dancing - warlike enough in strength and persistence - of this colourful yet darker significance?


During my years in Mexico in the mid 1970s, I was staying with some friends in Cuernavaca when I developed a nasty chest infection. One day, as a fit of coughing overtook me in the street, a middle-aged woman approached. She was dressed in a way that identified her as Nahua.

“You are unwell, señor.”


“Meet me here tomorrow at this time and I will give you something to cure you.”

On the following day, we met as agreed, and she handed me a small plastic bag filled with herbs and small leaves.

“Make tea with this,” she instructed, “And drink while it is still hot.”

She accepted my thanks but refused my offer to pay her for the medicine. I never saw her again. Back at my friends’ house, I brewed the tea and drank; and as the first mouthful trickled down my throat I felt my bronchial tubes clear. A day later the infection had gone.

The woman’s generosity brings to mind an observation by John Lawson, “surveyor to the Lords Proprietors”, in his New Voyage to Carolina, first published in 1709.

“They (the native peoples) are really better to us than we are to them; they always give us victuals at their quarters, and take care we are armed against hunger and thirst; we do not so by them (generally speaking), but let them walk by our doors hungry, and do not often relieve them. We look upon them with scorn and disdain, and think them little better than beasts in human shape, though if well examined, we shall find that, for all our religion and education, we possess more moral deformities and evils than they do, or are acquainted withal.”

I have no overriding conclusion to offer. My purpose in this piece goes no further than to reflect on the multiplicity of ways of seeing and knowing the world that every human culture embodies and how much we all stand to lose in knowledge and understanding of ourselves as well as others if and when they disappear from the earth.


[1] La Jornada, 27 September 2013, p.8


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