lørdag den 29. april 2023

Words Usually Spoken Upon Taking a Nahua Child from their Parents

Magnus Pharao Hansen & Paja Faudree

Yesterday at the Northeastern Nahuatl Scholars conference at Brown University in Providence, me and Paja Faudree, associate professor of anthropology at Brown University, and my former doctoral adviser, gave a talk in which we presented an analysis of a section of the Vocabulario Manual by Pedro de Arenas first published in 1610. We compared the various versions and editions of this book, many of which are located at he John Carter Brown library. This blog post is a small summary of this paper, which we may eventually develop into larger paper.

When we study the relations between Nahuas and Spaniards in the colonial period we tend to rely on combinations of information contained in administrative and ecclesiastical records, and they do not necessarily represent the breadth of contexts in which interactions between Nahuas and non-nahuas took place. Particularly if we are interested in knowing more about the minutiae of everyday life, since precisely because of their mundane banality they are something colonial administrators or church officials were unlikely to take any special interest in and therefore unlikely to leave any written record of. However, there is one colonial source which provides a stunning glimpse into these everyday interactions between Spaniards and Nahuas which has received surprisingly little attention in scholarship and this is Pedro de Arenas’ “Vocabulario Manual” first published in 1611. The Vocabulario Manual is a Nahuatl phrasebook written for Spaniards in order to help them communicate with Nahuatl speakers, as they interacted in various common tasks and contexts.

Pedro de Arenas' "Vocabulario Manual"

The mere fact of the existence of the Vocablario Manual tells us something about the relations between Nahuas and Spaniards who spoke no Nahuatl, namely firstly that interactions between them were common and frequent enough that a phrasebook was considered useful, and secondly that it was not the case that it was not simply assumed that it was the responsibility of Nahuas to accommodate to Spanish speakers. The fact that this work was reprinted no less than 9 times over three centuries, tells us that the usefulness of a phrasebook for Spaniards speakers to communicate with Nahuas was not limited to the early years of the colony, or the periods during which Nahuatl was an official language in New Spain -  indeed the last three editions were even printed after Mexican independence. This study is by no means the first, as previous work by Ascención Hernández de León-Portilla and Andrés Lira have analyzed it previously, but due to its unique status as the only example of the genre of a mundane “phrasebook”, it deserves much more study, and to figure prominently in analyses of social life and spanish-indigenous interactions during the colony. 

Nothing is known about Pedro de Arenas’ biography, In the work he describes himself as a “romancista” that is a person with no formal education in Latin, and Ascención Hernández de León-Portilla suggests that he was likely a Spaniard who came to New Spain and dedicated himself mostly to trade and commerce (1982: XIX-XXVI). For the manual he supplied the phrases in Spanish and an unnamed nahuatlato translated them into Nahuatl.

There are extant editions published in 1611, 1668, 1683, 1690, 1710, 1728, 1793, 1831, and the last one in 1887. In 1862, during the French intervention, a French edition was published. There are reports of editions from 1613, 1615 and 1666, but no copies of these were located by Ascención Hernández de León-Portilla, when she searched for them. There are copies of the other editions at many research libraries and archives in México, the US and Europe.

The Vocabulario Manual is organized into sections describing different types of interactions between the books user and Nahuatl speakers. Among these interactions are such everyday communicative events as exchanging greetings, bartering, selling or buying goods, asking for directions, giving orders and directions to servants, praising workers, scolding or complaining about workers and servants, going to church, asking where things or people are, or telling others where to put them. The picture it gives us is of close everyday relations between the book’s intended audience of users and the Nahuatl speakers they will be speaking to.  In these imagined interactions, Nahuatl speakers are most commonly cast as workers: servants or laborers who will be given tasks, or persons with whom to trade or barter – as in the sections on how to “poner defecto en alguna cosa”  and “como alabar alguna cosa.” Nahuatl speakers are also imagined as people from whom to ask for directions on the road or upon arriving in a new town. Other communicative events are of a more intimate interpersonal nature, as when Nahuatl speakers are imagined as those in need of being cured of a malady or consoled, or are people that the manual’s user must ask for help, apologize to, praise or commend for their virtues, or encourage to keep doing good work. But there are also situations where the manual’s user is put in the role of accusing someone (while speaking to a group of Nahuatl speakers), or of scolding someone, or complaining of bad work or ill treatment. Sometimes, too, the roles are reversed, and the book’s user must defend themselves against accusations of some improper act, or must apologize for transgressions they have committed.  

 Words Usually Spoken Upon Taking a Nahua Child from their Parents

One of the sections that is painfully revealing of the dynamics of colonial world, is the one in which the speaker is instructed in how to ask a Nahuatl-speaking family for their child to rear. The implied reason for asking for a Nahua child is to teach it a trade, which was apparently done on a contract of one to two years at a time. Likely the position of such a child would be as mozo, a boy servant of the type mentioned as the addressee in many of the other sections of the Vocabulario


While the parents’ answers are not included and we hear only the spanish-speaker's voice (speaking Nahuatl), the answers are strongly implied by the book’s author since the statements that it teaches anticipate in some detail the response from the child’s parents. The author clearly expects the parents to be quite reluctant to hand over the child, and they need a good deal of convincing, and negotiation of the period of the contract. The period should be long enough that the child will learn well, the child will send back money, I will love the child as if it were my own. The closing statement of the person presumably carrying away the child is to tell the parents not to be sad, the statement implicitly painting the picture of a mother or father who does not really want to part with the child, but who has been convinced that they must. 


Palabras que se suelen ordinariamente decir pidiendo algún muchacho a sus padres para enseñarle oficio

Cuix tinechmacaznequi in mopiltzin?

Do you want to give me your child?

Nehuatl nicmachtiz netlayecoltiliztli in yehuatl (é) inin

I will teach him a means of making a living, this one or that

Quexquich cahuitl nonahuac ticcahuaz?

For how much time will you leave him with me?

Amo miec. Amo huel quimomachtiz zan iciuhca.

That is not much. He can not learn just quickly. 

Nehuatl nichuicaz an ma notlan ye oc quezqui ilhuitl

I will take him with me, and he will be with me yet some days. 

Auh in zatepan tla ticnequiz ticchihuazque amatl (ó) escritura in quexquich cahuitl tehuatl ticnequiz

And then later, if you wish, we will make papers for whatever time you want. 

Auh nehuatl nicmacaz ic izqui in cecen metztica in cecen xiuhtica

And I will give him this much every month, every year

Auh nictlazohtlaz cenca cualli iuhqui ma ahzo huel nopiltzin

And I will love him as well as if he might be my own child. 

Huel oc xiquilnamiqui[1611]/ximoyolnonotza[1668] in tla moyollocacopa

Remember it/[Speak to your heart about] it still, 

if your heart is set

Ca intla yehuatl cualli tlacatl yez ihuan in quimoyollotiz in cualli yectli

And if he will be a good man and put his heart into the good and the right

Iciuhca momachtiz, zan ahmo huecauh, zan ce xihuitl, zan ce xihuitl ihuan tlahco, zan ome xihuitl 

Quickly he will learn, not long, just one year, just a year and a half, just two years. 

Macatlé mitztequipacho

May nothing sadden you

While the Vocabulario Manual tells us much about how Spanish-speakers had to learn to use Nahuatl to interact with indigenous populations in Mexico throughout the 17th to 19th centuries, this little snippet of a phrasebook points to a much larger and highly sinister aspect of the colonial process. An integral part of the way in which colonization progresses entailed removing Nahua and other indigenous children from their families to raise them outside of their own community and culture. The children who were taken in this way were probably often used as mozos, that is servant boys, and while it may be true that the person using the handbook intended to raise the child with love as if it were his own, in a kind of fostering arrangement (also not unknown in indigenous communities), it feels more like a strategic statement for convincing the parents. What they wanted was more likely the child's labour. The practice  also reminds us of the Residential Schools common in Canada and the US, where children were sent specifically in order to "acculturate" them to colonizer society and sever their connections to their own communities. In Mexico the practice of educational albergues, school homes, for young indigenous children whose families live too far from schools for the children to be able to travel back and forth everyday. In many cases for children in albergues, in the colonial period, and today, receiving education, means leaving ones community, to live among strangers who do not speak one's own language. 

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