Megan Figueroa: Hi, and welcome to the Vocal Fries podcast, the podcast about linguistic discrimination.
Carrie Gillon: I’m Carrie Gillon.
Megan Figueroa: I’m Megan Figueroa. Carrie, you look like you’re glowing with good health.
Carrie Gillon: So do you! [Laughter] I know it’s more relevant for me, but we both look pretty good today.
Megan Figueroa: You’ve finally recovered or completely recovered or perhaps – fingers crossed – recovered.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. I’m pretty sure I’m recovered finally. It was five weeks of on and off of being sick, which I have never in my life been sick that long ever.
Megan Figueroa: But now you’re at the other end of the tunnel.
Carrie Gillon: Finally. As a result, I feel pretty fucking good. We’ll see how long that lasts because pandemic sucks and it’s so hot now. Ugh!
Megan Figueroa: I know. It just switched over.
Carrie Gillon: [Snaps] Like that. Thursday, I think, of last week.
Megan Figueroa: Thursday to Friday, yeah. I was like, I mean, there’re places in the country where it’s snowing and I’m just like, oh my god, it’s 100 degrees here.
Carrie Gillon: Yep.
Megan Figueroa: It’s already 100 degrees.
Carrie Gillon: Or 40 Celsius for those of us who are from countries that don’t use Fahrenheit anymore, which is basically almost every country.
Megan Figueroa: Yes. Make sure to convert. Convert and some people know how horrible it is here in the summer. I don’t think people understand what it’s like to do this every summer just how I don’t quite understand how cold it can get some places. It’s the opposite of how hot it can get here.
Carrie Gillon: Right. It’s not just like – yeah, like you’re saying – it’s more the length of it because if it was even just two months, I think I could just handle it, but it’s gonna be hot, hot, hot from now until October. We’re in it for the long haul now.
Megan Figueroa: I mean, we have the most beautiful – from October to March is like –
Carrie Gillon: And we had a mostly really nice April. We actually got an extra long niceness. We had lots of rain, which was unusual. We’ve been lucky. We should stop complaining. But I’m gonna complain because I don’t like it when it’s this hot.
Megan Figueroa: I know. I mean, my people are from the desert for like five generations and yet I’m like, I’m a little uncomfortable. [Laughter] We were made for this but, shit. Well, this is our new podcast called “Weather Corner.” [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: “Dispatches from the desert.”
Megan Figueroa: Yes, exactly.
Carrie Gillon: Anyway, I have some emails to read.
Megan Figueroa: Yes, please.
Carrie Gillon: One’s pretty short from Lauretta. “Thank you so much for your podcast. I really appreciate your information and you have helped me accept how my own voice sounds. I speak in a breathy voice. I don’t mean to, and I don’t hear it myself, which has caused me a good deal of trouble over time. I feel like your podcast has helped me to arm myself against the next man who tells me I should be a phone sex operator” – [disgusted groaning] – “or my next boss who tells me I don’t sound, quote, ‘professional enough.’ Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
Thank you, Loretta, for letting us know because, yeah, that is total fucking bullshit.
Megan Figueroa: I – oh my god. I mean, I’m not surprised but still disgusted by the idea of a man telling her that.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Oh god.
Megan Figueroa: Just let us talk how we talk. I was thinking about it and all of these business journal articles that are like, “How to Be Taken More Seriously at Work.” I miss like – for one thing, fuck you. You need to be hearing us differently. Another thing, the idea that it’s just easy to turn off. I couldn’t turn off my vocal fry like that. That’s not how it works. Maybe for some people.
Carrie Gillon: Right. You would have to have some vocal training, but why is that necessary? If you’re gonna be an actress, yeah, that would be more necessary because you need to have a bunch of different ranges to – and have a bunch of different kind of characters. Outside of that job, no, uh-uh.
Megan Figueroa: You need to take me seriously.
Carrie Gillon: Listen to the content of the words. There are some things about how to sound more professional that I’m like, okay, maybe that makes sense because you need to know what jargon to use in what settings because, unfortunately, every different aspect of your life requires a different set of vocabulary – fine. Beyond that, definitely not voice quality. No, no, no, no.
Megan Figueroa: And yet, so many people /vɛhi:miɛntli/ believe. [Laughter] Did I say that right?
Carrie Gillon: /viɛmɛntli/ is how I say it, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only way to say it.
Megan Figueroa: /vɛhi:miɛntli/. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: I don’t pronounce the H.
Megan Figueroa: Well, you know, my receptive vocabulary is much larger, obviously, than my –
Carrie Gillon: Maybe some people say it that way. I don’t know.
Megan Figueroa: But, no, I might be the only person. I’ve never really said that word out loud. [Laughter] Anyway. So, thank you, Loretta. Fuck those guys. Goddamn it.
Carrie Gillon: I mean, you know what? Both are bad. Somehow, I just find anything to do with like, “Oh, you should be a sex worker” – like it’s fine if that’s what you want to do. There is no shame. But how dare someone tell you that that’s what you should be. Ugh.
Megan Figueroa: Because of how you sound. Like, what?
Carrie Gillon: Ugh.
Megan Figueroa: Okay. Whatever.
Carrie Gillon: Anyway. We also have an email from Blake. “Hey, Team!” With a wavy emoji. I love it. “I recently came across your podcast after purchasing the book ‘Wordslut’ and discovering and newfound interest in sexism and language. I listened to your first episode today on vocal fry. After listening to it, I want on YouTube to get a few examples as I didn’t really get it” – ah, that’s true; you just have to train your ear – “and wanted clarification. Holy shit. All I found were either videos shaming women for it or, alternatively, videos aimed towards women explaining how to fix it.”
Megan Figueroa: Well! [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. “And on the other side of the spectrum, videos predominantly of men teaching other men how to better their vocal fry. Let me tell you, I was shook.”
Megan Figueroa: [Groans] What!
Carrie Gillon: Yeah.
Megan Figueroa: I didn’t know about that third category. What?
Carrie Gillon: Me either. But I’m not that surprised because when men do it, it’s laudable. People like it.
Megan Figueroa: What is it? Is it like, “How to be Ira Glass”? What is this – these videos?
Carrie Gillon: No, it’s probably more like – like Benedict Cumberbatch or Jeff Bridges or somebody with more – I think a deeper voice, probably, is what they’re thinking of, right? Anyway. “I honestly had no idea how ingrained sexism was within language. Honestly, I’m blown away – mostly disgusted. I’ve also been mindful of male-dominant terms, i.e. ‘you guys,’ etc., but, fuck, it really is that bad. I’ve also noticed by bias in listening to podcasts before. My partner and I have always naturally swayed, preferred even, listening to male voice podcasts and realizing how far it is engrained in all of us is a really nice wake up call that a lot of work needs to be done.”
“Especially after recent events in Melbourne, thousands of Melbourne men in Facebooks groups were called out expressing desires of committing heinous hate crimes towards women, degrading and posting revenge porn of their exs. We have a long way to go. I hope I can learn from you both and help educate those around me, especially the men in my life. Thank you so much for this podcast and being so generous with your knowledge.”
Thank you so much, Blake. Yes. Please do. Because men are more likely to listen to men, just like white people are more likely to listen to white people. Yes. Please, please do. Thank you so, so much. And exactly. That whole email just encapsulates exactly what we’ve been talking about since Day 1.
Megan Figueroa: I know! Tattoo that email onto my body. [Laughter] Bury me with it! Put it in my sarcophagus.
Carrie Gillon: Yes. Chef’s kiss, man, chef’s kiss.
Megan Figueroa: Yes. Thank you, Blake. Well, that’s really cool to get those emails, especially since this is a really fucking cool episode.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah! This is a really fun one. We talk about stuff that I had some passing knowledge of but definitely do not have the level of knowledge, not even close, to our guest’s knowledge.
Megan Figueroa: It’s one of those conversations where you think you’re gonna talk about one thing and then you end up not talking about that but that doesn’t matter. It’s even better because it was just so amazing.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. I mean, we were gonna talk about some of that stuff. I really think that it’s better to let the conversation go where it will.
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely. Because we’re professionals. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: I mean, we’re sort of somewhat getting paid for this kind of.
Megan Figueroa: Exactly. Kind of. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Not that much but – you know.
Megan Figueroa: Today, we have David Bowles who is a Mexican American author from South Texas where he teaches at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley. He has written several titles, most noticeably “The Smoking Mirror,” which is a Pura Belpré Honor Book, and “They Call Me Güero,” which has so many awards – the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book award, Claudia Lewis Award for Excellence in Poetry, another Pura Belpré Honor Book, and Walter Dean Myers Honor Book.
We’re so excited to have you here, David. Thank you for being with us.
Carrie Gillon: Thank you.
David Bowles: Oh, I’m super excited as well. Big fan of the show. It’s a delight to be on here.
Megan Figueroa: Thank you!
Carrie Gillon: We’re a fan of your Twitter threads for sure.
Megan Figueroa: Oh my gosh, they’re amazing!
David Bowles: A little eclectic but, yeah, I mean, I have fun, especially right now in the times that we’re living in, a little bit of light from now and again is a nice thing to have. Twitter is often a place of darkness and bullying and division and so forth and I just try to shine a light in the darkness.
Megan Figueroa: Oh, you absolutely do.
David Bowles: Sometimes, I get mad at people and say some ugly things but, for the most part, I ignore the trolls. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Well, I mean, you’re only human.
Megan Figueroa: I know! You would be superhuman if you didn’t get a little angry sometimes. Because you have a lot of followers, so you’re gonna have some trolls. You have these threads that are just a wealth of knowledge that it’s like free knowledge. There’s so many topics, like you said, eclectic. Can we start with – in particular, you share a lot about Nahuatl. How do you pronounce it?
David Bowles: Yeah, I mean, hey, in English, most people say /nəwadl̩/ but, in the language itself, you would say /nawat͡ɬ/. A lot of people can’t do that /t͡ɬ/ at the end. I tell people, “Say /nawat/ or /nawal/ or something along those lines.
Megan Figueroa: /nawat/? Okay.
David Bowles: /nawat/, yeah. Interestingly enough, there are about 30 modern variants of the language – some of them so mutually unintelligible they may as well be separate languages. In some of those, that TL consonant is pronounced more like a T or more like an L, although in the majority it’s pronounced with that strange combination of like a Spanish T with the tip of your tongue against the back of your teeth, or the alveolar ridge, and then letting air pass laterally along the sides of your tongue – essentially the combination of a Welsh Double L and a Spanish T. If that helps.
Megan Figueroa: I don’t think I have it.
Carrie Gillon: It helps a small percentage of people.
David Bowles: You have to sit around going /t͡ɬ t͡ɬ t͡ɬ t͡ɬ t͡ɬ/ all the time. Eventually, you’ll get it. It’s like people who have a hard time with rolling their Rs or those different sounds in different languages that – the harsh /x/ sound in Spanish and in Hebrew or Yiddish. Certain sounds we struggle with, people who are predominantly English speakers. Other people struggle with our sounds – the schwa’s not the easiest sound in the world for some people.
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely.
Carrie Gillon: It’s true. Our R is also very difficult.
David Bowles: Yeah, that retroflex R. Lots of fun.
Megan Figueroa: You are not someone who grew up speaking Nahuatl, right? What is your history?
David Bowles: No, not at all. I didn’t start learning it until I was about 39 or something like that. I grew up bilingual English and Spanish. When I was in fifth grade, I got bullied a lot, so my parents pulled me out of public school and put me in this private religious school. At the school – I mean, it was one of those K-12 kinds of private schools – the pastor who ran the school began offering classes on biblical Hebrew and Greek after school for the kids who were at the high school level.
Well, I was in fifth grade, and I really, really wanted to take that class. I approached him and said, you know, Brother whatever his name was, can I go to these classes? He allowed me to. By the end of the year, I was the only person still taking the classes. I really got into it. It was so fascinating to me. Then, my love of perhaps dead or esoteric or more difficult languages began then. I went on to study, over the next few decades, a ton of different languages – Japanese, Sanskrit, German, French, Italian, Portuguese. I became a polyglot.
At the same time, when I went to college – and I was first person in my family to do so – one of the things that I began to discover in intro to anthropology courses and literature courses is that, even though I’m Mexican American and I grew up on the border – literally five miles from Mexico – my schooling had had nothing to do with indigenous Mexican or even Mexican colonial concepts, ideas, literature and so forth. In fact, it didn’t have any Mexican American content either.
Because of the frustration and sense of rage and injustice that I felt, I went down this rabbit hole. I began to study in depth the folktales that I had grown up hearing from my grandmother Garza, and I began to discover the roots of those folktales in colonial Mexico and the roots of colonial Mexican stories and folktales in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican sacred stories and philosophy. Over time, that led me to want to start writing about those things and then becoming frustrated at the prosaic of a lot of the translations in English and just wanting to read them in the original Nahuatl because the majority of the things that I was looking at were composed from the Aztec empire, which led me to begin studying it. Ten years later, here I am.
After a couple years of studying, I tried my hand at translating poetry. There’re only about a 130 surviving what are called “cuicatl,” Nahuatl songs. I translated a bunch of them in a collection called “Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry,” which won a translation award from the Texas Institute of Letters. That was really one of the things that got me excited about doing the work was the reception that that book had. Poetry is a tough sell, and then translated poetry is an even tougher sell, and then translated pre-Columbian Mesoamerican poetry is like, you’re really reducing your readership to a very small sliver.
To get that award – there was like $1,000.00 attached to it or whatever – it was like, “Oh, wow! Okay. I made more money with this award than I would have made with the sales of the books ever.” Of course, as you guys – because you follow me on Twitter – you know that I have a multipronged creative output. I like the role of translator and the role of transmitter of, perhaps, forgotten ancient knowledge.
It gets complicated with Nahuatl. You all have seen my back and forth with Magnus, who is this really, really great expert in modern Nahuatl languages and in classical Nahuatl as well. Because he’s a linguist who’s been studying this forever and is in Mexico working with speakers of the modern varieties, sometimes my obsession with classical Nahuatl – you know, he’s the kind of guy that can call me back to the reality of the fact that there’re still 1.5 million people speaking modern variants of the language and that I need to be careful as I promote classical Nahuatl and talk about it a lot not to erase in these conversations the reality that so many people speak versions of it to this day – versions that I just superficially know and that I’ve never studied.
When I’m in Mexico, I’m usually in Oaxaca. My wife and I have a house on the coast down there. I don’t have a lot of contact with speakers of the modern variants. It’s kind of a humbling thing. I simultaneously have this scholarly love of the language as it existed 500 years ago, and its children have survived to this day with a lot of influence of Spanish. They have been pushed to the side for hundreds of years in Mexico.
That deprecation of the language that has existed for so long means that indigenous people often have not had the ability to study their language in a school setting. All of those opportunities have been erased, especially since Mexican independence. Before, the situation was a little bit different and there was schooling in Nahuatl. Things have begun to change. In the last 20 years there’s been a push for more schooling in indigenous languages in Mexico. But it is a really complicated thing.
Carrie Gillon: Why do you think that people were so interested in this poetry that you translated? What is it about the poetry or the language or – what was it that caught on?
David Bowles: One of the things that I noticed from the get-go was that when people think about pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, the very first thing that comes to nearly everybody’s mind is human sacrifice. For so many people that’s a non-starter. They’re like, here is a civilization that carried out hundreds of human sacrifices a year in a ritual way according to a calendar. It’s super well-documented. There’s no getting around it. People were sacrificed. It is really difficult for people to then desire to take the next step and understand the worldview that will lead people to accept something like that.
One of the things that I thought was really important was, in translating these poems – first of all, the poems allow you to see the hearts and minds of pre-Columbian Nahuas and what we call the Triple Alliance that so many people will call the Aztec Empire. Letting them see the actual emotions, the doubt, the philosophical meanderings, the loves, the rebellion, and then acceptance that you see in all these poems, it brings an awareness of the actual humanity of these people.
When you take the Triple Alliance – the government structure and the state religion and the things that they did – and you look at it from the outside, it’s really hard to connect with. But when you’re looking at the /t͡ɬidit͡ɬua/, the cry of the heart of an Aztec warrior getting ready to go out into the battlefield and going, “Is this worth it? They tell me that when I die, I’m gonna be transformed and live in the house of the sun, but do we really know that that’s true?”
There’re poems that are like that that show this anguish about not being able to know. When people began to hear me reading in public places, these poems, they were like, “Holy hell! They’re just human beings.” I’m like, “Yeah. I mean, what did you think they were? They’re not aliens!” Of course they’re human beings with a lot of the same concerns and issues and hopes and dreams that we have today.
One of the things that I did in the book was provide background in a nice little forward, little notes for each one of the poems, to try to get people to understand that because of the way the world had been created, and the way the sun had been in motion according to the beliefs of the Nahuas, all the gods had had to sacrifice themselves so that their divine essence could be channeled through the god Ehecatl, the god of the wind, and shot into the sun so it would be pushed into motion because it was just hovering on the horizon, that their sacrifice becomes a template for the individual bloodletting that people did or the larger sacrifices that were done in a seasonal kind of way – this notion that you have a blood debt to the gods. They were willing to pour their blood out for us and we have to be willing to do the same.
Most of the time, bloodletting was just pricking the tongue or the ear lobes or the fingers or whatever and letting drops of blood fall out. But as the empire became more organized and expanded more, these mechanisms of more mass human sacrifice came into play. I talk to people just comparing that to militarization of countries and colonial mindsets and conquest and soldiers laying down their lives and the glorification of that kind of sacrifice and how it parallels what we see in the Aztec Empire and people begin to see things in a different light. I think poetry is a way into that, a way past what a lot of people see as barbarity, into the depths of humanity that are contained in these poems.
We’re really lucky because the main collection, which is called in Spanish “Cantares Mexicanos” or “Songs of Mexico,” has a huge variety of poems like pre-Columbian ones and also some written after the conquest in those early decades with multiple voices including women’s voices – a lot of times women’s voices that are pushing back against some of the patriarchal notions that existed in the Triple Alliance. It’s a really, really rich thing.
I just scratched the surface with the book. It was just a relatively small sampling. That is the long way around to explain to you my interest in this poetry and what people’s reaction was. I tried to pick poems that would really resonate and would thematically be things that we could connect to as modern readers of poetry in English. I think it worked. People really, really received it well. It’s led to other opportunities for me and I really am happy that the small university press, Lamar University Press, took the risk in publishing it because I was not an established scholar of Nahuatl or anything like that. I still am not an established scholar of Nahuatl. I’m this outsider who has a masters in English and Spanish and a doctorate in Education and is, like, daring to translate classical Nahuatl.
Sometimes, I feel like I was born after my time. There was a time when people who tried to dabble in lots of different things had a place in the world and now, you’re kind of expected to stay in your lane and do those one or two things that people accept you as an expert in and the rest of it you’re supposed to stay out of. I just can’t. It takes a bit of courage to do it in such a public way – just to go on Twitter and say, “I am going to translate a poem in Nahuatl for you right in front of you, live, live tweet this thing out to you!” People who were experts can come in and correct me or whatever.
It’s also exhilarating and fun and it’s a delight to see people get interested in something that so many people have dismissed. Even in Mexico, for hundreds of years, it wasn’t done. You just didn’t talk about that culture. It was gone. It was over. It isn’t over. It isn’t gone. It still survives in different ways, in syncretic ways, in modern Nahua communities throughout Mexico.
Carrie Gillon: It’s really important that people recognize that a.) yeah, these people still exist in the millions. And, of course, sure, we don’t understand the sacrifice stuff. It’s hard for us to wrap our minds around it. But of course they’re still humans! I mean, what else would they be? We just have to keep reminding ourselves that every human is human, which is sad.
David Bowles: It is really sad. It’s like what’s happening right now with the Corona virus – with COVID-19 – this notion that it’s somehow China’s fault because it started there and that Chinse Americans should be berated openly in the streets for being Chinese American. It’s just madness. People wanting to foist the blame on somebody – to have someone they can point a finger at – are just so willing to other individuals around them. It’s just a really disgusting thing. I mean, if we’re willing to do that to each other right now, imagine how much easier it is to dehumanize people from the past whose culture is so very different from ours.
Megan Figueroa: You made the point of how it’s very similar to the sacrifice that a lot of folks make when they go into the military.
David Bowles: It’s very true, Megan. Then, also, if you think about it, there’re other things that we do that the Aztecs would never have done that result in people’s deaths or their misery. Think about what this administration has done with refugees and undocumented immigrants – putting children in cages and many of them actually dying in custody of the United States. Those kinds of things would’ve seemed ridiculously cruel and unnecessary to the Aztecs, even if they did, at times, sacrifice not only soldiers they had captured but also sometimes children and women in particular moments that were of great import to the empire.
They had a network within their communities, the “calpulli” system, that supported the needs of orphans and widows and things like that. Things like jacking up the rent when people are losing their jobs and not providing them healthcare and food and stuff like that – there were systems in Tenochtitlán and other Nahuan city states to provide for people who didn’t have enough to survive. They would’ve been appalled out our callus sticking to the law. Like, “Oh, they came here illegally. They shouldn’t have come here. Now they have to pay the price.” I mean, that would’ve seemed barbaric to them. They would’ve looked at us as barbarians. The way we treat women, the way we’re willing to let people whom we could easily help – our country has the resources to help – to let them suffer and die would’ve been appalling to the Aztecs.
I don’t know which is better, to have the nation killing people on the sly by denying them the resources they need to survive or openly sacrificing people and providing the families of those sacrificial victims a lifetime of support and food and so forth. If you were going to be the impersonator of Tezcatlipoca or Huitzilopochtli or one of the major gods, your family was set up for the rest of their days because you had taken on this really, really important responsibility.
Personally, the idea of the state killing anybody at all whether through sacrifice or neglect is a horrifying thing to me. I am able to coolly look at the two things and see that one is not necessarily better than the other and that we really ought to be careful about how we stand the judgement over civilizations that have existed before, that exist now, that do things differently than we do if we’re not willing to examine our own behavior and the pain that it results in. I don’t think a lot of Americans are, frankly – a lot of US citizens.
Carrie Gillon: No, definitely not.
Megan Figueroa: No, they absolutely aren’t. There’re so many people that will not – and I hope that maybe even our listeners who are not assholes, if they haven’t thought about this before, that they’ll pause and think about it because it’s true that this whole value judgement on who’s culture or what time and place is better than the other or perhaps more barbaric than the other, we really need to look at what we’re doing right now and what our world looks like right now.
David Bowles: I mean, just think about the very things that are going on during spring break where you have the government, reluctantly, telling people, “Hey, maybe you shouldn’t be hanging out in big groups and running around possibly passing this contagion onto other people.” There are, frankly, a lot of people who are like, “Fuck that! I’m gonna do what I wanna do” and then just going out “Party! Woo-hoo! Spring break!” And you’re like, “Pinches pendejos!” Oh man.
Megan Figueroa: [Laughs] Exactly. I’m struck right now by how people do view Mesoamerican traditions and all of these things because that was not the answer I was expecting you to say when Carrie asked you why do you think it struck a chord that people would be interested because they think of human sacrifice and they wanna know more. I’m glad she asked that.
I’m also glad she asked that because I’ve never really thought of translation as this humanizing thing. Poetry – yes. So humanizing. I’ve thought about that before and think about how it tells us about people. Translation is another – I’m so glad that we were able to talk about this because I’ve never thought about it that way.
David Bowles: In my book “Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky,” which is another massive translation and adaption project which really blends different techniques to try to weave together diverse sacred stories mainly from the Aztecs and the Maya to create a mythological history of Mexico from creation to conquest, one of the things that I do is I re-translate and adapt, to some extent, the Nahuatl language stories of Meshicas exodus from Aztlan and their coming into Anáhuac, the central Mexican plains by the lakes there that is now Mexico City, and how they established themselves. They go from being rejects and renegades and mercenaries to becoming the most powerful group of Nahuas in that region.
One of the major architects of all the things that we’re talking about like the institutionalized human sacrifice state religion and so forth was Tlacaelel. He was the “cihuacoatl,” or counselor, to multiple “tlatoani,” multiple kings. It’s really fascinating how the Triple Alliance was born because there’s an empire that exists before the Aztec Empire and they have to basically defeat it and break away from it and create their own alliance.
Tlacaelel gives this speech to the commoners. He’s like, “Okay. We’re gonna do this thing. We’re gonna go fight against the most powerful empire in Central Mexico, and we may win or we may lose, but we need your backing. We need you guys to give us your blessing. If you say yes, and we go and we fight, this is what we promise. When we come back, we will be your lords and you will be our serfs, but we will take care of you. You will do what we say, but you will never want for anything. We will lift the “tenochca,” the people of Tenochtitlán, above everyone else. If we fail, you can take our bodies and break them and make them into posole and feast on us because we will have deserved that. Whatever comes, we’re doing this for you and our debt is to you.”
Part of it is manipulative. Tlacaelel was a very brilliant statesman and he was able to lift the Meshica, the tenochca, out of relative obscurity into being the most powerful group of Nahuas over the course of about 50 years. But there’s also, I think, some sincerity to his words. He believed that as an aristocrat, as a “pilli,” as a member of the “pipiltin,” that his responsibility to the “macehualtin,” the commoners, was divine. He was divinely required to care for them and, if he couldn’t do his job, it was just for him to be destroyed.
We see that there are a lot of prayers that are preserved in the Florentine Codex – some of them I’ve shared, ironically, on Twitter – about how when there’s a bad leader, they were actual prayers that the macehualtin, the commoners, would say to Tezcatlipoca like, “Come kill this fool. This fucker, he’s going to ruin everything. Please come and destroy him.”
That relationship is really interesting because the Nahua relationship with their gods wasn’t like the Christian relationship to god or a lot of other religion’s relationship to god. It wasn’t one of absolute subjugation. When people would get sick or when their prayers wouldn’t be answered, there were curses – like actual state-sanctioned curses – that you could say. Tezcatlipoca, the god of chaos, was the one who was usually cursed the most. People would literally call him “fucker.” “You fucker, you have struck me down with this disease instead of taking care of me. I curse you. I spit at you.”
Tezcatlipoca liked that. He was like, “I want me people to call me on stuff. I want them to have the guts to call me out on the bad things that I do” because that’s another thing that I try to talk about in “Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky” is rather than an dichotomy between good and evil, the dichotomy is between creation and destruction – between order and chaos. It’s not even really a dichotomy. It’s like this yin yang kind of relationship where the two things have to – to exist together in harmony you cannot create something without first destroying something that exists, and you can’t destroy something unless it’s been created first. The two things depend on each other.
They are embodied by the gods, in the Aztec tradition, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca – “the feathered serpent” and “the smoking mirror” who, in the Mayan tradition, is called “The Heart of Sky” – hence the title “Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky.” That tension between chaos and order is really what’s at the heart of Mesoamerican philosophy rather than a fight between good and evil.
If you had told the Aztecs, “Oh, yeah. One day good is gonna vanquish evil and we’re all gonna live in paradise,” they would’ve looked at you like, “Are you a child? Are you really that naïve? There’s no such thing as something that’s completely good or something that’s completely evil. The gods are both. And we are both.” That’s not the goal. The goal is to find a balance between destruction and creation.
Carrie Gillon: This is so much more understandable to me than Christianity.
Megan Figueroa: Me too. It actually makes sense to me because this is what my therapist talks about. She’s like, “Okay. You’re upset and where’s the” – you know, there’s this yin and yang, the, like you say, destruction and creation, the two sides to the same coin kind of thing. It’s almost – or not almost – it’s entirely more empowering.
David Bowles: I think so.
Carrie Gillon: And more realistic. I mean, [laughter] I just – I dunno. I was not brought up Christian so part of it is I just don’t understand it because I just didn’t have it in my milieu but this –
David Bowles: Oh, I love the word “milieu.” It’s great. [Laughter] Every time I get a chance to use it, I’m like, “Hell yeah! Gonna say ‘milieu’ now! Maybe somebody will understand. Maybe somebody won’t.” [Laughter]
You know, Carrie, I was actually brought up – so when I was 7, my dad converted from Catholicism, which he’d been brought up Catholic, to Evangelical Christianity. Then shortly thereafter, because apparently it doesn’t take very long, shortly thereafter he became a pastor. I spent a good chunk of my formative years, I guess, in church. Then, when I was 15 and 16, my dad ripped off the church that he was a part of and dragged us away from our family because he was running from the law or whatever. Then, he abandoned us in South Carolina and then we had to make our way back to the Rio Grande Valley.
As you can imagine, not too long after that – it took me a couple years – but I stopped going to church and gradually became agnostic. One of the things that has happened to me in this going down the rabbit hole that I talked about – it started when I went to college – it was – I think most of us are engaged in this to some degree or another – a search for meaning, a search for something that fits, that when you hear it you’re like, “Yeah. That’s it. I know that this is all made up. I know that we’re all living in realities that we’ve created for ourselves, but this thing that I’m reading has elements that I know are gonna work for me. I’m going to incorporate them into my life.”
I have a book of poetry called “Shattering and Bricolage” that was languishing in obscurity until one of my poems was quoted on Criminal Minds. I was like, “What?”
Megan Figueroa: What!
Carrie Gillon: What!
Megan Figueroa: At the beginning or?
David Bowles: At the very end. You know how they end each – they do the little quote, right? I have a poem called “Kintsukuroi” which is about – kintsukuoi, you may have seen it. It’s this Japanese technique of creating a ceramic vase or whatever. You paint it. You glaze it. You fire it. Then, you break it. Then, you put it back together and you use either gold or silver or whatever to seal – it creates these seams all over it. The poem talks metaphorically about that. It ends with the lines, “When wounds are healed by love, the scars are beautiful.” Those are the last lines that the main character – I don’t watch the show so – the main character says at the very end.
Immediately, the internet exploded, and people were on Facebook messaging me, “Dude! They just quoted you on Criminal Minds” because it was –
Carrie Gillon: Gold!
David Bowles: Yeah, exactly. That collection of poetry is about this notion of being broken either by the world, by other people, by circumstances, or through deliberate self-dismantling and then putting yourself back together. I use the term “bricolage,” which is a French term for creating art out of broken pieces of different things. You create a new work of art from the scattered, broken bits of other things – failed attempts or whatever. I kind of aligns with Gloria Anzaldua’s – Chicana philosopher – she talks about “The Coyolxauhqui Process.”
Now, Coyolxauhqui was an Aztec goddess, a Nahua goddess. She was the sister of Huitzilopochtli, the god of the sun and of war. You may have seen the sacrificial disk that was at the foot of the great temple in Tenochtitlán that has this goddess in pieces – her arms, legs and whatever, in pieces. That’s Coyolxauhqui. The story goes that when their mother became pregnant with Huitzilopochtli, their father was not around and so, obviously, it was, “It’s a virgin birth.” But Coyolxauhqui wasn’t having any of that. She was like, “Yeah, sure, Mom. You had a virgin birth. I just bet. Slut.”
So, she got her 400 brothers – the 400 stars of the southern sky – to gather together and attack their moment. At that moment, Huitzilopochtli was born, and he kills all of his brothers and they become stars in the sky. Then, he dismembers his sister and throws her head into the sky to become the moon, and her body rolls to the base of the mountain Coatepec, which is the temple that the great temple in Tenochtitlán was based upon.
The philosopher Gloria Anzaldua takes this and talks about The Coyolxauhqui Process which is, especially from a woman’s perspective, when patriarchy or toxic masculinity breaks you in this way. You’re scattered in pieces at the base of this mountain that represents patriarchy. What choice do you have other than putting yourself back together? You put yourself back together, and as you’re doing so, you’re the one who’s making the choices of what pieces go where and what you can discard. You create a stronger you.
My poetry book “Shattering and Bricolage” takes off from that perspective. I was broken when I was a teenager My journey along the way between being 16 and now 50 has meant this recreation of myself again and again and again – reassembling myself, discarding things that are negative, almost like this self-guided therapy through smashing yourself again and again. Learning new languages does that – visiting new places, living in new cultures – because they force you to look at who you are and what you believe and what your traditions are from a different perspective so that you can realize that you can change those things. You can make alterations.
To me, this reflects a lot Mesoamerican philosophy and religion. The world had been created again, and again, and again. We’re on, like, the fifth age according to Nahua though, right? Each time they make human beings and human beings would kind of not be all that great. They’d be like, “Fuck this. Let’s just tear this shit down and try again.” Or one of the gods would rebel against one of the other gods and there’re be a big fight. Between the two of them fighting – often Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca – they would just destroy the world and they’d be like, “Oh, snap! We’ve destroyed the world.” [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Oh, dip!
David Bowles: “Didn’t mean to do that. Sorry, guys.”
Carrie Gillon: Well, that actually reminds me of the Abrahamic religions because the flood and – I mean, there’s a little bit –
David Bowles: There’s a little bit of that, right? Leftovers from another time, from oral traditions. You can imagine that originally Yahweh as a Canaanite desert deity was just one of many and got into fights with Baal and people. They fucked up the world and flooded it or whatever.
Sorry, Christian listeners, Jewish listeners. Sorry. Not trying to make light of your religion.
The notion of the gods not being perfect and of needing to try and try again, and work and work to get it better and find a better balance, that’s really refreshing because then the goal no longer is our perfect but just –
Carrie Gillon: Getting a little bit better.
David Bowles: Yeah. Getting a little bit better. Every day a little bit better. Maybe we’ll never get perfect, but we’ll get better. We’ll find a greater balance between the parts that have to coexist in ourselves. The idea is not to do away with our destructive impulses but to learn how to channel them correctly and learn how to keep them in balance with our creative impulses. That’s a lot more refreshing than this notion that you have to totally do away with your sinful nature. Because you’re gonna have quote-unquote “sinful thoughts” every single day of your life. What a horrible way to live your life if you’re afraid of sin.
Anyway. I found a lot of relief in studying Mesoamerican thought and philosophy.
Megan Figueroa: This knowledge that we get through translation – these gifts that you’ve given us by doing this translation work – seems to me to be one important reason why we should care and promote indigenous languages. Why, to you, is it important that we promote indigenous languages in general?
David Bowles: Certainly for us the benefits are some of the ones that we’ve been talking about right now. I mean, there is knowledge encoded in those languages that’s often not been translated or not translated well, ways of knowing, ways of understanding, new perspectives that just in terms of – and I know there’s a degree of privilege to this. The privilege of being able to expose yourself to lots of different ways of thinking and pick and choose from among them to craft a new identity for yourself – a new philosophy for yourself. I realize that that is something that can only come with a lot of privilege because other people just don’t have those opportunities.
But for people that do have that privilege and that want to use the privilege in a responsible way, the only way to use it in a responsible way is to expose yourself to this ancient knowledge, respectfully, without trying to profit from it, without trying to do a bunch of really gross things. I mean, there’s obviously a bad way that we can be using the knowledge. We wanna avoid that.
The other thing is, preserving indigenous languages also means preserving the diversity of human thought that exists right now. Using our privilege to undo some of the oppression, xenophobia, and genocide that our ancestors – or just other people from whom we have culturally or socio-politically inherited power – have perpetuated on indigenous people; we have a responsibility whether or not our ancestors were directly responsible for any of that. Or just now that if we are, for example, the three of us, educated, scholarly individuals with some degree of respectability and a platform and so forth – for us not to use our voices to promote and protect the people who don’t have the same capacity to do those things that we do would be irresponsible and immoral in my mind.
The linguistic richness of this planet is also just an amazing thing just from a linguistic perspective. I know we haven’t really spoken very linguistically in this conversation, which is okay.
Carrie Gillon: That’s okay. Yeah. [Laughter]
David Bowles: I mean, sometimes it happens on your podcast, I know. You follow the conversation where it takes you. Just in terms of linguistic diversity, the understanding of the way language can be deployed, the way language can express certain concepts, just a better understanding of the underlying metal and cerebral mechanisms for the encoding of thought into language, all that stuff is, without diversity of language, you can’t grapple with those the same way.
Finally, just certain ways of looking at the world require – I mean, without becoming too –
Carrie Gillon: Sapir-Whorfian? [Laughter]
David Bowles: Yeah, that’s exactly what I was about to say. Without becoming Sapir-Whorfian, certain ways of looking at the world require certain linguistic tools, I would argue, or at least the precision of – like you can think about the world in those ways with any language but particular linguistic resources allow you to do that in a more focused way that inspire us to think about things that we have vague notions of but we don’t have a specific way of grappling with or talking about. All those things I think are really, really important.
People should just be able to preserve their mother tongue. It’s their fucking mother tongue. Why should they not be able to preserve it? Why should anybody take it away from them? The rest of us shouldn’t have that right. That means sometimes going to bat for them and sometimes working to preserve them and doing what we can and studying them and becoming interested in them.
The ones that are dying, sometimes it takes an outsider – and it’s a horrible system that we exist in that requires an outsider to come in and be like the “white savior” or whatever. It’s an ugly thing. But sometimes, those outside resources are really appreciated and it’s bringing them to bear and popularizing things and then stepping aside and allowing the indigenous people whose cause we’re championing to then step into that role and then guide the fight the rest of the way. I think that’s the best way to go so that we shift from being saviors to allies who are providing the resources and being there for them in whatever they need.
Carrie Gillon: Yes. Absolutely. I agree. We’re tools they can use if they wish.
David Bowles: Yeah. That’s a good way of thinking about it, yeah.
Carrie Gillon: So, it’s been an hour. We have so many more questions, but I don’t think we have the time this time.
David Bowles: I am really, really sorry that we just totally just went off where I –
Carrie Gillon: No! I loved it. This conversation was fabulous! It’s just, there’s so many more things we have to ask you. We’ll just have to have you back on.
David Bowles: Thank you so much, Carrie and Megan. It was a lot of fun talking to you.
Megan Figueroa: Yes. Thank you for the work that you’re doing.
Carrie Gillon: Us too.
Megan Figueroa: I really appreciate the translation work you’re doing, this activism work that you’re doing. It was so lovely to meet you virtually and chat with you.
David Bowles: Likewise. You guys be safe. Hunker down.
Carrie Gillon: Oh, I’m hunkered.
Megan Figueroa: And don’t be an asshole.
Carrie and David: Don’t be an asshole. [Laughter]
David Bowles: Bye, guys.
Carrie Gillon: The Vocal Fries podcast is produced my me, Carrie Gillon, for Halftone Audio, theme music by Nick Granum. You can find us on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @vocalfriespod. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and our website is vocalfriespod.com.