Did you know that over 1.5 million people in Mexico still speak Aztec? The language is called “Nahuatl” by its speakers, and it was the dominant language of the Aztec / Mexica empire in what is today Central Mexico. It is one of the best-documented indigenous American languages, spoken today mostly in rural and coastal communities.
An older version of the language, called Classical Nahuatl, was spoken in the 16th century CE, at the time the Spanish began arriving and making war in Mexico. Classical Nahuatl is no longer intelligible to modern speakers, much as Shakespeare’s language is difficult for modern English speakers, and Anglo-Saxon, an even older variant of English, is foreign indeed.
Despite this, however, many Nahuatl words made their way into Spanish, and even into English. Foods and animals native to the Americas still go by their Nahuatl names, including “chocolate,” “tomato,” and “coyote.”
But what does an indigenous Mexican language have to do with a short film set in Birmingham, Alabama?
Mike, the film’s main character, has Mexican heritage and is fiercely proud of his indigenous Mexican roots. He was born in Houston and is an American citizen, but he is well aware of his ancestry. His family’s crest hangs on the wall leading into the basement where he takes Felix.
The crest is seen only briefly, but Mike mentions it later, and its motto provides an important key to his mindset.
Framing the top and sides of the crest is a typical Spanish setting — the helmet of a medieval suit of armor, adorned with plumes and set with leaves and tassels.
The figure depicted in the center, though, is indigenous Mexican rather than Spanish. He is the Aztec god Xolotl (SHOH-loh-tul), the nahualli, or negative twin, of Quetzacoatl, the god of creation and order. In the form depicted here, Xolotl is a large hound, associated with death, lightning, and sunset. Xolotl meets the sun as it passes below the horizon at the end of day and escorts it through the perilous underworld, where it rises again into the world of the living. He represents a complete cycle through death and into rebirth. Anyone who sees him (ahem, Felix) should prepare for a trip to the underworld.
At the bottom of the coat of arms is the motto of Mike’s family, in Nahuatl: In mitzcotona, tzacuiltiloz, or “He who wounds me will be punished.” This is a translation, graciously provided by scholar David Bowles, of the Latin motto used by Montresor’s family in “The Cask of Amontillado”: nemo me impune lacessit. Clearly Mike comes from a long tradition of defending his family’s honor.
To see the lengths to which Mike goes in this defense, join us in completing Garden of the Gods, a short film about cinder blocks, marijuana, and vengeance. And family honor.
Written by Kate Boyer
Sources: For more on Aztec mythology, see Feathered Serpent / Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico by David Bowles. It’s like Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, but for Mexico.
The family crest was designed by Kyle Sullivan, who cobbled together elements from several different areas — heraldy, Mexican mythology, etc. The crest was physically crafted by Jondrea Smith of Afrocnctric Designs.