My name is Xitlalli, and I teach 9th grade geometry at Breakthrough Houston. I want to preface this blog by telling you a little bit about my name’s origin.
Xitlalli (Seeth-la-lee) means “star” in Nahuatl. This language is only one of the many indigenous languages spoken in many parts of Mexico and Central America; it was also my grandmother’s native language. Unfortunately, I did not grow up learning the language, for it was never taught to my father because to be indigenous in Mexico, much like in America, is to be less than. Many of my ancestors have been forced to leave their language and conform to the superior language of Mexico – Spanish.
However, I have had the privilege of relearning my language in college through a native Nahua professor. So, coming into Breakthrough, I had the intention of honoring my roots and all indigenous identities that are constantly marginalized in this country. I have done this by using a “Nahuatl countdown” in my class. For those who do not teach, a countdown is often used for grabbing students’ attention, otherwise referred to as an “attention signal.” In my case, I taught my students to count from 5 to 1 in Nahuatl: “Makwili, nawi, eyi, ome, se.” Little did I know that this would soon invoke an appreciation in my kids for indigenous cultures and languages. I expressed to them that bringing this language into math class is very powerful to me for the following reason: Indigenous languages are never used in academic realms. If we wish to speak about science and math, we do so through English, Spanish, or even French. So, if a native were to choose to learn about calculus, they would first have to learn one of our colonizers’ languages. Bringing Nahuatl into my classroom is a stepping tool into decolonizing American schools. Something that not many of us think about. We are often taught that allowing others to speak a language other than English in the classroom is “exclusive;” however, I beg to differ. There is power in making our diversity and differences more transparent in classrooms, for I have learned the following 5 things by using Nahuatl alone:
Se, I unintentionally encouraged my kids to celebrate our differences.
Ome, I created a space for them to practice tolerance.
Eyi, I invoked in them a curiosity about Nahua culture.
Nawi, I Taught my students the importance of amplifying the voices of minorities, especially in the academia.
Makwili, I helped them acknowledge that Native lives are present today and on the lands that we live in; they are not meant to be only exhibited in museums.
During parent conference, many parents expressed to me that their children went home and taught them how to count in Nahuatl. I also had a student who went further and asked to learn more phrases in the language. He asked me to help him translate “Thank you, teacher,” and without a doubt, every day before he exited the classroom he would say, “Tlazoskamati notemachtiani.” It was the little imprints of my culture that I left on my students for which I will forever be grateful.
I understand that speaking Nahuatl does not fix the problems that my indigenous brothers and sisters are facing, but it has allowed me to bring them into a space that is not made for them –education.