Linking Aztec Thought With Contemporary Latino Culturation, Internalization and Expression

“Poetry Is A Mirror
Which Makes
Beautiful That
Which Is

-Percy Bysshe Shelley


            I am a third generation Chicano, born and raised in the California Bay Area. Pursuing a degree in Biology concentrated in Physiological systems of the human body paired with both Chemistry and Latino/a Studies. I aspire to be a physician working with both underserved communities of color and veterans. I hope to continue dialogue around mental health and well being within these communities, promoting verbal communication and group therapy. Advocating for integrated preventative health policy in order to address systematic health inequity. I am an avid reader and writer, often performing at spoken word events. I enjoy traveling whenever the opportunity presents itself. I have a background in the LLAND neurocognitive research lab at Stanford University.  While holding down a part-time job and taking 18 units I am also currently involved in many community-based organizations.
            This term paper is principally concerned with how can we follow a path of truth laid out by the Aztecs with us as we move forward within the contemporary context of our lives. More so we seek to connect how the gravity of modern muralism, urban art, poetry (both written and spoken in form) is, in fact, an evolution of a unique artistic lineage laid out by our ancestors. Grounding framework routed in the idea of divinity manifested as artistic expression, alluded to in Nahuatl thought as portrayed by both authors Portilla & Carrasco. As well we will discuss the concept of “face” as a tool to both empower and provide context to Latino youth and community. We will dive into “flower and song”, the roots of Aztec artistic expression and the implications for our community today.

Methods & Models:

            Various methods were utilized while conducting research and analyzing implications for this term paper. Observations were made at four separate open mic events throughout San Francisco. Insight was garnered as a participant observer and active participant conducting field research at these events themselves. The method of documentation and literature review were utilized in forms such as books, poems, and quotations (listed in the bibliography). The method of personal recollection was applied, drawing from own personal experience to inform the contextual approach of the term paper itself. Finally, conversations in form of interviews were analyzed to garner additional reflexive narratives and perspective.
            Two different paradigms were employed to frame our reference point for this term paper. Professor Cuellar’s own paradigms (Cuellar’s MHSM 1&2 1998) were used. Use of the framework of enemies & allies of knowledge seekers we are able to courageously embrace our confusions with humility ultimately developing expertise in our field in spite of fatigue. In accordance to the Chicano/Latino/Ethnic Studies paradigm: operating under four propositions my approach was critical of the dominant narrative or lack thereof in regards to the link between Nahuatl thought and contemporary expression. Research was conducted with an eye toward meeting the need of the community, deriving implications that both empower and educate.
            In the formation of this paper, I strove to be both holistic and multiple in approach, resources and methods utilized are multidisciplinary as well as integrated into the forms they take. I employ both aspects of an insider as well as outsider perspective, ever reflexive in my research methods. In this regard, we are examining different layers of Latino & Aztec expression through a combination of insider/outsider perspectives. In this manner, we seek to offer richer analysis and critiques. Within the Raza Studies paradigm, we place the personal experiences of Raza, of the individual to a community-wide scope of significance and value. Community-centered approach for the community, not divorced from academia but not crafted in a manner to appease Anglo-centric academia either.
            CMHSM1 = Cuellar’s Multidimensional Human Systems Model 1 is utilized in our analysis of Aztec philosophy, linking the Multi-Dimensional Approaches.  As an example PSY(psychology); How is your identity as a Latino/a, as a poet engaged in a practice of linked to a historical tradition, linked to ancestors of our past. To find a link to a piece of yourself and effectively flip the script, empowering as opposed to being put down. We as a community often miss-identify ourselves as less than, we inturn can craft our own mythology. Creating our own myths born of (metaphor, parabole, and allegories) in its changing of forms.  In this paper, I offer analysis of a poem “Regalo” in order to represent how Aztec literary expression can generate well-being and “face” today within our modern context. Bringing us to culture tied to language and civilization. 

Research Facts & Findings:

            Through my research, I have found that both Portilla and Carrasco construct a framework of Aztec thought which is translatable to our contemporary Latino context. Both gentlemen endeavored tirelessly to compile a contextual understanding of the function of Nahuatl language and the societal function served through the arts. They drew implications, which sought to link the divine to the expression of truth and knowledge. An interpretation, which was itself, rooted in different manifestations of being. Expression in varied forms from paintings, to poetry, to dance, song, sculpture, and movement. Ultimately these artists, scholars, teachers and wise men; bearers of the red & black ink served a necessary role of imparting face onto others. To conserve space we will analyze Aztec aesthetic through the work of Carrasco and the concept of “face” through the work of Portilla. Here Carrasco provides insight into the unique relationship the Aztecs had with aesthetic and art. “the way that the Aztecs themselves felt about the aesthetic (perceiving the beautiful and true nature of the world) creations of their own singers, poets, feather workers, sculptors, potters, woodworkers, and painters. Their art was about beauty, heart, and spirit. “(Carrasco, Pg 159). Here we see that the Aztecs used art and expression as a modality toward perceiving the beautiful and true nature of the world. Carrasco goes on to expand on these ideas “They understood that their world was infused with divine forces that did not originate in human genius, effort, or imagination. Rather the world of plants, stones, animals, sky, earth, feathers, and humans was created by gods and existed as something like the artwork of the gods. The responsibility of humans was to shape their art as a kind of imitation of the gods’ artistic creativity, knowing all the while that they would fall short.”(Carrasco, Pg 161). Carrasco maps out the uniquely Aztec theory of aesthetic and art. Here we are brought to the idea of art as an expression of divinity, and an ideal which is ultimately unreachable yet noble.
            Here Carrasco inspects the cultural practices of the Aztecs, analyzing and concluding that art held a particular function in society. “In their view, art was a temporary expression, a technique to (1) open the artist and the audience to divine truth, (2) imitate and approximate the cosmic beauty and pattern of the gods, and (3) communicate and celebrate the gods so that life on earth would be better for humankind. This art was sometimes used in trade and was also part of domestic and political life, royal display, and ritual sacrifice. But the power of the best art came from its ability to reflect and communicate with gods.”(Carrasco, Pg 161). Using Carrasco’s analysis as an informal template I propose that Aztec art expression and Aesthetic served to (1) create understanding of the world, (2) Open the artist and observer alike to the nature of the unseen nature of universal spirit, (3) raise the outlook of mankind to one of divine purpose and eloquence.

            As poets and artists, we are inherently seekers of truth and knowledge. The same truth that we breathe into existence derived from our own reality. To speak your peace, to field your voice is to be courage in the face of fear. We seek to recover both the historical & emotional context of our lives. To push back against trans-generational violence aimed at silencing our narratives. As courageous wordsmiths, we bring clarity to our inner confusion. La Palabra, word empowering the individual to process emotions both beautiful and traumatic. Compartmentalized into sharable forms, we as the community share these truths, these parts of ourselves. We are in the act, acting as a mirror allowing for others to gain “Face”, as Portilla wrote we are serving as a tlamachatlani in certain sense.
            Portilla alludes to the concept of “face”; here we will analyze the concept of “face”. The concept itself is tied to knowledge and understanding, here Portilla ties this transmission of knowledge as an important task in Aztec society. “The wise men began to formulate answers to the questions about the truth of man… truth (neltilizitl) meant originally support or foundation. The question that they had actually asked was: Is man endowed with any lasting foundation, is he firmly rooted, or is he, too, merely an illusion”(Portilla, Pg105). The idea here is that men need foundation and that it was the duty of the tlamatinime to do so.” To place a mirror before the people, that they might become wise and prudent; to endow with wisdom the countenances of others, so that a face might be assumed and developed to humanize the will of the people… they considered it necessary to teach a man to assume a face”(Portilla, Pg 104). In this aspect, Portilla correctly conveys that the Aztec conceptualization of “face” is not something one is born with but rather something which is learned, taught, & or grown into. Again Portilla goes on to connect the nature of truth to the nature of knowledge and principle. “Pre-Colombian thinkers were convinced that if man lacked a solid foundation, even his most profound thoughts and accomplishments could not possibly convey truth”(Portilla, Pg28). Portilla clearly connects the Aztec thought pattern that a foundation is needed in this life and the next, this foundation synonymous with the development of a man’s foundation referred to as “face”. “The tlamatinime were specifically responsible for composing paintings, knowing, and teaching the songs and poems in which they preserved their scientific knowledge. For the Nahuas, like many other ancient peoples, found the rhythm of poetry an easy and accurate way of retaining in their memories what was inscribed in their books of paintings”(Portilla, Pg 16). Here we come full circle, connecting the preservation and teachings of precious knowledge through the rhythm of poetry. By connecting these ideas from Aztec Thought And Culture we are able to support the claim that poetry, composition and expression function as a powerful tool to impart knowledge (and therefore “face”). Taking this knowledge of the Aztec structure of thought we can better understand our past and apply it to a contemporary context today.

            Here we analyze a poem titled “Regalo” utilizing our paradigm.

                                 “Regalo;                                                                                                                                      1.
                                  I grew up in my grandfather’s home
                                 Under his roof every holiday was a parade of pan dulce,
                                 And Thanksgiving dinner, camping trips, smiling faces,                                               5.
                                 Poker chips, Nintendo 64 & hide and go seek.
                                 But grandfather passed away when I was 7 years old,
                                 And for many years my family was left trying to pick up the pieces-
                                 In those days Christmas Eve tamales felt much lonelier.                                              10.
                                 But what I found was something beautiful,
                                 That grandfather’s legacy lives on
                                 Through the roots of this family tree,
                                 His children,                                                                                                                              15.
                                 That every tia y tio
                                 Now turned abuela y abuelo, as years passed has their own traditions,
                                 Their own Christmas Eve tamales
                                 That we still comeback to grandfathers home on Christmas day,                               20.
                                 Sharing hard earned tamales & old war stories of the man.
                                 And this; a parting gift made metaphor for life, and death,
                                 Of an ending giving rise to new beginnings,
                                 This may have been the single greatest lesson he left me with.                                    25.”
            As we seek to analyze this poem we find that the author took a reflexive narrative of introspective self. Serving to create a mythology around something of cultural and family importance, using a tamale. In parts delicious holiday custom, memory, tradition, and teacher. The author generates this narrative from a personal emotional/historical context. Through lines 22–24 the author imparts a lesson onto the reader, through this work of written composition I propose that the author in effect serving to develop “face” of the reader. Given this conclusion, we implicate that expression in artistic form can serve as both a tool to generate knowledge and in turn impart knowledge onto others and develop “face” of the individual. Communities are composed of individuals, therefore developing face of the individual in the singular context while bridging the gap to community builds unity through composition and expression. This poem features aspect of communal language rooted in a common narrative of many Latinos, such as “Abuelo” and “tia”. In addition, this written work traces the family and cultural tradition of three-generational households and tamales as a holiday staple of many Mexican-American households. By focusing on commonality and transforming the reality of death & dying into a lesson, the author imparts a fresh perspective of the world around us.
            The process of dismantling trauma and joy is in act empowering, to both reader and writer alike. Ultimately a humbling process; the building and communicating of knowledge along generations.  Communities of color are all to often marred by disproportioned rates of negative stresses such as police brutality and systems of stratification, which seek to disempower us. “La Palabra” offers a creative arena, where struggle can be converted into strength.  Experience into solidarity.

Analyses & Assessment:

            In the research, I found that Carrasco and Portilla made similar implications and reference to Aztec expression and thought. Both scholars made adept analyses and reported content in an academic manner. Carrasco and Portilla alike at times were formulaic in the presentation of poems. Portilla, in particular, emphasized the meticulous breakdown of Aztec poems translated over from Nahuatl to Spanish (and ultimately English). Both authors provide insight into the nature of face, Aztec society, thought and the broader implications. The nine seasons offered a less encompassing breadth of content in relative terms for this paper both in pattern and significance.
            While both Carrasco and Portilla clearly identified “Flower & Song” the Nine Seasons did not. Whereas Daily Life Of The Aztecs and Aztec Thoughts And Culture imparted specific details necessary in drafting this term paper the nine seasons did not. The Nine Seasons is a fine book, which offers a slightly different glimpse into Aztec society, however, for the purpose of my paper, it was not sufficient. This in my humble critique as the required texts relates to the term paper itself.  


            This term paper has revealed a connection between my past to the here and now. I have been able to craft a personal contextualized approach to the categorization and dismantling of the internalized realities of society around me. The proliferation and sharing of knowledge through artistic and verbal exposition, as a continuation of great traditional and historical significance to my people, which lives on through my own words. These values are carried over from my ancestors, a mode with which to honor them and their beliefs. TO act as living bridges in our efforts to both develop and impart face of ourselves and of others around us. The knowledge that this is tradition, linked in a rich historical depth. As the Aztecs taught us, to move others and to be moved by artistic expression is to be touched by divinity if only for a moment. Analyzing Aztec patterns of thought and formulations of expression is useful in pushing myself to become a man in touch with the world around me.
            We are able to take these thought patterns into the classroom. Students are able to bring a layer of thought, which reaches back to ancestral roots. A mode of thought, which shares resemblance and practical contemporary application to the ethos of ethnic studies. The informal classroom spheres are as well of particular interest. A principle theater of enculturation and learning which young children receive during their primary socialization is inside the institution of school. The majority of children in effect learn from community institutions and social groupings, how they are able to express themselves.
            Children form the social base of future generations within our communities. We find that communities of color are systematically subject to violence within an Anglo centric national (and global) context. In the face of this, younger individuals in our society are needed to give back and build up our communities in efforts to insulate comunidad from some of these negative societal stressors. If we can teach these younger people to find pride and a spiritually depth of life linked back toward there roots, these peoples can recover the emotional/historical context of there lives. With this critical consciousness, we will be able as a community in this generation and for seven generations to come, to break the chains of oppression, which bind us.
            A vibrant urban landscape that better reflects the human cost and human dreams of its residents is a call back to the Aztec. In this spirit muralism and urban art are intimate aspects of cityscapes, which act as public art galleries of nuestros barrios. In this way, an artist who practices is in essence dipping into the red and black ink, manifesting something divine along with the very walls of our cities. Artistic breathe of expression, which paints historical context of communities and policy. One need not look farther than Balmy alley in the Mission district as proof. These works of art left behind are a subtle teacher, imparting face to the observer even in passing.


            Aztec thought and artistic merit in expression present a path for the contemporary individual to tap into an inner sense of empowerment and direction. In this aspect bridging artistic duality and divinity conceptualized by the Aztec peoples, with the vibrant cultural movements of today. The individual is both empowered to express themselves, with the support of the historical context of their existence while acting as a mirror to help form the “face” of others.  We conclude that the development of face at both the individual and societal level is of value when building and organizing community.            
            In closin,g I would like to leave you with a poem, attributed to the infamous Nezahualcóyotl, which seeks to question the possibility of finding satisfaction in earthly things.
“ What does your mind seek?
Where is your heart?
If you give your heart to each and everything,
You lead it nowhere: you destroy your heart.
Can anything be found on earth?
1. Aztec Thoughts And Culture, By Miguel León-Portilla, Translated by Jack Emory Davis, University Of Oklahoma Press, 1963
2. Colección de Cantares Mexicanos (ed. By Antonio Peñafiel),
The original manuscript of this work is found in the National Library of Mexico.
Third Volume, 1965
3. Acción poética: una revolución de letras invade los muros de las ciudades,
By Veronica Dema, February 15th, 2013,
4. A Multidimensional Model for Multiethnic Latin@ Education Into Y2K.
5. Daily Life Of The Aztecs People Of The Sun And Earth, By Davíd Carrasco with Scott Sessions, Greenwood Press west port, Connecticut, 1998
6. Nine Seasons: Beyond 2012, By Carlos Aceves (Yolohuitzcalotl),
Indigenous cultures institute, 2012
7. Balmy Alley; Visual Feedback, 2010-2017
8. Regalo, by Christian Rivera Nolan,


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