Modern-Day Aztecs Become True Christians
“The temples fell, becoming dust and ash, the idols were destroyed, and the sacred books were devoured by flames, but the ancient gods have not stopped living in the hearts of the Indians.”—Las antiguas culturas mexicanas (The Ancient Mexican Cultures).
MEXICO is the home of the Aztecs, who went from being a small immigrant tribe in the 13th century to becoming an empire to rival that of the Incas in Peru. Although the Aztec empire fell with the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlán in 1521, the language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl, is by no means dead. * It is still spoken by about a million and a half indigenous people in at least 15 states in Mexico. It has contributed to preserving some of the ancient Aztec beliefs, as researcher Walter Krickeberg noted above. What were some of those beliefs?
Traditions Strange Yet Familiar
Perhaps the most widely known Aztec practice is that of human sacrifice. It was based on the belief that the sun would die if not fed with human hearts and blood. In 1487, on the occasion of the dedication of the great pyramid temple of Tenochtitlán, over 80,000 victims were sacrificed in a period of four days, according to Spanish friar Diego Durán.
Though the Spaniards were appalled by this practice, they were surprised to find that many other Aztec beliefs were similar to those of their own Catholic Church. For example, the Aztecs practiced a form of communion in which images of their gods made of corn were eaten. The flesh of sacrificial victims was sometimes also eaten. The Aztecs used the cross and practiced oral confession and infant baptism. Perhaps the most amazing similarity was the worship of Tonantzin, a virgin “Mother of the Gods,” affectionately called Our Little Mother by the Aztecs.
On the very hill where the Aztecs worshipped Tonantzin, the dark Nahuatl-speaking Catholic Virgin of Guadalupe was said to have appeared to an Aztec Indian in 1531. This hastened the conversion of the Aztecs to Catholicism. A shrine to this virgin was built on the foundation of Tonantzin’s temple. On December 12, the basilica is visited by hundreds of thousands of devout Mexicans, many of whom speak Nahuatl.
In their remote sierra communities, the Nahuatl hold numerous festivals devoted to their patron saints, some lasting for days or even weeks. The book El universo de los aztecas (The Universe of the Aztecs) comments that the indigenous people “associate the worship of the saints of the Catholic Church with ceremonies that were practiced before Cortés.” The Nahuatl are also very much involved in spiritism. When they get sick, they go to healers who practice ritual cleansing and animal sacrifices. Moreover, illiteracy is widespread; most read neither Spanish nor Nahuatl. Clinging to their traditions and language and immersed in poverty, they have been marginalized by society.
Bible Truth Reaches the Modern-Day Aztecs
For many years, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Mexico have endeavored to reach all people with the “good news of the kingdom.” (Matthew 24:14) In 2000, the Mexico branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses started a project to preach to all Nahuatl-speaking people in their own language and to organize Nahuatl-language congregations for those who were attending meetings in Spanish. A translation group was set up to produce Bible literature in Nahuatl. Efforts were also made to teach Nahuatl-speaking people to read and write in their own language. What has been the result? Consider these experiences.
When an indigenous woman heard a Bible talk in Nahuatl for the first time, she exclaimed: “We have been attending meetings for ten years and leaving with a headache because of not understanding Spanish well. But this is like beginning our lives all over again!” Sixty-year-old Juan had been studying the Bible and attending meetings in Spanish with his wife and children for eight years without making any progress. Then he began to study the Bible in Nahuatl. In less than a year, he became a baptized Witness!
As these experiences show, many had their first contact with the Bible in Spanish, but they did not understand its full meaning. Having meetings, assemblies, and publications in their own language has helped them to embrace Bible truth and to comprehend their Christian responsibilities.
Spiritual progress among the Nahuatl has not been made without obstacles. For instance, there is much pressure to participate in religious festivities. In San Agustín Oapan, Jehovah’s Witnesses were not permitted to preach from house to house. There was fear that it would make the people stop giving money to support the celebrations. When Florencio and a small group of local Nahuatl Witnesses were preaching, three of them were arrested. Within 20 minutes, a crowd gathered to decide what to do with them.
“They wanted to do away with us right then and there,” Florencio recalls. “Some suggested that we be tied up and thrown into the river to drown! We spent the night in jail. The next day, a fellow Witness who was a lawyer and two other brothers came to help. They too were thrown in jail. Finally, the authorities let all of us go on the condition that we leave town.” In spite of that experience, a congregation was established a year later, with 17 baptized Witnesses and about 50 people attending the meetings.
In the Nahuatl community of Coapala, Alberto, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, was invited to participate in the local festival. He declined and was imprisoned. A general assembly was called, and some clamored for him to be hanged in order to frighten any who may have wished to join his religion and give up the local customs. Some other Witnesses tried to get him released, but they too were arrested. After the week-long festival ended, all were set free. As opposition continued, it was necessary to seek the help of higher officials, and an order was obtained that put an end to the persecution. Interestingly, the main opposer accepted Bible truth a short time later and was baptized. There is now a congregation in that town.
Ripe for the Harvest
Seeing the potential for growth in the Nahuatl field, many Witnesses are learning the language. This, though, has its challenges. The Nahuatl are a very shy people who are reticent about speaking their language because of the treatment they have received. There are also many variants, or dialects.
Sonia, a full-time minister, explains what moved her to take on the challenge. “Within two hours of my home, there are some 6,000 Nahuatl migrant workers living in shelters shut in with guards. The people are vulnerable and humiliated,” said Sonia. “Their condition made me very sad because the Nahuatl were once a proud people, the roots of our culture. We had been preaching to them for 20 years in Spanish, but they did not fully understand, and they showed little interest. However, when I learned a few words of their language, the doors opened up. They surrounded me to listen. I offered to teach one of the women to read and write if she would teach me Nahuatl. Now they know me in all the shelters as ‘the woman of the language.’ I feel like a missionary in my own country.” Today, there is a Nahuatl-speaking congregation in that area.
Maricela, another full-time minister, is making every effort to learn Nahuatl. At first, she conducted a Bible study in Spanish with 70-year-old Félix. As she learned more Nahuatl, Maricela began to explain things to him in his language. This had a fine effect. How touched she was when Félix asked, “Does Jehovah listen when I talk to him in Nahuatl?” Félix was happy to learn that Jehovah understands all languages. Félix regularly attends the meetings even though he has to walk for an hour and a half to do so, and he is now baptized. Maricela says, “How happy I am to cooperate with the angel who has good news to declare to all peoples!”—Revelation 14:6, 7.
Indeed, the Nahuatl field is “white for harvesting.” (John 4:35) We pray that Jehovah God will continue to invite people of all nations, including the noble modern-day Aztecs, to go up to his mountain to be instructed in his ways.—Isaiah 2:2, 3.
^ par. 3 Nahuatl is part of the Uto-Aztec family of languages, spoken by such tribes as the Hopi, Shoshone, and Comanche of North America. Many Nahuatl words, such as avocado, chocolate, coyote, and tomato, have found their way into the English language.
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AZTEC POPULATION BY STATE