Say Cuauhtémoc Three Times Fast, Then Cry Out of Frustration

When you move from the U.S. to Mexico City, along with learning Spanish, you must also learn some basic pronunciation tools for Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. It’s still spoken by about 1.5 million people in central Mexico (according to Wikipedia) and it’s presence is everywhere here in the capital city.

After the Spanish first arrived, they found Nahuatl pronunciation perplexing and, for example, quickly renamed the ruling Aztec king from Motecuhzoma to Montezuma. Poco a poco, espanol became the most widely spoken language in Mexico. Still, though Nahuatl slyly made its way into Spanish, English, and other languages, helped in part by the fact that no Spanish words existed for the many new things the conquistadors encountered in Mexico, such as chocolate, tomato, coyote, avocado, chili and mesquite. And, of course, Mexico itself — mexihco. (In fact, the Aztecs called themselves the Mexica.)

Those are the easy words, though, and are of course not written in their true dialect. Most are long, winding tongue twisters. For example, the city is divided into delegaciones, similar to counties. Many of these have long Nahuatl names:

Our particular neighborhood, La Condesa, is located in Cuauhtemoc. Until last night, I had no frackin’ clue how to say that word. It took about 15 minutes of repeated pronunciation drills with my Spanish tutor to get it down.

Finally, she and I both wrote it down, in our own phonetic styles, to help me learn:

Me: coo-ow-tay-moc (moc like the moc in mocha)

Her: kuauh-te-moc

So I wouldn’t forget it, I’ve said it about 1,000 times more today, and at some point, I’m worried all this chanting might actually summon the spirit of Cuauhtémoc, who was the last and final Aztec ruler, and who unlike one of his predecessors, Motecuhzoma, he bravely fought back, and is beloved by Mexicans still today.

If he did materialize in my living room, the scene would look something like this.

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