Miguel León-Portilla

by Jean Meyer

Miguel León-Portilla.

Miguel León-Portilla is a man smiled upon by the gods, or the muses—Clio, in particular. It was his good fortune as a young boy to have enjoyed the friendship of his uncle, Manuel Gamio, founder of Teotihuacán archaeology and of modern anthropology in Mexico.

It was undoubtedly this uncle who inculcated in León-Portilla an intense passion for the Mexican past, as well as its multicultural present.

A generous man our dear Don Miguel, never one driven by the need to blaze new trails, or to ally himself with any band. Like the noble bees, he makes his honey from the nectar of all flowers, and is living proof that one can be an impassioned sorcerer, capable of resuscitating lost worlds without becoming a mortal enemy of the cultures of the conquistadores.

Don Miguel is a pontiff, not only in the symbolic sense of the word, but rather in its original and concrete meaning in the Latin, pontifex, which, before taking on the meaning of “priest,” meant “bridge builder.” Having coauthored with Earl Shorris In the Language of Kings , the first anthology in any language to present a comprehensive collection of Mesoamerica’s rich indigenous literary traditions, Don Miguel has built bridges between the past and the present, between the living and the dead, and between cultures as well. This extraordinary achievement, I would venture to say, is a shining demonstration of his pontifex maximo rank.

[This interview was held in Miguel León-Portilla’s office at the Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, in June, and translated by Asa Zatz.]

Jean Meyer Miguel, before we go to the book and its coauthor, Earl Shorris—a friend of yours, I believe—I’d like to know what it was that aroused your passion for the pre-Hispanic world and its continuation into our time.

Miguel León-Portilla Since I was a boy, I had a certain “in” with the native world. My uncle was Manuel Gamio, the founder in Mexico of modern archaeology, as well as cultural anthropology. He introduced me to Teotihuacán, where he had done a great deal of work and where he discovered the Quetzalcoatl pyramid. I would also accompany him to Cuicuilco and other archaeological zones. That was my initiation. This was in the early ’30s, I was around eight years old.

JM Had he already published his book?

MLP His magnum opus was published in 1919, La población del Valle de Teotihuacán. We admired him enormously. We had other books in the house also, such as Francisco Clavijero’s Historia antigua de México. I read a lot at an early age, all through adolescence, most of Jules Verne, and Emilio Salgari. The imagination is stimulated when one goes traveling the South Seas and such things.

JM We share the same culture.

MLP When I finished high school, I went to study with the Jesuits at Loyola University in Los Angeles. I was interested in philosophy, but vitally so, not in a scholarly manner, and with the idea that I would find answers to my questions about God, death, and the beyond. In that period one studied scholastic philosophy with the Jesuits, which to me was an utter disappointment. Nevertheless, I had to buckle down because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to continue my studies. I did my thesis on Henri Bergson’s Two Sources of Morality and Religion.

JM The Jesuits read Henri Bergson?

MLP They permitted reading him, with great reluctance. I had a professor, an Ecuadorean, Father Armijo, who said to me: “In so far as Bergson agrees with Saint Thomas’s truth, fine. As he departs, he must be refuted.” Well, I was doing my thesis. Bergson really fascinated me. His urge to fathom conscience. Today, he is being rediscovered. I was into all of that when I came across several issues of the magazine Abside, which was published by the Méndez Plancarte brothers. They ran articles by Father Angel María Garibay on indigenous poetry and there I found questioning like that of the pre-Socratic Greeks: “Do we really speak the truth on earth? To what place will we go where death does not exist?” Questions of this type are so beautifully expressed in Nahuatl [Aztec] poetry. I was very surprised. I obtained other works by Garibay. His Historia de la literatura náhuatl was about to appear at the time.

When I returned to Mexico in 1952, I went to see my uncle, Manuel Gamio, immediately. I had written a play entitled La huida de Quetzalcoatl [The flight of Quetzalcoatl]. Quetzalcoatl was the wise creator of culture. A kind of Prometheus. One day, sorcerers came to see him. First, they offered him drink, then they put a mirror up to his face so he could look at himself. Quetzalcoatl was shocked to see that he was old and wrinkled. He got drunk, breaking his vow of abstinence and then his vow of chastity; that same night he slept with a princess. The next day, realizing what a tragedy he had brought about, he said: “I, who have been building the Toltecayotl, the highest expression of cultural creation! Now I realize that I have been building upon nothingness, with nothingness, that I am nothing, and I must run away. I must go to the land of the black and red color, where wisdom is.” According to one version of the myth, he goes to the edge of the sea and fashions a raft of snakes. According to another, he builds a bonfire, throws himself upon it, and is transformed into the morning star. Quetzalcoatl was going to take the measure of time, and to surpass time and death. According to even another version of the myth, he is lost in the sea but will return one day. I gave my play to Gamio to read. His inclinations were not particularly poetic but he did find it interesting. His only comment was: “What you say, boy, that there is a palace of emeralds there, is impossible. There are no emeralds in the central region. Better have Father Garibay read it. He is a friend of mine.”

Fearfully, I went to see Garibay, left him the play, and told him that I wanted to do a thesis on Nahuatl thought. He seemed rather gruff at first but upon dealing with him, one realized that he was a very open-hearted person. He asked if I knew Nahautl [Aztec]. I told him I didn’t. He replied, “You must know the language. Without it you won’t be able to study Nahuatl thought.” Then he added, “Come in a week’s time, and we’ll see if you are capable. If you don’t learn it, you’ll get nowhere.” I went back to him, and did as he advised from 1952 until his death in 1967. He was an exceptional teacher.

When I returned to Mexico I was unemployed. I needed to find a job, as I had no intention of being a burden to my family. My mother lived alone and I didn’t want that to continue. Consequently, I went to work first with cousins of mine who had a number of financial and maritime shipping businesses. They encouraged me to study law. I enrolled in law school and worked for them in a surety company called Fianzas México.

JM But you had done your thesis on Bergson by then?

MLP Yes. I had already finished the thesis but necessity has its quizzical side. I worked as a law student. Besides, I managed to be taken on at Mexico City College where I taught in the mornings. Very eminent professors taught there: Pablo Martínez del Río, Wigberto Jiménez Moreno, Fernando Horcasitas, Eduardo Noguera. This was manna from heaven for me. I had no car at first, and so I took a bus at the entrance to Chapultepec Park, where the lion statues are, and caught the Mexico City College bus that went directly to the school.

JM You were teaching classes in…

MLP History and philosophy.

JM Ah. So you were already involved in history.

MLP I was always attracted to history, and even undecided about whether to be a philosopher or historian. I thought I would do both. Now, I am a bit of a linguist, historian, anthropologist, and various other things.

JM You had already begun studying Nahuatl?

MLP Yes, with Garibay. I was working hard. I would get up at six in the morning, leave at six-thirty, and be at Mexico City College at seven-thirty. I taught until nine-thirty and then went to my job at Fianzas México. I worked there all morning, sometimes having to proceed against those who defaulted on payments. I would go to see Father Garibay on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons from six o’clock until ten—for me, time spent most gratifyingly. Somewhere, I have a dedicatory inscription from him that says, “In memory of the hours so agreeably spent together.” I was studying law. I enjoyed the theoretical subjects. General theory of the state interested me, history of Roman law very much, also. Then there was Dr. Juan Comas. Did you know of him?

JM Yes.

MLP Juan Comas was an anthropologist, a Spanish refugee. He worked at the Instituto Indigenista Interamericano with Gamio, who was the director. Comas left to become a professor at the university and so Gamio said to me, “Come over here, boy, I’ll give you a job and you can probably get to be secretary of the institute.” And then he said, “Forget your law studies. What do you need them for?” I said goodbye to my cousins, who told me I was being crazy. They had no idea what the institute was really all about, they thought I was going into politics, into the PRI [Partido Revolucionario Institucional]. I explained to them that politics had nothing to do with this institute. That was that. I left and worked with Gamio and renewed my studies for a master’s degree at the University of Mexico. I took some courses, for instance with Justino Fernández, the art historian. But I managed to do something that now seems most unusual. I had Father Garibay as my general tutor who taught me the equivalent subjects under the titles Cosomovisión náhuatl a traves de los códices [worldview through the codices] and La antigua palabra de los sabios nahuas [the ancient word of the Nahua wise men]. After three years, I finished the thesis that turned into Filosofía Nahuatl. I had the nerve to invite people such as Dr. Francisco Larroyo to sit in on my doctoral exam; he was a neo-Kantian philosopher and, of course, did not believe that Indians thought. Juan Hernández Luna, on the other hand, helped me greatly—he was secretary of the school, came from the state of Michoacán, and was a disciple of Samuel Ramos. Afterwards, he continued on at the Universidad Michoacana where he developed interesting projects.

I finished my doctorate and entitled my thesis: La filosofía nahuatl estudiada en sus fuentes [Nahuatl philosophy studied from its sources], which earned me the laughter and ridicule of philosophers here in Mexico. Such is history. Afterward, it was published in English under the title Aztec Thought and Culture and it also came out in French, German and even Russian—without my permission! I worked with Gamio until his death in 1960 and then took his place as director. I was fortunate enough that, despite my youth, I remained the director for six years, which enabled me to get to know the indigenous Mexican populations and those of the entire continent from Patagonia to Alaska. I traveled widely and saw the frightful tragedy of those groups, ranging all the way from Canada to the poor of the Paraguayan Chaco. I had a command of Nahuatl. Students began to attend my classes, some very distinguished, who continued on in this field. In recent years, I have enjoyed the very interesting experience of teaching native students of Nahua descent from various regions of the country and even other indigenous groups.

JM It’s now a new phenomenon.

MLP It began some 20 years ago with two Nahuas, Librado Silva Galeana and Francisco Morales Baranda, who have stayed close to me. The Nahuatl they speak is quite similar to that of the classical period. Nahuatl has many linguistic forms of ceremonious address which are very complicated with difficult morphophonemic changes. That is, to speak using ceremonious address properly is extremely difficult.

JM By the way—forgive the digression—how accurate is it to say that there were at one time Criollo elite who respected and even knew classical Nahuatl? Is it true that some could write, and being able to write poetry in Latin, they were able to write poetry in Nahuatl?

MLP Some, yes, beginning with Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz, who knew Nahuatl. Later on, also Lorenzo Boturini, who came from Italy, Xavier Clavijero, and all the Jesuit humanists of the 18th century knew Nahuatl.

JM In other words, it was not exceptional.

MLP No, it was not unusual, and there was a moment around 1570 when the Franciscans proposed to Philip II that Nahuatl be used for teaching the Indians, even though it was not their native tongue. The idea being that they would be more receptive to Nahuatl, which had been the lingua franca, rather than Spanish. They tried it for a while, as a result of which Nahuatl spread beyond Mesoamerica. It reached as far as New Mexico. There is a barrio in Santa Fe by the name of Analco [“of the other side of the river”]; in various parishes all along the border in Texas, there are birth and death certificates in Nahuatl. Amazingly, Nahuatl persisted as the lingua franca, particularly during the 16th and 17th centuries. Without the slightest exaggeration, we have thousands of documents in Nahuatl from places such as Nombre de Dios in Durango, in northern Mexico, all the way to Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

To get back to the subject of my classes at present, if you should come to one of them, you would find a Korean, a Spaniard, a Frenchman, four students of Nahuatl extraction, a German, an Austrian, a North American—in short, people of all sorts, and even some who stay working with me for the rest of their lives.

JM When did you publish Vision de los vencidos? [Vision of the vanquished; translated as Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico.]

MLP I had read Garibay’s translation of these texts, Aztec accounts of the conquest, some of which were written shortly afterward. I said to him, “Let’s publish these so that they can get mass circulation.” I don’t mean to imply that the Mexicans are eternally vanquished, but rather that the vanquished also write history sometimes.

I included a chapter in the latest editions entitled “Lo que siguió” [“The Aftermath”]. It covers from the 16th to the 20th century and contains, for example, one by Natalio, which is a poem entitled “Necesitamos andar solos” [“We Must Go Alone”]. The idea is that, “We Indians believed that there existed a man who knew everything, could do anything, and that that man was going to help us greatly. Now, we the Indians realize that he who knows everything, can do everything, does not exist; that man is within us, still half asleep but now waking up.” This hints at what is happening.

Los antiguos mexicanos is one of the books I have written that the Fondo de Cultura Económica continues distributing, with 30 reprintings, up to the present time.

JM I remember that Marcel Bataillon gave me a piece of advice when I was getting ready to come to Mexico in 1964. He told me, "To understand Mexico, you should begin with two books, The Labyrinth of Solitude, by Octavio Paz, and Broken Spears. That book quickly attracted attention. It got good reviews and is translated into 18 languages, the most recent of which was Esperanto. I believe that the seed of In the Language of Kings is in Broken Spears.

MLP That’s right, it comes from Broken Spears. I met its coauthor, Earl Shorris, four years ago. He wrote several novels on Mexican themes and a very good biography of Pancho Villa. He is devoted to Mexico and the Indians of America. He was born in El Paso, Texas. He is a man who has done many things, having created a series of schools called the Clemente Courses, named after Roberto Clemente, the Puerto Rican baseball player, whom I actually don’t know since I’m not much interested in sports. Earl is not a wealthy man but has established schools, which he describes as being “of high culture,” among the Eskimos, among the Indians of a number of places in the United States, Yucatecan Mayas on the Yucatan Peninsula, Nahuas in Morelos, Mexico, in order that the indigenous people might learn and know their roots, be proud of them, and take part in the life of their respective countries, while maintaining their differences. We were discussing the possibility of doing a book that would cover the literature of Mesoamerica. Earl has many contacts because he writes for Harper’s Magazine. Norton published several of his books in New York. “Norton is interested,” he told me. “Norton has done anthologies of the world’s great literatures, English, French, German, Spanish, Latin, Greek, and they agree to promote Mesoamerican literature to the level of humanity’s great literatures.”

“Very good, then,” I said. And so we began. We covered the ground from the oldest literature up to the present, taking in, of course, not only Nahuatl, but other languages. I added that, naturally, I know many indigenous writers and am in contact with them. I took part in the founding of the Casa de los escritores en lenguas indigenas [House of writers in indigenous languages] with Natalio Hernández. I spoke to Federico Mayor to obtain support for Casa from UNESCO, and with the Ministry of Education of Mexico, as well, and they gave their support. The Casa is now a reality. It is directed entirely by indigenous people.

JM Did Carlos Montemayor have anything to do with that project?

MLP Yes, he worked with the board of the Casa de los escritores en lenguas indigenas and made a very valuable contribution in the workshops, assisting in the training of indigenous-language writers, particularly Mayans. In various places in Mexico at present, for example, Puebla, there are groups engaged in cultivating literature who hold meetings through the Casa. In Chiapas there are writers (Tzotziles, Tzeltales, Tojobales) of such languages in danger of extinction. For example, the Pai Pai language spoken in Northern Baja California has 60 practioners. Ixcateco, another language in Oaxaca, has only a few old people who speak it and they have begun going to the children’s schools to teach the language to the children.

JM When did the project of In The Language of Kings begin?

MLP It began to fall into place four years ago. Earl Shorris came to Mexico. I have a house in Cuernavaca where we comfortably set to work. We had the help of many people in preparing the anthology, such as Dennis Tedlock, Munro Edmonson, and others. They have been very generous about the use of their work—always credited, of course—and even granting us access to their unpublished readings of inscriptions. The idea is to show that there are over 2,500 years of continuous literary production in Mesoamerica. Obviously, we wanted to seek the relation between the codices and the texts we have. A problem that came up in recent years is that the authenticity of texts written immediately following the conquest has been called into question.

JM The interpolations can be vital.

MLP They can be, of course. Something very strange happened to me in the town of Santa Ana, near Guadalajara, at a performance of the Moros y Cristianos dance of the conquest. In the middle of a combat in which Cortés is fighting with Cuauhtémoc, the Aztec chieftain, ten verses on the battle of Puebla are suddenly interspersed. All at once, the eagle of France appears, the valiant Frenchmen charge three times and are driven back three times by the valiant Mexicans, after which Cuauhtémoc reappears.

JM I am very glad that we can avoid Aztec-centrality for the first time.

MLP Yes. The anthology provides many selections from Mayan and other indigenous-language texts. There are 300 pages devoted to the Aztec world, 220 to the Mayan world, and a lesser number to the other languages.

We made the entire selection and the necessary introductions. Sterling Lawrence, the publisher, took a great interest in the book. After it came out, he said to me, “I have been an editor at Norton for 30 years and this has been one of the most interesting experiences of my life.” He took part in the editorial process, and would say things like, “There’s an introduction needed here because this won’t be understood.” Or, in the case of obscure texts, he would ask for certain explanations because otherwise they wouldn’t be understood. We didn’t want to put in too many notes, but rather a glossary at the end. We have taken into account tales, songs, poetry in Mixteco, Zapoteco, Trique, Mixe. Earl Shorris and his wife, Sylvia, helped greatly with the English translations.

I don’t think I am the person who knows the most about Mesoamerican literature, but I know quite a lot, because I have spent so many years in contact with it, and I also know many present-day writers. We asked their permission personally; nothing contemporary was published in the anthology without authorization. For these writers, it is a great satisfaction to appear in the anthology.

What else can I say? That we were careful to balance the range of themes and to make it a volume for as many readers as possible. What readers do we think we have and do we want to have? In the first place, not only are indigenous languages besides Nahuatl, such as Quiché and others, taught in many universities in the United States—over 20, actually—but courses in Spanish literature also include elements of indigenous literature. I attribute this in part to the fact that my books circulate so widely in the United States. La visión de los vencidos [Broken Spears] is Beacon’s sixth most reprinted book in the United States. I figure that close to a million copies have been published in Mexico.

JM What about In the Language of Kings?

MLP It is aimed at the broadest possible public, the Chicanos, who read English and who write and are concerned with literature. I have given many lectures in the U.S. Southwest, which are attended by very large audiences.

JM Now that you have gone through that task of compilation, are you thinking of doing an edition for Mexico?

MLP As soon as possible, of course. We need to make sure that there is no translation of a translation—for that is a very sad thing. I have seen deplorable cases here in Mexico of indigenous texts that were translated from German back into Spanish. That is what happened to the tales collected by Konrad Preuss among Mexicaneros in the south of Durango. In most cases, the translations of modern indigenous authors are fortunately in Spanish. In lectures I have given before indigenous writers, I tell them that just as they keep polishing their indigenous language and developing literary technique, they should, at the same time, learn to write in Spanish well enough so that they can translate their work into Spanish themselves.

JM The upward trend in this literature coincides with what we might term “neoindigenism.” After a lifetime in the field, do you feel satisfaction? To explain your calling as a historian you quoted a chapter from the prophet Ezekiel about his attending the resurrection of the dead. In a certain sense, you have taken part in that culturally in a like way. But, politically, how do you feel about the discussion on the COCOPA [Comisión de Concordia y Paz] law? [The COCOPA law is an agreement made by President Fox with the Zapatistas and the indigenous people of Chiapas to guarantee them certain rights.]

MLP It interested me and I have written a number of articles on it. I consider the elements of language and literature to be of great importance, not just of casual interest. To me, the ability to express oneself is a form of reaffirming one’s identity and making known one’s ideals. I have always told my indigenous students, “You can do as you please politically, but always strengthen your culture and cultivate your own tongue.” I have supported and will always support the demands of Chiapas because I believe they are just. Dr. Manuel Gamio was strongly criticized by anthropologists in the ’70s. They said that because he had studied under Franz Boas at Columbia University, he was a representative of the anthropology of imperialism. I wrote a little book entitled Pueblos originarios y globalización [Native peoples and globalization] in which I show that Gamio did quite the contrary; he wanted to foster the incorporation of the indigenous people into Mexican life, but always with their cultural differences, their languages, their literatures. Gamio says that they have the right to govern themselves, that they have a right to representatives in the legislature. This is what the San Andrés Larrainzar Agreements are asking. Gamio expressed the same idea in La población del Valle de Teotihuacán and Forjando patria. The discussion on legal reforms for recognition of indigenous rights must go on. Until now, the law has been backward. How is it possible that such rights have been denied the great creators of culture, ancient and modern, as demonstrated in the words of the authors of the tales, poems, songs and speeches that make up this anthology In the Language of the Kings?


Translated from the Spanish by Asa Zatz.

Jean Meyer is a Franco-Mexican historian, director of the Division de Historia of the CIDE in Mexico City, and the Revista de Historia Internacional. He is also an author whose best-known books are La Cristiada (2001) and Rusia y su imperios (1998).

Spanish language
Mesoamerican studies
Indigenous peoples
Nahuatl language
cultural history
Winter 2002
The cover of BOMB 78