“Fire is a breath of sparks”— Interview with Nahua poet Martin Tonalmeyotl — curated by Ming Di

Martín Tonalmeyotlis from Atzacoaloya, Chilapa, Guerrero, Mexico, born in 1983. He has a BA in Hispano-American Literature and MA in Indo-American Linguistics. Peasant, poet, translator, broadcaster and columnist, his poems have been included in various anthologies and published in magazines in Mexico and abroad. He is the coordinator of the poetry dossier in native languages: Xochitlajtoli in the online magazine Círculo de Poesía. Author of the books: Tlalkatsajtsilistle Ritual de los olvidados ‘ (Jaguas Ediciones, 2016), Nosentlalilxochitlajtol Personal Anthology‘ ( Asociación de Escritores de México, AC., 2017) and Istitsin ueyeatsintle ‘Uña mar’ (Cisnegro, 2019). Coordinator of the following poetry books: Xochitlajtoli / Contemporary poetry in native languages of Mexico (Círculo de Poesía Ediciones, 2019), Flor de siete pétalos (Editorial El Espejo Somos, 2019) and In Xochitl in kuikatl / 24 contemporary poets in Nahuatl Vol. I (UDLAP, 2020).

Ming Di:  I met a Maya poet in 2016 and was a little surprised when he told me it was easier to write poems in Spanish (he could write a few a day) than Mayan (he would struggle a whole day to write a few lines.) He said Spanish was a language for poetry. Can you tell me about your experience in writing poetry in Nahuatl?

Martin Tonalmeyotl: I consider any language that can be heard and/or written to be suitable for poetry. Regarding my writing process, I started writing in Spanish, but I didn’t wrote poetry, only short stories and tales from my hometown. Poetry was always a genre that I was afraid of until one day I was finally able to write what I thought and felt in Nahuatl language, and once I translated it and shared it with the public, it turned out to be poetry.

Ming: That’s very interesting. So, Nahuatl made you a poet. When did you become aware of your ethnic/cultural identity or origin? Was it a label by others or self-awakening? What does it mean to you being a Nahua? 

Martin: I became aware of my identity after I was twenty years old. It was a self-recognition that came from my own thinking and feeling. It was a discovery of myself where I learned to build my own path, both in life and in thought. 

Ming: Did you speak Nahuatl as a child or did you learn it as an adult? What’s the most beautiful thing of your language that you would like to share with us?

Martin: My first language was Nahuatl. It was not until I was eight years old that I learned Spanish. One of the characteristics of Nahuatl is that it is a polysynthetic language and an example of this is the following word:


A-tem-pan-xochi-choka-ni / Water-shore / lip-place-flower-cry-trade marker.

Free translation: “The flower that cries on the river bank / calla lily”. Another very important word in Nahuatl is the word “effort”. In Nahuatl it is timoyolkokoltis which can be translated in Spanish as “make your heart ache to get to something”. I still don’t know if it was Nahuatl or books that made me a poet, but what I do know is that the voice of my people has begun to regain a little of the space it had lost for a long time. 

Ming: I noticed this feature in the titles of your poems published in the World Literature Today. One way to look at Chinese is that several images are built together in one character as a complete structure which can be a word, then two or more characters form a compound word. In Nahuatl, the phonemes are glued together in a linear order. I always fantasize that there are some books of Nahuatl literature hidden somewhere waiting to be discovered so we can see the complicated nature of the writings from the Aztec Empire. Do contemporary Nahua people consider themselves descendants of Aztecs?

Martin: I don’t think so, actually people don’t know much about that empire called “the Aztec”, that it once existed and that they might come from there. When they refer to their ancestors, they speak of the grandparents and great-grandparents who came here to establish the community and nothing else. They don’t really know who the Aztecs are because it is perhaps a more academic term or even something invented by academics. Nor do they recognize themselves as Nahuas, they speak of themselves as Mexicans.

Ming: Thank you for the inside story. In China, many people talk about the great history from the first Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) to the last Qing Dynasty (1636-1912) although personally I’m more interested in the pre-Qin period and I consider myself descendant of the Chu Kingdom (1030-223 BCE) but then I’m often lost as to where the boundary is between Chu and Han and other nationalities in China—everyone is so mixed after thousands of years living on the same land. I see the trace of similarities in the case of being self-recognized as Nahuas or Mexicans. I read about your activism in preserving your language and culture in the age of globalization. I’m especially interested in the pre-Hispanic poetry such as the sixty poems by King Nezahualcoyotl which are similar to classical Chinese poetry in a way. Do you try to incorporate Western modernism into the indigenous poetry and revitalize your ancient tradition?

Martin: I have never personally thought about incorporating Western modernism into my poetry. What I do have done is to try to incorporate the everyday language of my community into poetry. With this I pretend that people of any age become able to understand and read what I want to express in my poems in Nahuatl. If my poetry is not understood in this language, then there is no point in writing in it. I think that the best revitalization that I can offer toward my language, my culture and my tradition is that my speech reaches my people without any restriction of understanding. In Spanish I do my best in the translation so that the reader also understands what I want to express.

Ming: How do you reach out to your people with your poetry? By organizing reading events or circulating your books? Where do you find your best readers?

Martin: For the moment, through social media and with the professors who teach the Nahuatl language. In my hometown, very few people know that I write poetry. However, there are other places in the country where this language is also spoken and that’s where my books have reached and been read the most. I still think that the best readers, so far, are the people who read us in Spanish. In the Nahuatl language, it is not that they do not want to read me, but that reading becomes obstructed by the dialogue I carry on with my people and with other communities. Besides, more than 60% of the Nahuatl population can’t read or write in their own language, some can’t read or write in Spanish either. 

Ming: You are fully bilingual in Nahua and Spanish which makes you a prefect translator of your poetry and other Nahua poets’ work. But still, is there anything in Nahuatl that’s not translatable into Spanish?

Martin: I think there are still many words or expressions that cannot be translated into Spanish because of the collision of worldviews or philosophical perspectives. For example, when in Nahuatl you say “Tlajko tlakatl”, it could be translated as “Half man”, but that does not say anything. It does not refer to gender.  Tlajko tlakatl is a philosophical concept that could be interpreted as “in the middle of life”, or when a man or a woman reaches the middle of life and from here on he learns to be a man, where “to be a man” means to be a person of respect, wise and who, from the middle of his/her life, walks as a whole man and understands why he has come to earth. That is my interpretation but you could continue defining it line after line.

Ming: That’s a saying in many ancient languages. Nahuas must have had communications with other peoples historically or it comes from its own prehistorical source. Fantastic. What do you think are the greatest achievements in the indigenous literature in Mexico, besides the well-known Cantares Mexicanos, before the Spanish conquest?  Who do you think are the greatest indigenous poets in modern and contemporary times?

Martin: I think the most important achievements, concerning the aesthetic and metaphorical forms, are being achieved through contemporary poetry in these indigenous languages, in the tradition of the pre-Hispanic poetry, which is the root of our poetry. All poets are great and important because they all contribute to poetry. However, the poets that I like the most—because of their aesthetic proposals—are Briceida Cuevas Cob, Hubert Matiúwaà, Mardonio Carballo, Natalia Toledo, Irma Pineda, Manuel Espinosa Sainos and Mikeas Sánchez.

Ming: I read some of their poems (in translation) on the websites of World Literature Today, Latin American Literature Today, Words Without Borders, Poetry International, etc. I met Natalia Toledo in Qinghai, China and as one of the moderators I translated her speech into Chinese. I was so impressed by the way she addressed political and social issues with a language of cloud and birds and flowers. I wonder if that’s her personal style. Do most indigenous poets in Mexico tend to use metaphors? I think it’s beautiful.  

Martin: I think metaphors, as well as the prosopopoeia, are not exclusive to the poets of the original peoples or indigenous poets as you call them, what does reflect on them is the vision that one has toward life, the earth and nature. 

Ming: Oh I didn’t mean to offend anyone. On the contrary, “indigenous poet” is a positive term. Being “indigenous” means native to the land or first comers, having the rights of the land. Being indigenous means having a natural sense of the earth. I feel so close to the indigenous cultures in Americas, a feeling of déjà vu. Where do you live? Within your community or in a metropolitan city? What other activities are you engaged in besides promoting the indigenous language and literature?  

Martin: For study reasons, I live in a metropolitan area in the City of Puebla. I only travel to my hometown five times a year. I practice athletics sporadically, I take care of my family and I’m a teacher of Nahuatl language and Mexican literature. I’m also the front man of a radio program called “Ombligo de Tierra” (“Navel of Earth”) in a national radiocasting station called Código Radio Ciudad de México.

Ming: I visited Puebla in my third trip to Mexico but of course I didn’t see enough. My first trip to Mexico was driving to Tijuana, like everyone else in California, second trip was to the poetry festival in Mexico City in 2014 and that’s when I saw the ruins of the Aztec for the first time, an old city underneath the modern Mexico City. Something ancient and tangible and full of possibilities of imagination. A tremendous sense of loss at the same time. I think your writing is extremely important. What do you consider as your literary tradition?  

Martin: I don’t know for sure, but I think that all my work is subject to a navel rooted in Nahua orality.

Ming: Among the 60+ indigenous languages in Mexico, do you interact with people of another indigenous language? Do you see more of similarities or differences among the indigenous people?

Martin: Yes, in Mexico there are still 68 native languages. In my case, I do interact with many people of native languages ​​because I do continuous interviews with them on my radio program; besides, many of my friends speak a variety of these languages. And yes, the vast majority of communities share similarities such as their political organization, their upbringing and respect for nature, and many more.

Ming: Have you ever wondered where your ancestors came from?

Martin: I have not posed that question to myself, I only know that my people descend from the Aztecs or the Mexica. One strange thing about my family is that my grandmother’s name was Candelaria De China (“Candelaria from China”).

Ming: Nahua sounds very Chinese because Hua means Chinese in Chinese. Many people in China feel related to the native people in Americas. It’s so interesting that many people here have a nickname such as “XX de China” which means they believe they are originally from Asia. I think the native people here can be from Taiwan, Japan or Indonesia... I wonder if Polynesians reached Americas or Asia or Australia first. Have you travelled to other parts of the world? If so, what do you think about what you see in regards of cultures and languages? 

Martin: I have only traveled to Ecuador and the native cultures that I met there seemed to me very similar to the communities that I have known in my own region, even more so in respects to protection of nature, political organization, gastronomy, traditional medicine and languages, for example. When they took me to visit these communities, I felt I was in my hometown.

Ming: Me too. I was in Ecuador in 2017. What is the current scene of the indigenous poetry in the larger context of Mexican poetry or Latin American poetry?

Martin: I believe this is the poetry with the best promises and aesthetic vitality, the poetry that is changing the face of Mexican poetry and, in no time, I trust it will change the face of Latin American and universal poetry.

Ming: Can you talk about your own poetry? What inspired you to become a poet?  Do you blend the indigenous mythologies in your writing? What are the biggest challenges you’ve ever encountered in your writing career? 

Martin: I think that my poetry tells stories regarding the lives of the people in my community. Actually, I never thought of becoming a poet, it was people who gave me this name or label, but reading literature was what led me to writing. I´m not certain about it, but I think my poetry is based on various Nahua mythologies. The challenges I faced were the spaces for the promotion of these literatures, that is why I’m working on it now and, perhaps, the biggest challenge that I have faced so far is that of self-translation, since frequently I dislike how my poetry sounds in the second or first language.

Ming: Can you give some examples? 

Martin: Yes, I will cite two poems from my book Istitsin ueyeatsintle/ Uña mar (Cisnegro, 2019).

Tlitsintle ipakilis

Tlitsintle kijtoneke se ueye ijyotl uan tlimoxixine (Fire means a big breath that draws sparks / wind swirling of sparks)

tlauiltsintle uan notlajtlapaluia (light that paints its body in colors)

uan xoxotla kuak xtinese (that goes on and off when you’re gone)

uan kinkuatlapaluia itsontsitsiuan (that paints the tips of her hair)

uan melauak pake nolinia kuak kimate yetiuajlo (that rejoices and moves when it feels that you are coming)

The joy of fire

Fire is a breath of sparks

a veering light

a glow of absence

an entanglement of multi-colored hair

which grows joyful when it senses your arrival

This is what I mean by self-translation into Spanish. The free translation is what is at the bottom and the literal translation is what is in parentheses. The second poem below I don’t know how to translate into literal Spanish.


Ajakakouatsintle uan nojuitsia tlapoyaua.

Panoua kuintij inkuatipan on tejakaltin.

Panoua ijkoyokatij: xiiix xiiix xiiix

ken kana tikijtosia yaka mitsuajnostika.,

ken kana tikijtosia ajakakiyoue ika nejmotililistle.

Kijtouaj: ualeua ipan okse tlaltipaktle,

ouajla okiteititiko kanon mikiuas.

Saint ueuentistsintin uelaj kitaj,

kampa oksekimej san kakej

niman xkimatej tlinon on.

Kijtouaj kampa uajmostla okualkan

kanka bridge,

xintokej tlakamej uan xok ika inmixtololojuan

tlakamej uan yokinmatsojtsontekej, yokimikxotsontsontekj

niman achijtsin yestle uan yokipachichin tlajle.


Wind serpent that paints the afternoons-nights.

It passes cutting silence on the rooftops.

It passes creating echoes: xiiix xiiix xiiix

as if wind made fear rain,

as if the devil marked his ground.

They say: it comes from beyond,

It comes to mark the ground of death.

Only the old can look at it

the others only listen to it

but they cannot see.

In the morning,

near the bridge

heads without bodies appear,

hands without hope, feet without destiny

and the blood sucked by the earth.

Ming: Oh these poems are haunting and make my head cold. The way the poems are presented here might be confusing to English readers as the poems were originally translated to Spanish but what’s important is that you found inspiration in your native tongue and you are able to transform that in Nahuatl and your poetry will preserve the endangered language. 

Interview and poems translated from Spanish to English by Gustavo Osorio de Ita Feb 15, 2021