Aztec Classes with My Father: From Nahuatl to Yiddish
This email to you has been germinating for several years.
I was a student of your father's— or as I knew him,"Professor Bright"— at UCLA in the early 1970s.
Since reading his obituary in the Times years ago, I have wanted to write you a note expressing my condolences and telling Dr. Bright stories.
I can see the bandana'ed man as I write. In fact, even without knowing him, he was one of the reasons I chose UCLA for grad school.
After months of fieldwork where I would "run out of questions," I knew something was missing and that I needed to go to graduate school. UCLA came out on top because I wanted to study Nahuatl to do fieldwork with contemporary Aztecs, whose embroidery I had fallen in love with. This may seem a roundabout way to learn a language but you have enter one door or another.
The class was filled with serious people. One, in particular, was a professor, Dr. Lockhart, who wrote ethno-history and was deep into codices and all sorts of colonial Mexican research. Everyone loved going to class. I don't even remember if we took it for credit or not! It was a special time each week when we got to study together.
I was probably the youngest and least experienced in the class but my motivation was fun and alive. Dr. Bright let me know that he thought contemporary ethnography was still cool, even as other anthro types were beginning to think less of it. I recall taking him paliacates, Mexican bandanas, which come in great colors in additional to red. I think he liked them as his "dress-up" bandanas.
Anyhow, there is one day I shall never forget. Dr. Bright asked us to translate a series of sentences into Nahuatl. We went around the table reading them. Each student would comment or correct the other. Not a big deal.
When it was my turn, I read my sentences. Fine. Dr. Bright asked me to read them again, and I think a third time, too. No grammatical errors. What was the matter?
He said he was just listening carefully to figure out the "accent that I had in Nahuatl." It wasn't English, not Spanish, not French.
He was stumped. "Jill, I just can't figure out what your accent in Nahuatl is."
"Oh, Dr. Bright, it's easy. It's Yiddish."
The man went crazy with laughter!
Later, I did go on to do research in a Nahuatl-speaking village in highland Puebla, learned an enormous amount of Nahuatl, and thought of him often. It was exactly like knowing "Latin in Florence" because everything helped-- to the point that people in the village actually thought I understood them all the time! Hardly the case, but it was a real icebreaker and essential to the whole endeavor.
In the course of writing my dissertation, I was back at UCLA on several occasions and always had the good fortune to have lunch or a coffee with Dr. Bright. Moments to treasure, for sure. Yiddish was the key to a special communication as it has been for countless others.
For whatever comfort it may be to you, his teaching and spirit infused my years at UCLA with that real "joy of learning" that one hears about. As much as I went to school, college, grad school and thought I liked it, at UCLA, I loved it. Dr. Bright was so special to me. It's amazing how great a gal can feel when a prof asks her to have coffee one day. Simple but a giant memory.
Thank you for letting me tell you this story. In the never-too-late vein, I am reminded of the Hasidic saying: "When you say the name of a person who has died, the person comes to life for that moment."
Bill was a marvelous professor and inspiration to me. I am truly sad that he is no longer among the living but he is very much a part of wonderful memories of the joy of learning at UCLA.
All the best with fond memories,
My stepmother Lise and I were delighted to hear Jill Vexler’s stories and we both wrote her back.
I told Jill I remembered my dad's Nahuatl class because he said it was his favorite, the only class he looked forward to every week— during a time when he was seriously burnt out on university politics.
I told her he'd been wearing bandanas for as long as I could remember.
She replied to me again:
Wow; your response made my day, too! I mean, how many people took Nahuatl who wanted to speak it on the street?
I can't tell you have many times here in New York, by just sprinkling a few words of Nahuatl in my daily conversation, I've stopped people in their tracks. I mean, deer in headlights, stopped!
It isn't all that exotic, since the largest group of Mexicans to immigrate to NYC are from Puebla and Guerrero, both of which are states with large numbers of Nahuatl-speakers.
Mostly, it is their grandparents who speak the language, but many still speak a little and some are fluent.
I remember one night in a Belgian restaurant, I asked the waiter in Spanish for water. We chatted and he heard my Mexican accent. Something clicked when he said the name of his village, which I had been to, so I asked him in Nahuatl (also just called "Mexicano") if he spoke Mexicano.
Glad he wasn't carrying a tray of glasses! He was stunned and a huge grin spread across his face. Pity I didn't have more vocabulary at my fingertips but it was in the mid-70s that I did fieldwork in his region!
Nowadays I curate exhibitions related to the Holocaust and pre-war Jewish culture. That's the direction I took anthropology— museums, exhibitions, documentary films. I haven't done much work in Mexico or Latin America lately, but it is still the area I love. I'd rather go to Mexico and visit friends and keep learning. "Oaxaca to Poland" might sound pretty drastic but wonderful people and adventures are everywhere with the right head on your shoulders.
A lot of Poles migrated to Mexico in the '40s and it's a real kick to tell them I've been to their hometowns— the reverse of the NYC waiter!— like Sosnowiec!
All the best and thank you for letting me reminisce.
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