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Interview on the Nahua Philosophy of Teaching and Learning: A Kalpulli to Kalpulli Cross-Border Cultural Revitalization Project

By Sandra M. Gonzales and Luis Rodriguez Cedillo


In this interview, Dr. Sandra Gonzales, from Kalpulli Tecpatl in Flint, Michigan, interviews Maestro Luis Rodriguez Cedillo, from Kalpulli Izkalli in Mexico City, Mexico, to better understand Mexika philosophy and values with regard to teaching and learning. Using Miguel León Portilla’s book, Aztec Thought and Culture (1990) as a starting point, they compare pre-contact Mexika forms of education with the policies and practices used in Westernized schools today. They note paradigm differences in the intention and purpose of schooling as well as differences in how knowledge is both constructed and validated.

About Maestro Luis and Kalpulli Izkalli

Maestro Luis Rodriguez Cedillo is a Mexika elder born and raised in Mexico City. He lived among the Nahua people in the mountains of the Mexican state of Guerrero, in a place known as Alta Mirano. Rodriguez’s Nahua teachers called him “Huemak”, which means “the person who can bring things from far to close” (to reach others). He also studied with Maestro Tlakaelel, a Mexika-Tolteka elder, who introduced him to Mayan elder and scholar, Domingo Martinez Paredes. He was given the Mayan name “Nek ik Ayax”, which means “the person with green eyes” (because green represents the life of the culture). He considers his most important teacher to be Genaro Gonzalez Urbina, a Mixtek elder.

Maestro Luis has dedicated his life to the preservation and revitalization of Indigenous Mexican ceremonial tradition and language. He is the lead elder of Kalpulli Izkalli, which is located in Mexico City. Kalpulli Izkalli is a longhouse or place where the community comes together to prepare themselves by studying ancient culture and learning ancient songs and ceremonies, such as participating in the temazcal, or sweatlodge, and the Sundance/Danza del Sol and Moon Dance/Danza de La Luna. The Kalpulli is focused on cultural revitalization by studying history, philosophy and science so that the ancient traditions are not lost. The members who participate with the Kalpulli share knowledge collectively with other Kalpullis and, indeed, all people who seek more information about their cultural roots or ancient Mexika cultural traditions.

About Sandra Gonzales and Kalpulli Tecpatl

Sandra Gonzales was born and raised in the three fires territory of Detroit, Michigan. Her mother is from Monterrey, Mexico and her father from San Antonio, Texas. She is an Assistant Professor of Bilingual Education at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. She has participated with Kalpulli Tecpatl since 2007, which has deepened her awareness of her own Indigenous Mexican identity and ways of knowing, a process she shares through her teaching and scholarship.

Kalpulli Tecpatl is a Mexika ceremonial community based out of Flint, Michigan. The mission is to recover, preserve, and protect sacred ancestral songs, dance, and ceremonial traditions with a special emphasis on the revitalization of Nahuatl language and philosophy.  By increasing access to ceremonial teachings, the group seeks to reconnect people to their ancestral roots and offer a foundation through which to live Indigenous philosophies in the present.

Kalpulli Tecpatl means community of the obsidian knife. The obsidian knife symbolizes one’s need to “cut through the darkness.”  This theme is a critical aspect of cultural revitalization as the Indigenous cultural legacy has largely functioned underground. The mission is to bring ancestral traditions into the light so that today’s gente have access and the power to reclaim. Abuela Celia Perez-Booth is the group’s leader. The group has a wide range of programming that includes Aztec dancing, ceremonial drumming, youth programming at local schools and community agencies, a regular calendar of teaching circles and ceremonies such as the sweat lodge, vision quest, Sundance/Danza del Sol and Moondance/Danza de la Luna.

Sandra first met Abuela Celia in 2004 at a lecture hosted by Eastern Michigan University. She was later invited to a sweatlodge ceremony with Abuela Celia and Maestro Luis in Williamston, Michigan and has been on the red road ever since, traveling to and from Mexico City to help bring ancestral knowledge back to the Mexika Detroit community and schools.


Sandra: What does it mean to be Mexika?

Maestro Luis: At first, I considered myself Mexika, but my teachers taught me that, as Indigenous people, we are all the same essence and that we share the same philosophical concepts. If pushed to identify, I will identify as a Mexika, but I must caution that these are only labels assigned by our conquerors. Prior to this, how Indigenous people identified was not the same. People identified with the earth, not with a nation as we do today. However, I recognize that in the Western system, how we identify is very important. In reality, I consider myself Anahuakan, “someone from the confederation.” For me, this is a more complete concept. My teachers tell me that I am Toltek, this means someone who has the knowledge from all the groups, but there is so much to learn, and so I don’t feel I am a Toltek yet.

There is much confusion about the word “Toltek.” To understand Toltek we must understand the meaning of the word “Tule,” which is a plant that grows in the shallow water. It is like a long grass, maybe ten feet tall. With Tule, or the long grass, they make petatl, a woven mat. In any ceremony, we always have this petatl or mat. The petatl represents the society where the people are interconnected like the fibers of the mat. Any time you see this mat represented (for example, in the codex) it reminds us that we are like the Tule. We each have a responsibility to come together, like each blade of grass, to create and sustain our culture, our society. Leaders are usually represented as sitting on a chair made with petatl because they are being supported by the people. Some leaders were recognized as Toltek, not because they were from Tula, as many scholars might say, but because they have the responsibility and the knowledge to bring people together to create and sustain culture, like each blade of grass comes together to make the petatl.

Actually, we must also clarify the idea of Tula. There were many Tulas, such as Cholula and Chichenitza. Teotihuacan was not one nation but several nations living in the same place, so there were areas for each nation. There was no Teotihuacan people. It was more a confederation of nations. We don’t talk about these things anymore, and so we don’t understand fully about how we identified prior to conquest. Because it is so complex and different from what we know today, I must use the labels we have now to identify myself.

Sandra: You suggested that I read Miguel León Portilla’s (1990) Aztec Thought and Culture, and I am about midway through. Can you tell me a little bit more about the concept of Tezkatlipoka?

Maestro Luis: Tezkatlipoka is a deep and philosophical concept in our tradition. For me, it is the deepest. In our tradition, Tezkatlipoka represents our mind. Teztkatl means “mirror”, pokatl means “smoke”, and tli means “many/a lot/much”. It is how we understand the things in our life and in the universe.

For us, all the objects we see, we see them through our mirror. And the smoke represents the process we use to understand that thing. So, everything that exists is not the real thing but rather our interpretation of that thing. This is important because it represents the concept of ego, but also the mind and the related processes. For example, it represents your conscience, your subconscious, and your unconscious. Every single thing must be translated by my mind so everything is the reflection of something that is interpreted by my own understandings of life. This understanding is reflected in the mirror, and the smoke is our thoughts.

There are two different areas of knowledge about Tezkatlipoka. The Red Tezkatlipoka is related to language, to the traditions, to society, to our ethics, to our morality, and to our people. For example, society was created for the people, but it was the creativity of the people that made civilization unique. At one time, there was an accord established among the people: a common vision about our culture or society which was different from other cultures and societies. For example, the idea of hell—we do not have this concept—nor the idea of heaven, in all Indigenous traditions from the north to the south. So, when the Europeans came they brought the concept of hell, but it did not figure in to our way of thinking. When the Europeans tried to tell us that Tamoanchan—which means a state of mind where there is no excess and also no lack, you are in a state of perfect equilibrium–the Europeans misunderstood this to be the same as heaven. Later they tried to make us believe it was heaven.

The same with the Virgin of Guadalupe. For us, the Virgin is not Tonantzin Tlalli, because for us Tonantzin Tlalli means “Mother Earth”. But now, most of the people believe Tonantzin Tlalli means the Virgen de Guadalupe, but it’s not true. This is how different societies have different ideas about the universe, about life, about the people.  All these ideas are encompassed by the concept of Tezkatlipoka Red.

Tezkatlipoka Black is another concept. It is our mind, our thoughts, psychology, the philosophy. For example, the idea I have of myself is created by my own mirror which is Tezkatlipoka Black. If you have psychological problems from the past, this could help you find yourself. In our ceremonies, we are to come together with all the elements and the people. This both influences who we are and at the same time, this exists within each of us.

Sandra: The western model is a model of dominion. In this model, the world does not exist within us; but, rather, we exist to dominate the earth and all of its elements or resources.

Maestro Luis: For us, this is a model of sickness: when you try to dominate the world, the earth, this is a sickness. Even the fly is important.

Sandra: How does this relate back to the Tlamatini (Tlamatini is singular. Tlamatinime is plural.) or the teacher, that was mentioned by Portillo (1990)?

Maestro Luis: The Tlamatini tries to help you find your face. For us, your face is your personality. But, not only your personality, it is what you are. It asks, “Do you understand what you are?” And, in the end, it helps us to find our destiny.

Sandra: Could the Tlamatini be aligned with our current understanding of the teacher?

Maestro Luis: Yes, but it is more than a teacher: it is the wise ones. For us, the wise ones mean the people who give/share the knowledge. There are many kinds of Tlamatinime (plural), or wise ones, not just one in specific. One of them was in charge of the ceremony; one was in charge of the destinies; one of the psychology, the philosophy.

Sandra: Was the responsibility of the Tlamatini to teach in all of these areas?

Maestro Luis: Yes, they would teach a certain kind of knowledge.

Sandra: How are they related?

Maestro Luis: Tezkatlipoka is not a god; it is a concept, or an energy, that exists in all of us. We all have thoughts; we have our conscious and subconscious; we have our ideas of culture; and, so, Tezkatlipoka does not exist outside from us—it is in us.

I want to tell you something about Tezkatlipoka Black that is important in our traditions. It is called Nekok Yaotl. The scholars translate this to mean “the enemy of ourselves,” which is ourselves. We are our worst enemy. When the Spanish priests knew about Tezkatlipoka, they were really terrified, because this devil knows everything and makes an enemy of ourselves. From this mentality, it is like Satan. They believed Tezkatlipoka was the worst; to them, it represented Satan. But, for us, this represents an internal dialogue from which we make decisions. Sometimes it is complicated. Sometimes you are lost. But even when we are not making decisions, this internal dialogue continues. These concepts are not bad or good—they simply are.

In our traditions, there is no evil or the dichotomy of good versus bad. For example, is the rain good or is the rain bad? If you are a farmer, you would say the rain is good. But if you are living in the city and you want to go out, you will say, “I don’t like rain.” This dichotomy does not exist in our traditions; instead we have the concept of balance. The concept of balance is called “kualli.” If something is good for you we say, “kualli.” But if it is not good for you, we say “amo kualli.” Amo means “no” and “kualli” is what gives you satisfaction. Maybe it does not bring you satisfaction, but this does not mean that it is bad. It means there is still the possibility for a lesson to be learned.

Sandra: Miguel León Portilla (1990) explained that the Tlamatini was the closest concept to the teacher. However, in the Mexika tradition, teaching begins by first learning about oneself; without knowing yourself you can’t understand anything.

Maestro Luis:  Yes, you must understand that you have a place in the whole . . . a place in everything.

Sandra:  The teacher in the Western model teaches about the colors, the numbers or math, how to write your name, etc.—

Maestro Luis: Yes, but never about yourself.

Sandra: Could it be argued that they teach discipline and manners, like raising your hand to speak and teaching children how to share?

Maestro Luis: When we teach about ourselves, we teach respect. Respect is related to the importance of all things, gratitude for all things, like the water, like wind, like the people, the elders, the food, the plants, the children. If you teach like this, the discipline you speak of comes naturally, because they have respect. If one elder is talking, the children will know that they will have the opportunity to talk after the elder gets done speaking, not because of a higher position or hierarchy. It is because they respect him/her, but also because the children love them. This goes both ways. There is always a time when the children must talk and the grown-ups must listen.

Sandra: Without raising your hand?

Maestro Luis: Yes, because we talk in a circle. When one finishes, another may begin, and you will see your time coming and you wait whether you are big or little. If you do this, you learn to respect everyone and everything.

Sandra:  You become more connected to each other?

Maestro Luis: Yes, you have the opportunity to hear everyone, to hear your teacher, to hear yourself.

Sandra:  So, do we have it all wrong?

Maestro Luis:  Well, according to Tezkatlipoka, there is no wrong or right. But, in my opinion it is wrong. This is not a contradiction: this is my point of view.

Sandra:  The difference is that, in the Western world, many believe that their opinion is right; whereas, you understand that your opinion is a matter of perspective?

Maestro Luis: Exactly, it’s up to you.

Sandra: You once told me that every ceremony is a school. What did you mean by this?

Maestro Luis: It is where you have a connection with the stars, the moon, the earth. When we have ceremony, we eat; or, when we sing, these ceremonies touch our spirit. When you are touched by the spirit, you realize about the importance of the water, of mother earth, of the wind, the elders, the women—these are the things that are important in our life.

When you don’t get the answers from a particular ceremony, this is when the role of the Tlamatini is important. They can show you the way, not just by talking, but through ceremony. This is why elders are so important in our tradition, because they give sense to our spirit, to our hearts, and they give us the mirror to see our real face. Sometimes when you are young and reckless, you don’t recognize yourself and you need others to help you see yourself. Those others are everyone else, because you learn from others—even from the little ones, even from a spider on the wall, you learn from everything. We are oriented towards collectivity, towards the universe. We are connected to all, to the whole, not a part, we are a family.

Sandra:  So are we all a Tlamatini sometimes? For example, maybe a child will be the one who holds the mirror up for you?

Maestro Luis: Exactly, we are all teachers, we are all students, even the spider. When we said about the wise ones—we all have wisdom, but that wisdom is not just a human definition of wisdom. The spider weaves its web, but how? Because the spider has wisdom. The spider itself doesn’t know about wisdom, but it has it. It is the same for all of us. Many believe they don’t know anything, but they do.

Sandra: In the Western world, we are taught that students don’t know anything and that is why they need to go to school. They learn from the one teacher. They, or I guess we, are taught that we mis-inform each other, and so we must turn to the books, to the scholars, for the “truth.”

Maestro Luis: What is the truth?  When we have keepers of the truth, it becomes dangerous.

Sandra: Why dangerous?

Maestro Luis: Because truth is a human fallacy. We don’t have truth—we have experience and what we think about that experience.

Sandra: What about 3+3=6 and for those who would say this is truth?

Maestro Luis: Well, quantum physics would say something different.

Sandra: It goes back to Tezkatlipoka?

Maestro Luis: Yes. We create our own ideas about everything. So, truth is real for them and only them.

Sandra: So, find our truth?

Maestro Luis: It’s not about finding a truth. It’s about being a spirit, being an essence that is everything. When you are in ceremony, and you don’t drink water for a while, the elders don’t do that to just push you to find your strength. They do that because they want that you to understand the importance of the water, the value of water. That value makes people understand the sacredness of things, because you realize that you are water, too.

It’s beyond the truth. It’s to be a part of the essence. When you understand that you are a part of the essence, all those concepts about what’s real or truth are useless. Humans fight about having the truth or not having the truth, but in the end it doesn’t matter. We are a part of Mother Earth; we are the sun; we are the water; we are the moon; we are the food we eat. When you have that essence, that emotion, you don’t need to argue with anyone because you have the confidence, not only in you, you have confidence in the whole. The whole for us is “Teotl” which means “the creation”. We are the creation.

Sandra: I notice that we still communicate in this manner—

Maestro Luis:  Yes, the teacher knows everything and the child knows nothing. So, they write down what the teacher says. Temachtiani in a simple version means “regular teacher,” a person close to the people, close to the children.

There are two different levels. With a teacher, you can share everything. The Temachtiani takes the children to the Milpa, and then he or she begins to explain how to plant—the process of nurturing the plants until harvest. The Tlamatini was the more philosophical, psychological information, like a deeper level of teaching, more philosophical in nature. The Temachtiani was the teacher of the more practical things of life like planting. When you were four years old, you would live with the Tlamatini until they realized the potential the kid has. Once they understood the child, they would introduce the child to the Temachtiani who might, depending on the disposition of the child, introduce them to the drum, for example.

When the child turned thirteen, he would return to the Tlamatini to learn a deeper understanding of the drum, the songs, the philosophy, etc. There were many schools. The Tepochkalli was a school for men and Ichpochkalli was for women. The Cuicacalli was a school not just for children or boys or girls or grown-ups but rather for song, poetry, wise words, hymns, oral tradition, myths, and our history. The Tlamatini was not the only teacher; for example, sounds can teach too – the sound of water when it is put on the red hot rocks, the sound of an insect, the breeze, the sunrise, when we can hear our mother earth, even when we hear the heartbeat of our loved one when they hold us. These sounds and ways of hearing are also our teachers. Another school was the Kalmekak; it was like the university. The teachers there were Tlamatinime (plural).

When you realize the capacity of a child, it is called “Pilli.” The Tlamatini was different from a Ph.D. professor. They did not only teach in the Kalmekak, which was a system for education. Every town did not have a Kalmekak, but every town had the “wise ones” or the tlamatinime.

Sandra: Was the Kalmekak a building, like the universities we have today?

Maestro Luis: The Kalmekak was like a line of houses. In each house, they teach something. They were not real construction, but places that represent something. For example, the Mixcoaccalli was the house of the mist, which represented the inspiration to create.

Sandra: They did not have like a Philosophy 101 between 3-4pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays?

Maestro Luis: No, the Tlamatini taught in a personal way. So, in one place, you would have different ages. The Temachtiani would teach the basics and then some would go on to study with the Tlamatini, but not all. It was not about who was smarter. Teaching was like being a part of a family: you must get to know the child.

Sandra: There is a scholar by the name of Angela Valenzuela (1999) who argues that Mexican students want stronger relationships with their teachers, maybe more like what you are describing? Maybe we carry that memory, that desire for relationship, inside of us?

Maestro Luis:  Yes. If you go to Chiapas or Oaxaca, the teachers will help the community with food to make sure the children have a meal. It doesn’t matter so much about the grades, because the children don’t have food or shoes, and these things must be attended to. Teachers must be good people. To us, this is more important than good grades.

Sandra: Some of our gente might argue that good grades equates to good money, a good career—

Maestro Luis: We are more concerned with having good persons. But, really, we need both. We need kids who are good people, but also well prepared for a career.

Sandra: If we were to develop a research study on this topic, what would be the purpose of the study? Exploring the aspects of Mexican Indigenous identity that still live on today in terms of teaching and learning?

Maestro Luis:  The purpose for me would be trying to keep alive some of these traditions, because we are losing our traditions: we are losing the teachings. People believe stereotypes about their own people and culture. They can learn and understand these values. We must take the responsibility to share these traditions, so others can learn and the teachings won’t disappear. We are missing the point of teaching and learning.  Maybe we are missing the point of life itself.

Sandra: Aho. Ometeotl.


Portillo, M. L. 1990. Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Valenzuela, A. 1999. Subtractive Schooling: U.S. Mexican Youth and the Politics of Caring. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.


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