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Professor Takes Aztec Way of Life to Heart

January 14, 1988|ELIZABETH TURNER | Times Staff Writer

Fermin Herrera dashes an alphabet soup of letters onto the board, then slashes them apart, sending up little puffs of chalk dust.

He paces between glottal conglomerations such as Nezahualcoyotl and Moyocoyani, truncating reflexive suffixes and baring antepenultimate root words.

He easily reels out derivations, history, and linguistic anecdotes, drawing from the roots of Aztec, English, Spanish, Latin and Greek, until, finally, the baffling syllables yield their meaning and soft "ahs" of understanding rise from the class.

Herrera, an Oxnard resident who teaches at California State University, Northridge, is one of the few experts in North America on classical Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs and other native civilizations of central Mexico.

About 4 million of Mexico's 80 million people speak a simplified version of the language that has outlived these civilizations. The literature of those people, though, is far more obscure. Shelved in university archives or locked in museum cases, the poetry of the Aztecs is less familiar to native Nahuatl speakers than Beowulf is to the average American.

Still, Herrera draws a full house as he unveils the mysteries of Nahuatl. If the discipline seems obscure, it also is obvious; the 41-year-old professor does not hesitate to explain how Nahuatl gives focus to almost every facet of his life--from what he eats for breakfast to how he teaches.

Veracruz Harp

He credits Nahuatl with giving him the wherewithal at 25 to overcome a lifelong conviction that he was tone deaf and to go on to gain international recognition as a master of the Mexican folk instrument known as the Veracruz harp. He has performed in arenas as prestigious as Wolf Trap and played with recording stars Los Lobos in the movie "La Bamba."

Herrera also has a muscle magazine physique, the result of an irreproachable diet and a tough exercise program that is guided on an Aztec principle.

As if being a noted scholar, a virtuoso musician and a paragon of fitness were not enough, acquaintances say that Herrera is constantly helping others, giving his time to anyone who shows interest in his many areas of expertise, from linguistics to running. The habit, he says, stems from an Aztec concept of friendship.

Furthermore, many of his students say they've been spurred on to greater heights by the philosophy Herrera has drawn from those strange, glottal syllables of that nearly extinct tongue.

"Anybody who has ever gone through his unit on Nahuatl is more open, more willing to question, more willing to challenge, to probe, to be a true university student and seek for knowledge," said Jorge Garcia, a professor of Chicano studies at CSUN who studied the language with Herrera. "It opened up a whole new side of myself, made me reflect on what I'm doing, on what it means to be educated, what it means to be a teacher."

The Aztec influence on Herrera is not immediately apparent. His few replicas of pre-Columbian artifacts are stored in an Ethan Allan sort of curio cabinet that blends with the rest of the quiet furnishings in a ranch-style house in an Oxnard neighborhood. Less visual things, such as the Aztec and Mayan names of his five children, Xocoyotitzin, Motecuhzomah, Xilomen, Ixchel and Ixya, are testimony to his involvement in native Mexican culture.

Herrera's nearly six-foot frame is a solid mass of precisely chiseled muscle. Even in the animated pitch he reaches when he is energetically dissecting the names of Aztec deities, his speech maintains a measured, academic tone.

"It is thrilling for them to see the etymological connections," he said when asked why students are inspired by his class. "I find that, when I bring those out, there is a favorable reaction to it."

Deep Efforts

Those who know Herrera say they are impressed by the depth of effort he puts into every endeavor.

"When he has an interest, he will drill into it as far as he can get," said Al Torres, who was Herrera's basketball and football coach in junior high school and later studied Nahuatl with him. "He'll give you the European, the American and the Mexican view on any point. He knows the Iliad as well as some of the versos he plays on his harp." Herrera's odyssey into music is a case in point. It was launched as he was teaching the Aztec concept of the word teacher or tlamatini . The word literally means one who enables a person to develop a face and to give direction to his heart.

"In Nahuatl, heart literally means a person's movement, their potential," Herrera said. "Face is a metaphor for the specific direction, for the form they gave to that potential. If we have the potential to move hands, that is heart; if we learn how to play the piano that is face."

Practicing Aztec

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