Julia Jiménez, known as Luz Jiménez, was born into a Nahua family in Milpa Alta, Mexico in 1897. (Nahuas comprise the largest indigenous group in Mexico. The ancient Aztecs were of Nahua ethnicity.) She became an indigenous Mexican model for such famous artists as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, as well as a Nahuatl-language storyteller.
As a child, Luz loved listening to stories about her Aztec Nahuan ancestors, who were also known as the flower-song people. According to a history by Carlos Herrera Montero printed in The Sopris Sun, Carbondale, Colorado’s nonprofit weekly newspaper:
“The Nahuatl language did not have a specific word for poetry but it did have the concept, a metaphor, ‘flowers and songs’ to indicate poetry. This concept was key in their perception of the world and Aztec mythology. It was the search for truth, for God, for the answers to the compelling and ancestral questions of humankind. It was their philosophy and theology. Poetry came from the god Ometeotl, a dual god: the father and the mother, the convergence of masculine and feminine principles.”
Montero explains further that poetry played an important role in daily life:
“Among the Aztec, there was a special kind of priest responsible for calling the locals to gather in a place known as the House of Penance and Prayer, to learn the ‘flowers and songs’ well.”
[Many of these poetic works were destroyed by Hernán Cortés and his men when the Spanish invaded, however. ]
The author tells us that Luz listened to all the old stories and songs and wove them into her heart:
“Through them she tasted bitter sorrow – how the Nahua suffered – and sweet joy – how her people survived. Luz was a child of the flower-song people.”
The government decreed that Spanish should be the language of Mexico, and if students in school were caught wearing Nahua clothes or speaking Nahuatl, they were punished. Amescua writes: “The budding flower in Luz’s heart might have withered. But it did not.”
Instead, Luz got strength from the old Nahua stories, and wanted to protect their ways.
In 1916, the Mexican Revolution came to Milpa Alta. Most of the men, including Luz’s father, were massacred. Luz, her mother, and sisters fled to Mexico City in the night. They struggled to make ends meet until Luz won an indigenous beauty contest and began posing for artists at painting schools. She became the most well-known model in all of Mexico for the most prominent artists:
“The world recognized the beauty and strength of the native people after five hundred years of being in shadows. Through Luz, the world came to know ‘the spirit of Mexico.’”
After the Revolution, Luz returned to Milpa Alta and began teaching Nahua culture, leading anthropologists and artists on tours of her town. One of those anthropologist, also a professor, wrote down all Luz told him in her own language, Nahuatl. Luz became “a living link” to the Aztecs. The professor asked Luz to help him teach Nahuatl at the College of Mexico City.
At long last, the author concludes, Luz realized her dream of becoming a teacher and breathing life into the flower songs of the Nahua.
Back matter includes a timeline, glossary, notes, and bibliography.
Duncan Tonatiuh, who is an award-winning illustrator, creates gorgeous folkloric art work, inspired by Mixtec (native Mexican) codices from the 14th century. He juxtaposes the indigenous style with modern characters and settings. He also uses the pictures to enlarge upon the text. Because the illustrations also tell the story without words, they serves to extend the recommended age range of this book (age 6 and up).
Evaluation: Meticulous research enhanced by outstanding art will help children learn more about the important history of our nearest neighbor to the south.
Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2021