These 7 Words Used By Chicanos Actually Come From Nahuatl

Titlahtoa in Mazewaltlahtolli? Do you speak Nawatl? If you grew up Chicano or Chicana, odds are that you use hundreds of words every day that are of Nawatl origin! Learn these 7 words used by Chicanos that actually are Nawatl -or Nahuatl- in origin.

A first version of this article was published in by Kurly Tlapoyawa

"A language that is alive is useful for those who speak it, and it has value in itself because it represents and expresses what we are, as people," according to INALI (Mexican National Institute For Indigenous Languages). "A language is useful for the mere fact that it works as a conduit to comprehend the world, think, and communicate."


Titlahtoa in Mazewaltlahtolli? Do you speak the Nawatl language? If you grew up Chicano or Chicana, odds are that you use hundreds of words every day that are of Nawatl origin! In fact, out of the 68 Indigenous languages that still exist in Mexico, Nawatl remains the most widely spoken with nearly 2 million native speakers. Sadly, 60% of them are endangered and could disappear soon.

Here are 7 words of Nawatl (or Nahuatl, which is another way of writing it) origin that are common in Chicano communities!


1. Jacalero

From Xakalli, hut. A person who lives in a hut. Often used to describe a transient or poor person.

2. Tlapaleria

From Tlapalli, paint. A small neighborhood hardware store.

3. Tocayo

From Tokaitl, name. Someone with the same name. A namesake.

4. Chueco

From Choko/Chiko. Lame in one foot. Used to describe something crooked or “messed up.”


5. Talache

From Talacha. A combination of Tlalli, earth and hacha, axe. A pickaxe.

6. Mitote

From Mitote, a ceremony. Used to describe people who gather and gossip. A snitch or busy body.

7. Cuate

From koatl, snake or “twin.” A good friend, or also, a fraternal twin

Many other words that are very common in English also have a Nahuatl origin, such as 'chocolate', which literally means "bitter water", from the natural bitter flavor of cocoa beans; "guacamole", from Nahuatl ahuacamolli (from ahuacal, meaning “avocado”, and molli, namely "sauce"), which became guacamole in Latin American Spanish; "coyote", one of the few animals whose English language name is taken from the Nahuatl word, the coyote was known as coyōtl. The popular Mexico City neighborhood Coyoacan -house of the famous Casa Azul that belonged to Frida Kahlo,  actually translates roughly to ‘place of the coyotes,' and "tomato.", the nahuatl word tomatl literally means "ball of water."


Kurly Tlapoyawa is an archaeologist, author, and ethnohistorian. His research focuses primarily on the interaction between Mesoamerica, Western Mexico, and the American Southwest. Kurly has lectured at UNLV, University of Houston, and Yale University on topics related to Mesoamerica. His book, “Our Slippery Earth: Nawa Philosophy in the Modern Age” was published in 2017. In addition to his work in Archaeology and Ethnohistory.

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