Nahua family in Sonsonate, El Salvador.
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Western and central El Salvador
 El SalvadorEstimated 12,000[1]
Nawat (Nahuat), Salvadoran Spanish
Christianity (Predominantly Roman Catholic) and Traditional Indigenous Customs
Related ethnic groups
Nahuas, Nicarao people, Lenca

The Nahua (academically referred to as Pipil) are an Indigenous group of Mesoamerican people inhabiting the western and central areas of present-day El Salvador. They speak the Nawat language, which belongs to the Nahuan language branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family. There are very few speakers of the language left, which is a reason for the current efforts being made to revitalize it.

Nahua cosmology is related to that of the Toltec, Maya and Lenca.[2]

Language, etymology, and synonymy

The seal of Kuskatan based on the "Lienzo de Tlaxcala" with the symbol of an altepetl

The term Nahua is a cultural and ethnic term used for Nahuan-speaking groups. Though they are Nahua, the term Pipil is the term that is most commonly encountered in anthropological and linguistic literature. This exonym derives from the closely related Nahuatl word pil (meaning "boy"). The term Pipil has often been explained as originating as a derogatory reference made by the Aztecs, who presumably regarded the Nawat language as a childish version of their own language, Nahuatl. However, the Nahuas do not refer to themselves as Pipil.

Archaeologist William Fowler notes that the term Pipil can be translated as "noble" and surmises that the invading Spanish and their Indian auxiliaries, the Tlaxcala, used the name as a reference to the population's elite, known as the Pipiltin. The Pipiltin were land owners and composed a sovereign society state during the Toltec expansion.

For most authors, the term Pipil or Nawat (Nahuat) is used to refer to the language in Central America only (i.e., excluding Mexico). However, the term (along with the synonymous Eastern Nahuatl) has also been used to refer to Nahuan language varieties in the southern Mexican states of Veracruz, Tabasco, and Chiapas, that, like the Nawat in El Salvador, have reduced the earlier /tl/ sound to a /t/. The varieties spoken in these three areas do share greater similarities with Nawat than the other Nahuan varieties do, which suggests a closer connection; however, Campbell (1985) considers Nawat distinct enough to be a language separate from the Nahuan branch, thus rejecting an Eastern Nahuatl subgrouping that includes Nawat.

See also: Nahuatl

Dialects of Nawat include the following:[3]

Today, Nawat is seldom used by the general population. It is mostly used in rural areas, mostly as phrases sustained in households, such as in the Sonsonate and Ahuachapán[citation needed] departments. Cuisnahuat and Santo Domingo de Guzmán have the highest concentration of Nawat speakers. Campbell's 1985 estimate (fieldwork 1970-1976) was 200 remaining speakers although as many as 2000 speakers have been recorded in official Mexican reports.[citation needed] Gordon (2005) reports only 20 speakers (from 1987). The exact number of Native Nawat speakers is difficult to determine because many speakers have wished to remain unidentified, this is due to historic government repression of Indigenous Salvadorans. The most known example of this being La Matanza ("The Massacre") of 1932, where an estimated 40,000 Indigenous Salvadorans were executed by the government. This event caused many Indigenous Salvadorans who survived to stop passing on their Native language, traditions, and other cultural practices to their descendants. Many also stopped wearing traditional Indigenous clothing out of fear.


Map of El Salvador's Indigenous Peoples at the time of the Spanish conquest: 1. Pipil (Nahua), 2. Lenca, 3. Kakawira o Cacaopera, 4. Xinca, 5. Maya Ch'orti' people, 6. Maya Poqomam people, 7. Mangue o Chorotega.

Indigenous accounts recorded by Spanish chronicler Gonzalo Francisco de Oviedo suggest that the Nahuas of El Salvador migrated from present-day Mexico to their current locations beginning around the 8th century A.D. As they settled in the area, they founded the city-state of Kūskatan, which was already home to various groups including the Lenca, Xinca, Ch'orti', and Poqomam.

The Nahuas, a cohesive group sharing a central Mexican culture, are said to have migrated to Central America during the Late Classic and Early Postclassic period. Archaeological research suggests these migrants were ethnically and culturally related to the Toltecs.

The Nahuas organized the confederacy, Kūskatan, with at least two centralized city-states that may have been subdivided into smaller principalities. They were also competent workers in cotton textiles and developed a wide-ranging trade network for woven goods as well as agricultural products. Their cultivation of cacao, centered in the Izalco area and involving a vast and sophisticated irrigation system, was especially lucrative, and trade reached as far north as Teotihuacan and south to Costa Rica.[4][citation needed]

When their presence was documented by the Spanish in the 16th century, they were identified as "Pipil" and located in the present areas of western El Salvador, as well as south-eastern Guatemala.[4] Poqomam Maya settlements were interspersed around the area of Chalchuapa.

Some urban centers developed into present-day cities, such as Sonsonate and Ahuachapán. Ruins in Aguilares and those close to the Guazapa volcano are considered to have been Nahua establishments.

Spanish conquest

See also: Spanish conquest of Guatemala, Spanish conquest of El Salvador, and Spanish conquest of Nicaragua

In the early 16th century, the Spanish conquistadores ventured into Central America from Mexico, then known as the Spanish colony of New Spain. After subduing the highland Mayan city-states through battle and cooptation, the Spanish sought to extend their dominion to the lower pacific region of the Nahua, then dominated by the powerful city-state of Cuscatlán. Pedro de Alvarado, a lieutenant of Hernán Cortés, led the first Spanish invasion in June 1524. He was accompanied by thousands of Tlaxcala and Cakchiquel allies, who had long been rivals of Cuzcatlan for control over their wealthy cacao-producing region. The Nahua warriors met the Spanish forces in two major open battles that send the Spanish army retreating back to Guatemala. The Spaniards eventually returned with reinforcements. The surviving Cuscatlán forces retreated into the mountains, where they sustained a guerrilla war against the allies of the Spanish, who had occupied the city of Cuscatlán. Unable to defeat this resistance, and with Alvarado nursing a painful leg wound from an arrow in the first battle in Acajutla beach, Diego de Alvarado was forced to lead the rest of the conquest. Two subsequent Spanish expeditions were required to achieve the complete defeat of Cuzcatan, in 1525 and again in 1528.[5]

According to legend, a Nahua Cacique or Lord named Atlácatl and Lord Atunal Tut led the Pipil forces against first contact with the Spanish, the most famous battle being the Battle of Acajutla led by Atunal. The Annals of the Cakchiquels mentions the name "Pan Atacat" (water men), in reference to coastal Nahuas (this may have been a title for war chiefs or coastal warriors).[citation needed]

After the Spanish victory, the Nahuas of Kuskatan became vassals of the Spanish Crown and were no longer referred to as Pipiles by the Spanish but simply indios (Indians), in accordance with the Vatican "Discovery doctrine". The term Pipil has therefore remained associated, in mainstream Salvadoran rhetoric, with the pre-conquest indigenous culture. Today it is used by scholars to distinguish the indigenous population in El Salvador from other Nahua-speaking groups (e.g., in Nicaragua). However, neither the self-identified indigenous population nor its political movement, which has revived in recent decades, uses the term "pipil" to describe themselves but instead uses terms such as "Nawataketza" (a speaker of Nawat) or simply "indígenas" (indigenous).

Modern Nahua Culture

Popular accounts of the Nahuas have had a strong influence on the national oral histories of El Salvador, with a large portion of the population claiming ancestry from the Pipil and other groups. Some 86% of today's Salvadorans self-report as Mestizos (people of mixed Amerindian and European descent). A small percentage (estimated by the government at 1 percent, by UNESCO at 2 percent, and by scholars at between 2 and 4 percent) is of solely or nearly solely Indigenous ancestry, although the numbers are disputed for political reasons. There are still Natives who speak Nawat (Nahuat) and follow traditional ways of life. They live mainly in the northwestern highlands near the Guatemalan border, but numerous self-identified Indigenous populations live in other areas, such as the Nonualcos south of the capital and the Lenca in the east.

According to a special report in El Diario de Hoy, due to preservation and revitalization efforts of various non-profit organizations in conjunction with several universities, combined with a post-civil war resurgence of Nahua identity in the country of El Salvador, the number of Nawat speakers rose from 200 in the 1980s to 3,000 speakers in 2009. The vast majority of these speakers are young people, a fact that may allow the language to be pulled from the brink of extinction.[6] Nawat (Nahuat) language revitalization efforts are currently being made today, in and outside of El Salvador.

There is also a renewed interest in the preservation of traditional Indigenous customs and other Indigenous cultural practices, as well as a greater willingness by Indigenous Salvadoran communities to perform their ceremonies in public, and to wear traditional Indigenous clothing without fear of government repression.

Notable Nahuas of El Salvador

See also


  1. ^ "Pipil in El Salvador".
  2. ^ Boland, Roy (17 October 2017). Culture and Customs of El Salvador. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 9780313306204. Retrieved 17 October 2017 – via Google Books.
  3. ^ Cambell, Lyle (1985). The Pipil Language of El Salvador. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co. p. 15. Retrieved 14 September 2022.
  4. ^ a b Fowler, William R. (1989). The cultural evolution of ancient Nahua civilizations : the Pipil-Nicarao of Central America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-2197-1. OCLC 19130791.
  5. ^ Fuentes y Guzmán, Francisco Antonio de (1967) [1951]. Recordación florida : discurso historial, demostración material, militar y política del reyno de Goathemala : libros primero, segundo y tercero de la primera parte de la obra. Editorial "José de Pineda Ibarra". OCLC 948355675.
  6. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-09-28. Retrieved 2012-09-30.((cite web)): CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  7. ^ "Anastacio Aquino".


Further reading