Two Czech researchers have been awarded the Order of the Aztec Eagle, the highest Mexican order: Oldřich Kašpar, a historian and ethnologist of the Faculty of Arts and Philosophy of the University of Pardubice, and Ludmila Holková, a researcher and teacher who has lived in Mexico since 1965. In the past, another fourteen Czech citizens had been awarded the order by the Mexican government.
Her Excellency Leonora Rueda, the Ambassador of Mexico to the Czech Republic awarded the order to them on Friday 20 July 2018 at the Embassy of the United Mexica States in Prague. The Order is the highest Mexican order awarded to foreigners for excellent services provided to the Mexican people and humanity as well as in exchange for foreign orders awarded to Mexican public officials.
“Professor Kašpar’s work contains information about the activities of Jesuit missionaries in northern Mexico where they worked with indigenous communities and created a valuable testimony about their culture,” said Her Excellency Leonora Rueda to emphasize the contribution of Professor Kašpar to Mexican culture.
Writer, researcher and traveler
Professor Kašpar has been awarded the order for his lifelong study of Mexican anthropology and history, and the promotion of Mexican culture in the Czech Republic. His research focuses on the history of the Caribbean from the pre-Columbian era until the 20th century. Between 2005 and 2007 he studied the Czech references in bibliographical collections in Mexico, Spain and Portugal.
He collects Mexican legends and verbal art, and participates in field research among indigenous populations. He has spent a lot of time with the indigenous peoples; he lived with them and wrote down storied they told him. He published his last book “The Red Sports Car and other Contemporary Mexican Legends and Stories” three years ago.
A self-taught Nahuatl speaker
During his acceptance speech Professor Kašpar said that his interest in Mexico had started during his studies of the history of the Ancient Rome when he got hold of a book about Mexican history by Carlo Coccioli, an Italian writer. He also added that he had learnt Nahuatl, known historically as Aztec, from a grammar book by Pedro Arenas published in 1612.
Researching Jesuits in Mexico
Professor Kašpar has published a number of monographs and studies about Mexico. His studies focus on Mexican culture, the Age of Discovery as well as the activities of the Jesuits in Mexico in the 17th century. Among other things, he has discovered many letters that the Czech Jesuits wrote to one another in Spanish.
In addition, Professor Kašpar has written fairy tales for children inspired by Mexico. He has been invited to a number of Mexican universities and has published widely in journals in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, Austria, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Russia, Mexico, Brazil, Cuba etc.
Organizing his Diaries
Professor Kašpar has translated Aztecan poems, myths and legends to Czech and Spanish and has prepared a number of plays, together with his students, which take the audience to the ancient civilizations of Latin America. Other material needs to be organized. “I kept a diary on all of my trips, and I have dozens of them. Finally, I have got to organizing them as well as the photos and videos,” says Professor Kašpar in admiration of Mexico, a country that he has visited every year since 1989.
An Award for Foreigners
Associate Professor Oldřich Kašpar has been awarded the highest Mexican order based on a decree signed by Enrique Peñafiela Nieto, President of the United Mexican States. The Order is awarded under a regulation of 13 September 1932 and may only be awarded to foreigners. Up to now, the Mexican government has awarded the Order of the Aztec Eagle to fourteen Czech or Czechoslovak citizens; the first one was awarded to Edvard Beneš in 1938 as an expression of Mexican solidarity with the Czechoslovak government after the Munich Treaty was signed.
A majority of the other laureates include former Czech ambassadors to Mexico who have been awarded the order for their activities for the benefit of Mexico. Foreigners who have also been awarded the order include Elisabeth II, the former Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, Gabriel García Marquéz, a Columbian writer, Plácido Domingo, a Spanish opera singer, Walt Disney, an American film-maker, and Bono, a singer of the Irish band U2.
Ethnologist Oldřich Kašpar: I learnt the language of the Aztecs from Historical Grammar Books
At the beginning Oldřich Kašpar was interested in Ancient Rome. However, he got The Heir of Montezuma for his 16 birthday and read it at one sitting. This sparked an interest in Mexico and its culture which has lasted until today. Professor Oldřich Kašpar fell in love with Mexico, which became his second home, as he puts it.
What plans did you have when you went to Mexico for the first time?
At the beginning, I did field research into the life of the indigenous people; I lived with them, took part in all of their activities, I even worked with them, and in the evenings I collected stories and legends, which were later published in the Czech Republic, Mexico, Germany and France.
Is it difficult to learn a language of indigenous people?
These languages are completely different from the European ones. I learnt both the classical and spoken Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. Ironically, when I was not able to travel in the past, I was learning the languages from historical grammar books of the 17th and 18 the century that were stored in our libraries. Today, children of the indigenous people help me learn the basics of other languages. I draw pictures for them – of horses, dogs, huts – and they shout the word for it, which I note down and later verify when talking to the adults. Children are great “teachers”. Otherwise, it is extremely difficult.
Not only did you live with the indigenous people. You also did research related to Czech-Mexican relations.
At the same time, I did research into the activities of Czech Jesuits in Mexico; there were 33 of them in Mexico in the 17th and 18th century and they left a significant mark there. I also focused on Czech-Mexican relations during the reign of Emperor Maximillian in the 19th century. During the Second World War, Mexico was the first country which did not recognize the Munich Treaty; when they learnt about the Lidice Massacre, they changed the name of one of the capital’s suburbs to San Geronímo de Lidice and many girls born at that time were called Lidice.
The credits for the Lidice movie show names of people who are called Lidice.
Recently, a meeting of them was held in Mexico. Quite logically, I have presented the results of this research at Czech and Slovak universities, but also abroad, including in Mexico and Spain.
Was there anything interesting that you encountered in the Mexican archives?
I mostly worked in the Mexican National Archive, in the archives of parishes and historical libraries, where I found books by Comenius or 18th century Jesuit prints from Prague. In the Czech Republic, I have found the grammar of Nahuatl from 1612 and much more.
Our interview is about Mexico. At the beginning, however, you wanted to study Ancient Rome.
My interest in Mexico was sparked by accident of a sort; I loved ancient Rome. But when I was 16, I got The Heir of Montezuma by Carlo Coccioli from one of my uncles. I read the book in one night and decided that I would study the history and culture of Mexico. I have not stopped doing so for nearly fifty years, despite many obstacles during the communist era.
You described your findings about Mexico in many books and published many papers both in the Czech Republic and abroad. What are your next plans?
I have written some 30 books. My papers on the topics that we have talked about have been published in many countries. There are hundreds of them. At the moment, another travelogue about Mexico is in print; I am also preparing rather non-traditional memoirs which will be called “People as Bees Kept Flying in my Mind Enriching it as They Could”.
This is rather an unusual title for a book.
It is a quote by Maxim Gorky, a Russian playwright, which I liked so much that I plan to use it as the title for my book, which will not be “typical” memoirs. Rather, it will be a story about how I met different people, how they influenced me and what direction they showed me.
Which place in Mexico do you like coming back to?
In fact, anywhere except for the capital. In contrast to the beautiful and diverse Mexican countryside, the capital is a great mess. I like to say that Ciudad de México is for cars, not for people. And I also like to say that it is the only place in the world where you see what you are inhaling. But you could say something about every single place.
What books about Mexico would you recommend to our readers?
The Buried Mirror by Carlos Fuentes is great. I will also have the cheek to suggest two books of mine: The History of Mexico and Journey through Magic Mexico.
Doc. PhDr. Oldřich Kašpar, CSc.
Professor Kašpar was born in Jestřebí, a little village at the foothills of the Jeseníky mountains. He graduated from a secondary comprehensive school in Zábřeh na Moravě where he received extensive French teaching. He went to study History and Czech Philology at the Faculty of Education of Palacký University Olomouc, but at the same time he studied at the Faculty of Arts of the same university where he was awarded the PhDr. degree in History in 1975. In 1980 he defended a dissertation at the Faculty of Arts of Charles University in Prague and was awarded the CSc. degree; the dissertation was published in 1983 under the title New World in Czech and European Literature in 16th to 19th centuries. In 1996 he was appointed Associate Professor at the Faculty of Arts of Charles University in Prague and four years later he was appointed Académico corresponsal of the Academia Mexicana de la Historia. Between 1974 and 2011 he worked at the Faculty of Arts of Charles University in Prague and since 2004 he has been employed as an associate professor at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the Faculty of Arts and Philosophy of the University of Pardubice. In May 2018 Professor Kašpar was appointed an honorary and visiting professor (professor honorario y visitante) at the Autonomous university of the State of Hidalgo (UAEH) in Pachuca, Mexico at a ceremony which he attended. He has given talks at universities in Slovenia, Poland, Cuba, Germany, Russia, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France or Mexico. He has published more than three dozens of books in Czech, French, German and Spanish and hundreds of papers and reviews. He is a collaborator of the Czech Radio, Czech Television, TV Nova and TV Noe.