William Cameron Townsend
Stimulator of linguistic research among ethnic minorities and champion of their cultural dignity
Compiled by Calvin Hibbard
Establishing the work in Mexico
That autumn (1935) Townsend and his wife, Elvira, with several of the students went to Mexico to undertake their new work. The Townsends settled in a tiny Aztec (Náhuatl) village, a two-hour mountain drive from Mexico City. In addition to the enthusiastic support of Prof. Moisés Sáenz, Dr. Mariano Silva y Aceves, formerly Rector of the National University of Mexico and then Director of the Mexican Institute of Linguistic Investigation, encouraged Townsend in the academic phases of the program. The Secretary of Labor, Lic. Genaro Vásquez, intensely interested in a cultural program for the Indians, had his department publish Townsend's primers for teaching Aztecs to read.
The President of Mexico, General Lázaro Cárdenas, learned that the Townsends were living in an impoverished Aztec village and visited them there. He was curious about Townsend's linguistic efforts and the Náhuatl primers he had developed, but he was especially enthusiastic over the projects of practical help that the Townsends had already started. President Cárdenas quickly saw the need for adding this specialized help to the government's program of education in Indian areas. He invited Townsend to bring all the personnel he could to study the unwritten languages of Mexico and to teach the people following Townsend's practical patterns.
With this encouragement, the Townsends recruited more young people in the United States and returned to Mexico the following fall (1936) with a larger group of students. In pairs, the students scattered to isolated areas of Mexico to start the prodigious task of learning hitherto unwritten languages. Meanwhile, in the tiny Aztec village of Tetelcingo where the Townsends worked, the program of practical help was broadened to include planting an orange grove and adding women's sewing classes to the government's elementary school in the village. All was carried forward with the cooperation of Cárdenas-prompted government officials.
Townsend had a deep respect for the people among whom he worked in Latin America for over 60 years. He enjoyed being with them and listening to their opinions. Almost from the start he had friends from all strata of society: he knew 42 heads of state, scores of cabinet members, scientists, educators, wealthy, poor, Catholics, Evangelicals, Communists. He loved and sought to serve them all.
It was during one of the visits of President Cárdenas to their village that an Aztec said of Townsend, "He treats us just like he does the President. If President Cárdenas comes, he leaves his dinner to talk with him. If one of us comes, he leaves his dinner to talk with us, too."
Based on nearly 15 years of contact with President Cárdenas, Townsend
wrote a biography of this renowned statesman. He greatly admired the general
and reasoned that the story of his life would be an inspiration to many and
could promote understanding between nations. The biography was published in
1952. After Cárdenas' death in 1970, Townsend expanded his biography,
still the only full-length biography in English of this eminent Mexican leader.
President Ramon Magsaysay of the Philippines patterned his people-oriented
government on the principles which he found in the 1952 edition of the