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My Jaguar: Nickname and Nahual

By Alexandra V. Mendez, Contributing Writer

Since before I can remember, my father has called me Puki. He always told me it meant jaguar. He said he looked at little baby me and it just came out: Puki. (There was also a period of time when he called me Piolín, Tweety Bird. Go figure.) I have a large t-shirt with an orange jaguar head in profile on the front, but I no longer wear it to sleep for fear that it might fall apart after all these years. Along the bottom it reads: “Ocelotl-Puki-Jaguar-Balam.” Jaguar makes sense; I recognize that word in Spanish and English. Ocelotl makes sense; hence ocelot, a word for another spotted big cat. Balam, too, rings a bell: the Books of Chilam Balam constitute a well-known set of Mayan religious works attributed to a jaguar-priest. But Puki? Where did that come from?

Puki, I decided, had to mean jaguar; otherwise my father’s name for me was nothing more than a misnomer, a mistake. Google search failed me at first; but eventually I found that Puki does mean jaguar in the language of the Purépechas, an indigenous people who live in what is now the state of Michoacán, México. In Pre-Columbian times, they were one of the few groups not devoured by the great Aztec empire.

It makes me happy to know that my dad’s nickname for me does indeed have a historical, almost primordial basis. I wasn’t exaggerating: I would have experienced a true crisis had it all turned out to be a hoax. It may seem little more than a simple pet name, but because my dad has called me Puki all my life the jaguar makes up part of the way I think about myself, part of the way I live my life. I like to pass unnoticed if I can, silently and lithely like a cat; but when I want something, I go for the kill. When I feel overwhelmed, I just remind myself to be a Puki—to watch attentively in the night, to step confidently and quietly.

Comforted by the assurance that I do on some level have a connection to the jaguar, I went to the third floor of the Peabody Museum to find a cat with whom to share the good news. In the “Encounters with the Americas” exhibit I stood under the watch of Mayan gods carved into the tall stone-carved stele that fill the room with their quiet majesty, and I found two black ceramic urns with lids topped by jaguar heads baring their teeth. Their eyes were upturned as if to defy whoever might handle them to remove the lids. Both urns were etched with intricate designs that showed up white against the black. I wasn’t tall enough to look down into their eyes and tell them we were related.

For Mesoamerican people living before the arrival of the Spanish, the jaguar was a great and divine animal, not least because of its fearsome physical powers. It was the only big cat that could also swim. High-ranking Aztec warriors wore jaguar skins as a sign of their status. The Olmecs considered themselves “People of the Jaguar”—that is, descendants of jaguars. The entrances of Pre-Hispanic temples are often carved to depict the mouths of jaguars, evoking the primordial cave of origins.

For many Mesoamericans the jaguar was more than just a symbol; it was the crux of their identities. According to many religions of the region, each person had a ‘nahual,’ a soul that was the consciousness’s other half. This nahual came in the form of an animal. In describing such a shamanic Mayan transformation, Antonio de Jesús Magril writes, “he saw that from his mouth came the tiger, or the lion, or the animal he wanted to become ... He could feel that his nahual was coming and understood that it was his soul” (my translation). This transformation and self-actualization is an image Isabel Allende exploited in her novel “La Ciudad de las Bestias” (The City of the Beasts), in which her character Alexander Cold transforms into a black jaguar, his nahual.

I would like to think that my nahual is a Puki. Perhaps it is a silly myth to hold on to; but, after all, it is a name I respond to. If my dad calls me “Alex,” I know something is wrong. If he calls me “Puki,” I know we are on good terms. I am following in the footsteps of the Purépechas, the people who call the jaguar Puki, the people who gave me my nahual, the people who refused to succumb to the Aztec empire and an imposed identity.

—Columnist Alexandra V. Mendez can be reached at

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