Feature: Mexico's indigenous languages weakening with every generation

August 11, 2015 5:16 am 

MEXICO CITY, Aug. 10 — A harsh truth has emerged in Mexico. Young indigenous people who speak Spanish and cut ties with their roots stand a better chance at getting an education, landing a good job, accessing health services, and escaping poverty.

This is at odds with countries like Bolivia and Peru which have seen a swell of indigenous pride in recent years.

In Bolivia, starting Aug. 6, all officials must speak one of the country's several dozen indigenous languages or risk getting fired. Any young people desiring a career in the government must speak one such already or need not apply.

In June, Peru announced the result of a long study which saw 24 indigenous alphabets being recognized and protected. From now on, any government information sent to these communities must be written in the relevant alphabet as well as Spanish.

While having 14.9 percent of its population made up of indigenous people, Mexico has not emulated these track records. On the occasion of the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples on Aug. 9, the Mexican Senate's Belisario Dominguez Institute issued the latest statistics on the country's indigenous people Sunday, based on a national survey conducted in 2014.

The numbers in the Senate report make a stark truth abundantly clear: people who speak indigenous languages are at a massive disadvantage in almost every sphere of life.

Only 10.9 percent of those aged 20-24 who speak an indigenous language are enrolled in higher education as opposed to 23.9 percent of those who do not. And 14.2 percent of those speaking an indigenous language are illiterate, while 52.6 percent of indigenous children aged 3-5 do not go to school.

Naturally, a lower level of education, poorer access to health services and lower literacy rates lead to a severe consequence: a life of poverty. Some 41.9 percent of indigenous language speakers aged over eight receive some form of government assistance. Worse, 53.6 percent of all indigenous women depend on these programs, according to the Senate report.

It is therefore no surprise that many families leave their villages behind to seek their fortune in Mexico's big cities. Once there, even when surrounded by kinsmen, the old ways and languages are progressively forgotten. Kids born in Mexico City to indigenous parents may not even get a chance to learn Nahuatl or Otomi.

For Juana, an elderly Otomi artisan in Mexico City, both languages are equally important but her children do not speak Otomi as she saw no need for it as they grew up in Mexico City.

"Even back home in my community in Tlaxcala, few people speak Otomi anymore. It is common only among elderly people now. I hear it less and less every time I go back," she explained.

For Florencia Aparicio, a food seller in Mexico City's historic center, the cultural detachment from her own origins began when she moved to the capital almost 50 years ago. "I moved to Mexico City from my Mixteco community in Oaxaca to look for work," she said. She now speaks far better Spanish than Mixteco, and her children had no desire to learn Mixteco.

While such cultural detachment once far away from home is fairly commonplace, rarely is it more understandable than in Mexico. After all, as indicated in the Senate report,

However, despite such poor reception among the young, the major Mexican indigenous languages are not in immediate danger. In the latest population census of 2010, Nahuatl had 1.5 million speakers, Maya had 800,000 speakers in Mexico (6 million including Central America), Mixteco had 830,000 and even Otomi was spoken by over 250,000.

One of the main Mexican daily newspapers, La Jornada, is now published in Maya, while even Wikipedia has versions in Maya and Nahuatl.

These are not the languages that the government should be concerned about as 60 of Mexico's 143 indigenous languages are at risk of dying out. In April 2014, a report by Mexico's Center of Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology highlighted the danger. Even certain variations of Zapotec, the language group spoken by the mighty pre-Columbian civilization that once ruled in Oaxaca, are in serious trouble.

While the entire Zapotec language group had 450,000 speakers as of 2010, individual branches are rapidly vanishing. The Tlacolula Valley dialect of Zapotec had 29,000 speakers in the 1980s but today, this has dwindled to around 100 elderly people.

Thankfully, this community has benefited from a five-year project, sponsored by National Geographic, that built a talking dictionary for Tlacolula Valley Zapotec. K. David Harrison, leader of National Geographic's Enduring Voices Program, stated back in 2012 that "Mexico is indeed home to many endangered languages, but also to many language-revitalization efforts–for example, among the Zapotec and Chatino communities in Oaxaca, and the Seri."

"The Tlacolula Zapotec are a rural, agrarian community, but they are quickly crossing the digital divide, and eager to create digital tools and resources for their language," he added.

However, not every endangered indigenous language can count on such support. After all, the vast majority of government support is aimed at helping the larger communities, where more people are in need of social assistance and can have their voting allegiances swayed.

Lorena Vazquez, Country Director at The Hunger Project Mexico, an NGO working to eradicate world hunger, told Xinhua that " generally, all the information provided by local governments about their programs is written in Spanish." According to her, this puts indigenous people at even more of a disadvantage if they do not speak Spanish.

"Even if some speak Spanish, many cannot read it," added Vazquez. "Certain local governments are beginning to translate documents but more translators are needed."

This is a particular tragedy as not understanding official documents means that indigenous communities cannot begin to know, exercise or demand their rights.

For Laura Bensasson, a researcher at the Center for Research and Teaching in Humanities of Morelos (CIDHEM), this situation was exacerbated due to a longstanding discrimination against indigenous languages within the Mexican educational system.

According to her, the Mexican governments following the Revolution used the school system to "Mexicanize" the indigenous people, "adapting the school to the Indian" until indigenous academics and teachers questioned the system and demanded bilingual education.

Bilingual education may well be the way forward. However, with 14 percent of indigenous language speakers not being able to speak Spanish, the government must find a way to remove the daily barriers they face to enjoy the rights Spanish-speakers take for granted. (PNA/Xinhua)



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