Mexicans Struggle to Preserve Indigenous Language Miles from Home

Story published for the Knight-CUNYJ fellowship program. 

Last winter, Ñani Migrante, a Mexican-American organization in Staten Island, held several workshops to teach Mixtec, the fourth largest indigenous community in Mexico. The goal was to preserve the language for native speakers and their children.

There are over 300 indigenous language variants in Mexico, and Mixtec is one of the most common. Still, it is in danger of extinction, according to the Mexican National Institute of Indigenous Languages, due to lack of educational resources and social interest in learning the language.

Mixtec people usually live in the southern Mexican states of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Puebla. The language changes from region to region. Today, four Mixtec variants are extinct, according to the institute.

Magnolia Ortega, 40, is one of the 12 people who attended the classes. Like most in the organization, she is from San Jeronimo de Xayacatlan, a town in the state of Puebla with a large Mixtec community.

Ortega says it was a struggle for other adult students to make it to class because they work long hours. Since she has been unemployed for the past two years, due to health issues, Ortega was able to attend every class.

There’s also a stigma associated with speaking the indigenous language, both in Mexico and the United States.

So, despite the efforts of Ñani Migrante and other organizations trying to preserve Mixtec, the reality is that native Mixtec speakers do not have the luxury of attending these classes, and, in some cases, are trying to forget the language.

Ortega says she hopes her daughter can keep Mixtec alive in Staten Island.

“[In Mexico], when we leave our town, we are seen as less and ignorant if we speak an indigenous language,” says Ortega. “In a way, it’s like racism.”

Ortega learned Mixtec from her mother as a child, but forgot most of the language when she moved to Mexico City in the early 90s and later to Staten Island, in 2003.

“Spanish and English replaced my [indigenous] language,” says Ortega in Spanish. “And not all of us have the capacity to remember everything in all languages. In my case, I can’t express myself [in Mixtec] anymore.”

She did not teach her three older daughters, ages 23, 20 and 19, Mixtec because she migrated with her husband when they where very young. Ortega says they also didn’t have time to learn the language because they had a two-hour bus ride each way to get to school every day. After school the three girls took care of the house since their mother was working.

At the Mixtec workshops, Marlene decorated her notebook with colors and Mixtec words.

When she moved to New York, Ortega says she also saw people in Staten Island discriminate against immigrants because they spoke an indigenous language. Ortega worked at a nail salon in Staten Island for 12 years. She says there were American clients that would insult her and her colleagues by yelling at them up when they spoke Mixtec.

“They would tell us to speak English because we are in America,” says Ortega.

Incidents like those are one of the factors why many parents don’t teach the language to their children, says Ortega.

“One has to wonder why we let society reject us,” she says. “But it’s because we allow them to do it.”

Even though Ortega’s older daughters living in Mexico don’t speak Mixtec, her 10-year-old daughter living with her in the U.S., Marlene Morales, is starting to learn a few words.

The two of them share a trilingual dictionary with words in Mixtec, Spanish and English. Marlene reads some words as Ortega stands next to her repeating the word in Mixtec and correcting her pronunciation. The dictionary is one of the tools they received at the Mixtec workshop.

The dictionary has words in Mixtec, Spanish and English.

For now, Ñani Migrante can’t offer more Mixtec workshops due to lack of financial resources and a space to meet. For all of the organization’s events, the money comes from the founders’ own pockets, and meetings are held in a member’s home or free public space around them. Many of the community members work long hours, six days a week, and cannot attend the classes—and sometimes, not even the meetings.

“Sometimes we have other priorities in order to survive that we don’t have time for that,” says Ortega.

Mano A Mano, another Mexican organization based in Harlem, also offered classes in Mixtec and Nahuatl, another popular indigenous language, from 2009 to 2011.

The group’s executive director, Juan Aguirre, says several students enrolled in the class, but they were mostly Americans and Europeans, not Mexicans of indigenous descent.

Mano A Mano’s organizers still struggled to convince Mexicans in New York City to attend them.

“If the community isn’t concerned about the language, it’s a lost battle,” says Aguirre.

Aguirre says many Mexicans did not show interest in preserving the language because they thought of it was essentially useless. If indigenous Mexicans did attend classes, it was to learn Spanish or English.

“They say those classes are more important because they need to learn a language that will be useful,” he says.

But Aguirre thinks the base of the problem is in Mexico. He says if people don’t change their attitude toward indigenous people there, it won’t change in the U.S. either.

Jose del Val, Cultural Diversity and Intercultural Director at the National Mexican University in Mexico, says Mexicans, even after the 1920 revolution, have always seen indigenous people as peasants. The government wanted all Mexicans to share one culture and language, making discrimination towards indigenous groups more acceptable.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that bilingual education, meaning Spanish and indigenous languages, was promoted in Mexico.

“The problem is that there’s no social space for indigenous languages to live in,” says del Val, via Skype.

He says that even with efforts to teach and preserve these languages, there need to be social places—like schools, plazas or jobs—that welcome the use of indigenous languages.

“They are encapsulating the languages at home,” says del Val. “People can only speak with their families, but once they go out on the street, their language is useless.”

Del Val says Mixtecs have been migrating across Mexico and the United States for the past 3,000 years and have managed to preserve their culture and language. Once Mixtecs generate basic resources and living standards, they will find a way to maintain their native language alive, says del Val.

“I think the language will survive,” says Ortega. “Especially nowadays with technology.”

“Vamos a Aprender Mixteco” is a new free app that teaches Mixtec.

Marlene says learning Mixtec is hard at first, but it gets better as she keeps learning.

Ñani Migrante promotes the app within its community as an easier option to learn the language. Ortega, who is part of the organization, asks people to remember to value their native culture as well as the new American culture.

“I invite people to not be scared of their roots, their birthplace or from who we were born from,” says Ortega. “We must not lose our native language or our culture.”

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