The Mexican state of Oaxaca is home to 16 different native languages, making it the most linguistically diverse state in Mexico. But many of these languages are fading out as new generations grow up learning and speaking only Spanish. Although attempts to reverse language loss can be an uphill battle, reporter Shannon Young visits one village tackling that challenge – attempting to re-learn their ancestors’ words.
San Pablo Macuiltianguis is a small Zapotec town in the northern mountains of the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Like in many towns in this region, the basketball court is the heart of the village.
[Zapotec language drills]
Overlooking the basketball court, on the second floor of the town hall building, around 20 boys and girls are reciting words in Zapotec – a language that most residents under the age of 35 do not speak.
[Kevin speaks, reporter translates over]
Nine year-old Kevin says he wants to learn Zapotec so that he can speak it when he’s a grandfather. Like many of these students, Kevin practices Zapotec with his grandparents. That’s because his parents never learned how to speak what was once the town’s primary language.
[Garcia Ruiz speaks, reporter translates over]
Grandmother Maura Garcia Ruiz blames the near-loss of the language in the span of a single generation on a Spanish-only campaign in the schools. She says when she was raising her children, teachers told her they wouldn’t learn well if they didn’t Spanish at home. People on the street reinforced the campaign by scolding her for speaking Zapotec to her children in public. Only the oldest 4 of her 10 children grew up bilingual. Eventually, Zapotec ceased to be the dominant language inside her home.
MAURA GARCIA RUIZ: “After a period of about 20 years we stopped speaking it because our kids didn’t understand. My youngest son speaks nothing of Zapotec. I’d try to mix in some phrases in Zapotec like ‘bring me that firewood’ or ‘pass me some water’ or something. ‘Speak to me right!’ my youngest would say. ‘I don’t understand you.’”
[Cruz Manzano speaking to students]
Professional linguists sometimes use lofty rhetoric to describe their reasons for documenting Mexico’s endangered languages. For Raquel Cruz Manzano, the teacher of the Zapotec language class in Macuiltianguis, the motivation is something more simple.
RAQUEL CRUZ MANZANO: It’s not the same as speaking in Spanish. There’s a richness in conversing in Zapotec – in telling an anecdote or a joke…or even a fantasy tale! Our grandparents past used a lot of fantasy precisely because they didn’t have an appliance like a television that they could turn on to ‘mediatize’ them.”
[Child reading story in Zapotec – fade under]
Cruz Manzano uses fantasy tales as a way to teach her students how to read and write in Zapotec.
This is an important detail because Zapotec – like most of Mexico’s native languages – does not have a practical alphabet. It’s a spoken language, not a written one.
Teacher Cruz Manzano is part of an effort to put Zapotec into writing. The task involves knocking on doors and speaking to elders to
recover words and get their opinion on how to write them. When there’s a significant disagreement over something like spelling, it’s put before a town hall vote. Cruz Manzano says she performs this unpaid work out of a sense of urgency.
RAQUEL CRUZ MANZANO: “If you don’t do something for your own townspeople, no one else is going to come from elsewhere to pick up the slack. It has to be us, the locals, who realize that our language has a cultural value that’s become scarce like gold or oil and we have to do something.”
Another factor contributing to the loss is the historic stigma attached to speaking a native language. Mexico’s indigenous people were pushed to the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder during colonial times and traces of this caste system still exist. Professor Andres Hernandez Cortes describes his own experience entering a Spanish-only elementary school.
ANDRES HERNANDEZ CORTES: “I suffered a lot of discrimination in the town where I went to school. I was made fun of for speaking a native language. My own teachers and my classmates made fun of me saying that my language wasn’t useful, that it was backwards, that it was a sign of ignorance and poverty.”
The town of Macuiltianguis has a high migration rate – and it might seem that would be another factor fueling the disappearance of Zapotec there – but teacher Raquel Cruz Manzano says migrants are among the most avid promoters of the language recuperation program.
RAQUEL CRUZ MANZANO: “We saw it in the response and the way in which we were received by our fellow townspeople who live in the United States. There was a lot of nostalgia because I think distance makes one appreciate certain things more. The same goes for those living in and near Mexico City. They also organized an event for the project and about 150 people showed up. And now, we’re very pleased to say, we have 2 community centers in Mexico City and the state of Mexico.”
Cruz Manzano has also sent teaching materials she authored to former residents of the town who have migrated to California and are passing on Zapotec to their US-born children.
[Kids reciting Zapotec drills – fade under]
But the type of progress evidenced in Macuiltianguis cannot be seen in Oaxaca City – the capitol of the Mexican state with the greatest diversity of native languages. The state university, the only school in the city that offered Zapotec classes, has since discontinued them.