Social Issues

Schools, communities in western Mexico fight to preserve indigenous languages

By Mariana Gonzalez-Marquez

Guadalajara, Mexico, Feb 21 (EFE).- Communities and schools in western Mexico are acting on multiple fronts to preserve the country’s 68 surviving indigenous languages and thereby promote linguistic and cultural diversity.

In doing so, they are showing their ongoing commitment to the values highlighted on International Mother Language Day, a worldwide observance held annually on Feb. 21.

Among these efforts, members of indigenous communities, cultural centers and universities are offering courses and striving to promote the inclusion of indigenous languages in the public education curriculum.

Three times a year, groups of indigenous communities in Mexico also organize the Festival of Indigenous Peoples in Guadalajara, where they offer workshops that provide an introduction to the Otomi, Huichol, Zapotec and Mixtec languages.

Using storytelling and games such as bingo, they introduce people to aspects of indigenous peoples’ languages and cosmovisions, disseminating the cultural wealth of those communities while also combating discrimination, Juana Facundo, a woman of Otomi heritage who is one of the promoters of these workshops, told Efe.

“If the society highly values foreign languages, we also want that same value given to indigenous languages. That’s why we give these workshops, so people become aware of these languages and learn about their own country,” she said.

Marciano Acevedo, a member of the Mixtec community in Oaxaca, told Efe that these learning spaces provide an initial “push” that encourages people to learn a native language.

“We want to bring visibility to the cultures of indigenous peoples, raise awareness among the local society and among foreigners, so that together we can all strengthen and disseminate our cultural diversity,” he said.

Mexico’s government recognizes 68 indigenous languages spoken by nearly 7 million people, with the Nahuatl and Mayan language groups boasting the largest number of speakers.

Valeria Iñiguez began studying Nahuatl at the School of the Arts in the state of Jalisco to learn more about the history of that Mexican indigenous group.

She told Efe that it has been more difficult for her to learn that language than other ones she has studied but that the process has been enriching because it helps her to understand how indigenous communities see the world.

“I did have to do some introspective work to understand how these languages arise and how they give shape to the culture itself and the social dynamics,” Iñiguez said.

Another participant in that same course, Pablo Morales, is a psychologist who researches the family dynamics of Mesoamerican communities.

“Mexico has had its historical heritage stripped away through this disconnection with its (indigenous) languages, and a way to recover our identity is to start speaking them. Before, we were looking to forget all about them and now we’re encouraging (people to learn them),” he said.

German Miranda Garcia, a Nahuatl teacher at Jalisco’s School of the Arts, has been speaking that language for more than 30 years.

In an interview with Efe, he lamented that more emphasis is given to foreign languages than indigenous tongues in formal education settings in Mexico.

“You’d have to start by teaching Nahuatl in teacher training schools, so the teachers come out bilingual, and then teach classes at the elementary level,” Miranda said.

But “there’s no one to teach,” he said. “Unfortunately, many of the indigenous groups speak the language, but they don’t read it and don’t write it. They don’t know the structured grammar.”

Esther Villaseñor, language coordinator at ITESO, a Jesuit university in Jalisco, said for her part that her institution, in addition to indigenous language courses, also offers programs that allow students to visit native communities.

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