Mexican women lead initiatives to rescue native tongues

The World
A teacher writes words from an indigenous language on a chalk board

When Gabriela Badillo traveled to Mérida, Yucatán, more than a decade ago, she encountered children who were timid about speaking the Mayan language. As she later came to understand, fear and discrimination were factors that affected the home teaching and use of the region’s native tongue.

“Children were a bit embarrassed to speak Mayan. ... Some mothers opted to not teach them the native tongue to avoid discrimination,” Badillo recalled.

Badillo leads a nonprofit multimedia project to promote Mexico’s 68 native tongues, work she first became interested in as a university student and that has now taken root as a 37-year-old professional graphic designer. “68 Voces” is a series of animated shorts that showcase myths, poems and oral traditions in each indigenous language.

The formal initiative began in 2013, inspired in part by the passing of one of Badillo's grandfathers, who was of Mayan descent. The event changed her way of thinking, motivating her to “have more consciousness of everything that a person entails, for one part the human being and for the other, all the traditions, culture and words that leave with that person or that are lost when one is gone.”

Under the premise, “No one can love what they don’t know,” the project has received help from several entities, including the National Institute of Indigenous Languages, INALI, to travel to specific indigenous communities and encourage youth to help design the short films.

This new phase, which began almost a year ago, quickly revealed the role women play in preserving indigenous languages. “It was very clear to see who were the ones around the children trying to instill in them the desire to learn about their native tongues,” "68 Voces" producer Brenda Orozco said.

According to a 2015 National Institute of Geography and Statistics survey, 25.6 percent of about 120 million Mexicans self-describe themselves as indigenous. Of these, about 7 million are speakers of a native language and, according to INALI, women represent 51.3 percent of this population.

In the northern highlands of Oaxaca, a southern state renowned for its rich cultural and indigenous heritage, teachers have opted to walk up to three hours to remote communities that buses don't serve to teach at a primary school. Romina is one of them. Unlike her male colleagues, she has chosen to teach half of the class in Spanish and the other half in Mixe.

This pedagogical effort is not rewarded by the salary, nor the long hours outside work that she uses to prepare the course. Like Romina, many other female teachers and mothers see a need to inculcate their children with the native language. For Romina, the satisfaction goes beyond what could stereotypically be described as a "maternal" exercise. It is linked to the pride she feels toward her roots and the desire for them not to fade away.

Language helps create identities and as such, she believes Mixe is just as important as Spanish to communicate knowledge.

You can find most spoken native tongues in Mexico's southern region — and that's where language preservation efforts are most common. Tongues like Nahuatl, Maya, Tzeltal, Mixtec, Tsotsil and Zapotec, all have roots in that region. To preserve these languages, organizers have created what are called language nest programs. This is a revitalization strategy used in New Zealand back in the 1980s and that entails a “total linguistic immersion” of kids from 0 to 6 years old.

In Mexico, indigenous communities in Oaxaca have been pioneers in the initiative and, according to a 2014 INALI report, this civic-led initiative has been used successfully in La Trinitaria, Chiapas and Tijuana.

In central and northern Mexico, home to large cities such as Mexico City, Monterrey and Guadalajara, however, thousands of indigenous families have faced racism and other discrimination if they used indigenous languages. Spanish is far more common.

The reasons for this can be traced back to Mexico's independence in the 19th century.

Oaxacan ethnographer Afonso Brevedades explained that early Mexican governments implemented education policies to create a more homogenous society. By choosing Spanish as a main language for administrative and educational purposes, anything indigenous-related was deemed as standing in the way of progress. As a way of survival, Brevedades says indigenous parents decided to stop teaching their children their mother tongues so they could have a better life and not feel embarrassed by their roots.

Badillo recounted a similar experience with her project. "We have gone to several communities with INALI’s support and found that most of those who speak the languages are grandparents or people over 70 years. They are part of generations that had these laws — 'You cannot speak in your mother tongue because it is wrong’ — because people will discriminate against you," she said.

New policies and cultural tourism in southern Mexico have elevated native cultures. Brevedades said current efforts are proof that "native tongues are not going to end. It will be possible for a language to die, but that doesn’t mean one stops being indigenous. It is in the language, customs, traditions, blood and traces where identity is transmitted, consciously and unconsciously.”

In four years, Gabriela's team has produced 20 of 68 animated shorts, and this year they expect to release 15 more, incorporating the first drawings made by children and teenagers in the indigenous communities they have visited. These videos are meant to spark curiosity in children, but it is left to parents, particularly mothers, to teach their kids the native tongue of their region.

Currently, only 6.5 percent of Mexico's population speaks an indigenous tongue.

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