The Shrinking Indigenous Mexican World

By: Daniel Nardini

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - Commentary Chances are no one has heard of the Zoque-Ayapaneco language. It is an indigenous language in Mexico that has been around for hundreds of years. But soon it will be extinct. Why? There are only two fluent native speakers left. The two native speakers, Isidro Velazquez and Manuel Segovia, are in their seventies. They have been unable to pass on the language of their ancestors, and when they die they will take the language of an indigenous Mexican group with them. Although these two men and their language have been preserved in a documentary, this will not save the language itself. Like so many languages not only in Mexico but also around the world, the Zoque-Ayapaneco language will have become extinct. What makes this particularly tragic is that this language is going extinct because the use of native Amerindian languages are being discouraged from being used even now.

One has to wonder why the Mexican government does not do more to protect the many indigenous languages this country has?! Mexico has an indigenous population of 16 million out of a total population of 100 million. Yet only half that number know their native language fluently. Sadly, many of these indigenous people are discriminated against not just because of their ethnic dress or their skin color but also because of the very language they use. Because of this so many indigenous Mexicans are still marginalized in their own country, and have few prospects for doing better economically or in their day-to-day standard of living. The result? Many younger indigenous Mexicans are abandoning the use of the languages of their ancestors. They fear that if they speak their native languages they will suffer from some form of discrimination. This can affect what they do from their workplace situation to selling their produce and even getting married. For too many indigenous Mexicans, being called an “Indian” is used as an insult in Mexican society.

This is why a growing number of indigenous Mexicans are reluctant to speak in the languages of the parents and their grandparents. But a great deal is being lost. A language is more than just a means of communication. A language is the conveyance of ideas, a way of thinking, a measure of what life means to those who use it, and the psychology of a people. A language is a window into a people’s religion, how their society operates, and how the family unit is structured. These things cannot so easily be conveyed in another language, and especially in another language that is different from the indigenous language of a people who are alien to that foreign language. Spanish is the official language of Mexico, but it cannot replace the languages of the many indigenous peoples whose own languages have been around for hundreds and even thousands of years. When so many more indigenous languages are gone, the indigenous peoples of Mexico will become even more strangers in their own land.

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