When Speaking Your Language is Shameful: Thoughts From Mayan Mexico

by multilingualmania on October 17, 2010

in Bilingualism, Indigenous Languages

Mayan ChildrenOver the past year, I have lived in San Cristóbal de las Casas, a mountain town in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, where I work with indigenous women as an English teacher and theater facilitator. Since 1994, thousands of activists and scholars like me have flocked to Chiapas from all over the world, inspired and fascinated by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), a revolutionary group largely comprised of indigenous campesinos, who declared war against the Mexican government in 1994 in response to years of working class oppression. The EZLN’s outcry helped to draw global attention to the plight of indigenous Mexicans in Chiapas and its neighbor, Oaxaca, the two poorest states in the nation.

When I arrived in Chiapas, I spent months marveling at the beauty and complexity of local indigenous culture. I was so enchanted that I found it difficult to understand why so many Tzotziles and Tzeltales (the Mayan ethnic groups whose communities surround the city) replaced their gorgeous traditional dress with jeans and t-shirts and spoke mostly in Spanish instead of their native languages. I was baffled by the lengths that some of my indigenous friends would go to mask, even lie about, their roots. After all, didn’t the EZLN rise up to preserve and restore indigenous culture and autonomy? Why then were so many indigenous people fighting to hide their identity, instead of displaying it with pride? However, once I started to pick up on the heavy racism coming from my mestizo neighbors, I began to understand.

You see, there was a reason the EZLN was moved to fight. For over 500 years, indigenous peoples throughout the Americas have been silenced (both literally and figuratively) by an ever-evolving oppressor class that has worked hard to convince its native “subjects” that their culture and language is inferior. Linguistic assimilation, one of the colonizers’ earliest methods of conquest, has stood the test of time. Just as English-only advocates in the United States rage about how immigrants need to “learn the language,” many mestizo Chiapanecans grate at the sound of Tzotzil and Tzeltal in “their” cities. As a result, scores of young Tzotziles and Tzeltales have learned to speak Spanish in public in order to avoid the scorn and shame they have come to associate with their native tongue. In fact, nowadays, it is not uncommon to come upon indigenous Chiapanecans who resent their own culture and language as much as their racist mestizo neighbors.

For others, Spanish is synonymous with material success and end to suffering. The wealthy urbanites they are told they should emulate all speak Spanish. And there are few examples of Tzotziles or Tzeltales in the middle class who haven’t had to shed their traditional dress and “savage” tongues in order to get there. In her article, “Revitalising Indigenous Languages in Homogenising Times,” Teresa L. McCarty explains this phenomenon: “Social devaluation of one’s primary language and primary culture, indeed, fosters a complex of motivational factors transforming the target language and aspects of the dominant culture into highly prized objectives, often with the implicit goal of total assimilation.”

The solution to this problem is complex and unclear. Yet, I have taken a few notes from the indigenous playwrights and actresses of FOMMA (Fortaleza de la Mujer Maya or “Strength of the Mayan Woman”) with whom I work. Just as their ancestors found subtle ways to infuse Catholicism, the religion forced upon them by colonizers, with Mayan rituals and symbols, these women use the mestizo-approved mediums of poetry, prose, and theater to preserve and lift up their native languages. Motivated by the same urgency to defend their rights that fueled the EZLN nearly 17 years ago, a new wave of revolutionary Tzotziles and Tzeltales are taking up art as their arm, ready to defend their culture and language against extinction. Today, FOMMA’s award-winning poems, stories, and plays have been around the world and back. But more importantly, these Spanish/Tzotzil/Tzeltal hybrid works regularly make their way to nearby communities, delivering the powerful message that indigenous and mestizo languages can peacefully and beautifully co-exist.

Further Reading:
Holy Terrors: Latin American Women Perform
Language and Literacy Teaching for Indigenous Education: A Bilingual Approach
Our Word is Our Weapon

About the Author: Rachael Kay Albers is a freelance writer, English teacher, and theater facilitator working to educate and empower indigenous women in Central America. In her spare time, she loves to maintain and improve her bilingualism by reading novels and watching movies in Spanish.

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