Indigenous groups in the U.S. struggle to retain, and relearn, dying languages

Growing up in Oaxaca, a city located about 300 miles south of Mexico City, Arcenio and Noe Lopez’s parents tried to steer them away from using the indigenous Mixtec language. They wanted to spare them the sense of inferiority that traditionally came with being a Oaxacan.

But it wasn’t until the family moved to the U.S. that the brothers experienced outright discrimination from fellow Mexicans, which eventually motivated them to explore their roots.  

“I was called Oaxacito,” Arcenio said, recalling a term that means “little Oaxacan,” a reference to the smaller stature and darker complexion of the indigenous population, which along with other overtures inspired him to research his heritage. “Eventually I came to [realize] my language gives me my unique identity as an indigenous person,” he told Fox News Latino.

Now living in California and Texas, the Lopezes devote their time and energy to reversing a course of action played out for generations that has pushed languages like theirs close to extinction.

Noe and Arcenio represent a growing number of Latinos in the U.S. who are trying to retain their indigenous language even though it has forced them, they say, to endure discrimination.

“There’s this risk that many in the younger generations will lose their language because of racism,” Noe said, adding that indigenous speakers often feel their language limits their economic and social advancement. “It will cause them to speak it less because it makes them feel inferior.”

There are roughly 6,000 to 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, according to UNESCO. As globalization moves forward, half of them are predicted to vanish within a century, UNESCO says. Adults will continue picking up the most used language around the globe and children at school will transition away from the lesser used indigenous languages.

In the U.S., the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities give federal dollars to support documenting endangered languages – a total of about $4 million a year to research and capture languages that are dying out.  

The Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA) is an online project at the University of Texas at Austin, the school where Noe is finishing his doctorate degree. It includes materials on 24 endangered languages spoken in Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, and Venezuela.

One of those languages is Tucano, considered severely endangered because it is spoken by fewer than 5,000 people who live in the Amazon regions of Brazil and Colombia.

Another NSF and NEH project documents Ayook, a language thought to have ties to one of the earliest dominating cultures of Latin America. There are 5,000 people who speak it around the town of Totontepec in southern Mexico, where indigenous leaders have been trained to record their language on both video and audio. Others in the Totontepec community have been trained in transcription, translation and analysis so they can work on preserving and reviving their language.

“They are recovering the oral history of native people to their natural landscape,” said Mary Downs, who oversees the NEH grant program. “It’s the language that is recording significance of the place.”

New York City, which has experienced a large growth in the number of Mexicans from Oaxaca and Guerrero is home to about 800 highly endangered languages from all over the world. According to the Endangered Language Alliance, about one out of three Mexican-born immigrants in the Big Apple speak an indigenous language.

“Anybody who comes from south of the border is classified as Latino; Latino means Spanish,” said Juan Aguirre, executive director of community organization Mano a Mano, which works in partnership with the Alliance. “Those assumptions can create problems with populations that don’t speak Spanish; a lot of these speakers may be bilingual but not fully,” he told FNL. 

The most often encountered language in New York City is a dialect of Mixtec – there are about 50 language varieties of Mixtec, Aguirre said, and about a dozen of them are endangered.  

The Endangered Language Alliance is documenting and creating awareness of the rarity of these languages but its main charge has been creating workshops to give speakers a chance to interact with others and a framework to further their own knowledge of their language.

 It has also helped get interpreters to facilitate with healthcare providers and schools.

“There is a lot of pressure to give [these languages] up, but many are adamant to preserve them as well,” said Steve Zeitlin, executive director of City Lore, a cultural center that recently ran a four-month exhibit showcasing a variety of dialects and languages, including Totonac, which is spoken in Veracruz and Puebla.

“It’s not easy to do; we’re talking about generations so it also relies on children teaching their children,” Zeitlin said. 

The Lopezes are doing their best. Arcenio is the executive director of the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project, based in Oxnard, where there is a large farming community. Many of those workers are Mixteco, and Arcenio says the language barrier makes them vulnerable to poorer working conditions and pay than their Spanish-speaking counterparts.

 The organization also helps bring Mixteco interpreters into schools and is also planning to create a radio station that will air programming in Mixteco and Zapotec.

Arcenio said music and informative shows will be a big part of their programming, but his greatest hope is that the station – set to launch in July – also teaches to write and speak the convalescent languages. 

“Our fight has not been [focused on] building pride,” Arcenio said. “Our fight has been to [respond] to the larger communities telling us: ‘You must forget your cultural beliefs, you must assimilate this other language.”

Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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