By Julia Nee
As an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago, I had always thought that when I studied abroad in Mexico, it would be to practice my Spanish – not any other language. Mexico was one of the many Latin American countries that I had colored in on the “map of Spanish-speaking countries” in my seventh-grade Spanish class, and I had never questioned whether or not that designation was a complete truth. But one Saturday in Juchitán, Oaxaca, I found myself trying to communicate in Spanish with an elderly hostel owner who seemed intent on not understanding me as I asked for a room. My frustration grew, as I perceived discrimination against my “gringa Spanish,” until the woman’s daughter came out, spoke to her mother in a language I had never before heard, and then attended to me with great care.
These two women were speaking Zapotec, one of 68 linguistic groups recognized by the Mexican government as Indigenous languages of Mexico. While millions of people in Mexico speak Spanish, 7.3 million people speak Indigenous languages, including over 865,000 people who – like the hostel owner I met in Juchitán – are not Spanish speakers. But despite this linguistic and cultural diversity, Mexico is still often portrayed as a monolithically Spanish-speaking nation, a representation that is not only inaccurate, but also contributes to Indigenous erasure and can result in harm for Indigenous language speakers, like the elderly hostel owner who I had ignorantly misunderstood and mistreated.
A 2003 Mexican law, Ley general de derechos lingüísticos de los pueblos indígenas (General Act on the Linguistic Rights of Indigenous Peoples) – and the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of which Mexico is a signatory – protects, at least in theory, the right to use and promote Indigenous languages. And it’s not just Mexico – King and Arnal (2016) report that “with the exception of Uruguay, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, all Latin American and Caribbean governments now formally recognize within their constitutions the multiethnic, pluricultural, and multilingual nature of their countries.” In practice, however, Indigenous communities are still fighting to gain the linguistic equality they have been promised, including access to educational, medical, and legal services in Indigenous languages.
These efforts are taking place not only in Indigenous communities in Latin America, but also in the US, and even right here on the UC Berkeley campus. Since Fall 2019, Martha Schwartz and I have been co-organizers of the Language Revitalization Working Group (LRWG), a group of individuals who are interested in promoting minoritized languages around the world. One aspect of this work that I have found particularly rewarding has been our efforts to decenter dominant, colonial languages. In a recent talk given by Zapotec author Víctor Cata and translator Rosemary Beam de Azcona, and sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies and the Center for Race and Gender, our conversation took place in Zapotec, English, and Spanish. While some aspects were translated, others were not. This put English speakers particularly in the interesting position of not being accommodated linguistically. But this experience – hearing a language you don’t understand – is a common occurrence for speakers of minoritized languages who are not also speakers of dominant languages. Why should minoritized language speakers, but not English speakers, be put in this position?
This question is also put forth in Cata and Beam de Azcona’s book We’re Only Words, the English translation of Cata’s bilingual Zapotec-Spanish collection of short stories Sólo somos palabra. As Alberto Quintero Soriano writes in the prologue for the English translation, “Rather than think of translated texts solely in terms of how they will be consumed globally, we conceive of translation as a form of cultural exchange in which difference is not repressed but respected. Translation in this perspective is as much a means to defamiliarize English as it is an act of transferring Zapotec meaning.”
As both a native English speaker and a language activist, I find this perspective particularly refreshing, and, in my opinion, Cata and Beam de Azcona have achieved something remarkable with their work. They have provided English readers with a chance to experience the delight that comes with a new perspective. Instead of allowing English readers to sit comfortably with familiar English-language metaphors, they push readers to digest Zapotec conceptualizations, such as the interrelation between the meanings of the Zapotec word ruaa, literally meaning “mouth” but extending to “entrance,” “edge,” and “opening,” as in “the mouth of my ear.”
I hope that as we move forward, we can continue to find and share moments of delight like those in We’re Only Words, moments that celebrate the abundance, creativity, and complexity of Indigenous languages.
Julia Nee is a PhD candidate in Linguistics at UC Berkeley with a Designated Emphasis in Indigenous Language Revitalization whose work focuses on Zapotec language revitalization in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico.
The Language Revitalization Working Group is co-sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley.