“Never again can there be a Mexico without indigenous peoples:” Recovering native languages in Mexico


Indigenous children from the mountains of Oaxaca, in the southwest of Mexico listen in the town of Guelatao to the education reform proposal of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the presidential frontrunner according to the polls, who announced that, if he wins, he will institute bilingual schools in the indigenous regions. PHOTO/Danilo Rodríguez/IPS

Ángel Santiago is a Mexican teenager who speaks one of the variations of the Zapotec language that exists in the state of Oaxaca, in the southwest of Mexico. Standing next to the presidential candidate who is the favorite for the July elections, he calls for an educational curriculum that “respects our culture and our languages.”

Juan José García Ortiz, a teacher who is also mayor of Guelatao, a small town in this southwestern state, speaks in Zapotec and Spanish about the problems of education in Mexico, and ends with a message: “Never again can there be a Mexico without indigenous peoples.”

So does the poet Irma Pineda López, who reads the commitments drafted by the country’s best-organised teachers’ union, from Oaxaca, the state with the largest indigenous population in Mexico and where 418 of the 570 municipalities have a majority indigenous population and are governed by native customs.

The presidential candidate, leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, nods. Next to him is Susana Harp, a prominent international singer of traditional Zapotec music, who is a candidate for the Senate for the presidential candidate’s party, Morena.

Behind them is Esteban Moctezuma, who López Obrador plans to appoint as minister of education if he wins the Jul. 1 elections.

This scene took place on May 12 in the town where the only indigenous president of Mexico, Benito Juárez (1858–1872), was born. On this occasion, López Obrador presented his proposal to reform education in the country and, remarkably, all the participants spoke first in their native mother tongue and then in Spanish.

One of the candidate’s campaign pledges is to establish bilingual schools in all regions with an indigenous majority.

The event in Guelatao is a sign of a new phenomenon that has begun to slowly emerge in the country: the recovery of native languages.

More speakers

In the last decade, according to the population census conducted every five years by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Inegi), the number of speakers of indigenous languages in Mexico increased 20 percent, practically at the same rate as the population growth.

In fact, for the first time in 80 years, the downward trend in the population of speakers of native languages has stopped.

A good part of this phenomenon is due to the work of young indigenous people who are working to recover the identity, language and territory that their parents and grandparents lost.

“We are trying to recover our language and to convince our elders not to sell the land, because we refuse to be ashamed of our indigenous identity,” José Koyoc Ku, a member of the community radio station Yúuyum Radio, which spreads the Mayan voice in Yucatan, in the southeast of the country, told IPS.

The Mayas, Zapotecs and Nahuas are the three largest native peoples in Mexico.

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