Maya speaker Sulub of Campeche. Maya speaker Sulub of Campeche.

Indigenous lawmakers fear loss of languages

Without policies to protect indigenous languages they will disappear, says Deputy

Mexico’s indigenous languages are at risk of being lost, warn several indigenous members of the Chamber of Deputies, who also see a major threat in persistent racism and discrimination against their culture by the greater Mexican society.

Campeche Deputy Miguel Ángel Sulub is a native Maya speaker who believes that first languages should be taught both at home and school.

If indigenous languages are to survive, he told the newspaper El Universal, discrimination against those who speak them must stop.

“I inherited the Maya language from my parents, who taught me without any method, just by communicating in it. [But] many children in my state don’t want to speak it; they are embarrassed and discriminated against when they do,” he said.

He lamented that when addressing school children in Maya many don’t understand, but if greeted in English everyone replies with a “Good morning.” This, he reckons, indicates a lack of interest by society.

Even bilingual teachers have forgotten their duty to teach in the indigenous languages, brushing aside the goal of preserving them, he added.

A major handicap suffered by native language speakers is the prevalence of a Spanish-only justice system.

Sulub there are only 679 interpreters for a population of 20 million indigenous people. Of those, only 150 are qualified as bilingual lawyers.

Zapotec speaker and Oaxaca Deputy Modesta Fuentes said that there are some primary schools where children are not allowed to speak their first language, and are forced to speak Spanish instead.

Fuentes believes it imperative that both the education system and lawmakers make the preservation of native languages mandatory, otherwise part of the essence of the Mexican culture will be lost.

Cándido Coheto, a Deputy from the same state, told El Universal that “throughout history the roots of Mexico have been attacked,” recalling that after the Mexican Revolution of 1910 native languages were forbidden.

This continues to happen, he continued, but he sees hope in there being a new awareness. Preserving the country’s cultural wealth is an effort that should involve everyone, the Deputy said.

But if policies aren’t established to protect the native languages, more and more will disappear.

Since last October Deputies have been able to address the chamber in their native tongue rather than just Spanish.

Puebla Deputy Miguel Alva y Alva, a native Náhuatl speaker, thinks that some may see addressing the Chamber in his language as a “show,” because if no one pays attention to speeches in Spanish they will do so less in Náhuatl.

Alva, who along with his legislative duties is compiling a Náhuatl dictionary, reckoned that what matters is action. He would like to see all schools, in both rural and urban areas, include the teaching of an indigenous language in their study plan. That, or the creation of an academy specializing in those languages.

The National Institute of Indigenous Languages (Inali) reports that of the 364 languages — and variations of them — that exist in Mexico, 64 are at very high risk of disappearing.

Source: El Universal (sp)

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