Mexico: call to save threatened indigenous languages

In recognition of International Mother Language Day, lawmakers in southern Mexico’s Chiapas state proposed Feb. 21 a reform to the state constitution recognizing the existence of the indigenous tongues of Jacalteco, Chuj and Kanjobal, which are threatened with extinction. Articel 13 of the Chiapas constitution recognizes nine indgenous langauges: Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Chol, Zoque, Tojolabal, Mam, Kakchiquel, Lacandon and Mochó. The three now being considered are spoken by only a few thousand residents, mostly Guatemalan refugees who settled in Chiapas to escape genocide in the 1980s.

Indigenous state deputy Juan Gómez Estrada, president of the legislature’s Commission on Indian Peoples, told the session that “of the six or seven thousand languages of the world, some 3,000 are in danger of disappearing; in México, in the second half of the 20th century alone 110 disappeared, including Chiapaneco and Cuilateco.” He noted that no dictionaries or grammars exist for the three languages now under consideration, and called upon the State Center for Indigenous Language, Art and Literature (CELALI) to address this need. (APRO, Feb. 21)

CELALI was created in 1997 as a part of the “Compromises for Chiapas” program instated in response to the San Andrés Accords, the proposal for indigenous autonomy developed by the Zapatista rebels and Mexican federal negotiators. (SIPAZ, March 2004)

In Mexico City, Eliac, a group of some 50 authors who write in indigenous languages, held a press conference warning those tongues will disappear if the government doesn’t do more to implement a 2003 law aimed at protecting indigenous cultures. Eliac said that only 63 of the 140 languages known to have been spoken in Mexico prior to the Spanish conquest remain alive. Of those 63, “90 percent are in danger of extinction and some already are spoken only by a small number of families,” said Eliac’s Juan Gregorio Regino, who writes in the Mazatec tongue.

Nahuatl writer Natalio Hernández said the National Institute of Indigenous Languages (INALI), created by the 2003 law, was limited by lack of indigenous involvement and “a very academic vision.”

INALI director Fernando Navas responded to EFE that “this year we’ve implemented a program for training, certifying and accrediting bilingual people as interpreters in the health system, in judicial trials and as instructors.” Offering a more optimistic picture of Mexico’s indigenous languages, he added that “although approximately 20 of them are at great risk of disappearing, some are quite vigorous, such as Nahuatl and Maya.” (El Universal, Feb. 22)

See our last posts on Mexico and the Zapatista struggle, indigenous struggle in Mexico and Chiapas.