Saturday, December 2, 2017

Endangered Languages in New York City: Mixteco

This Blog Was Written by
Jackeline Alvarez

There are many different languages spoken in this world. Some are widely recognized, and others are not. Unfortunately, there are also languages that do not exist anymore because it has failed to be passed down from generation to generation. America is not only seen as a land of opportunities but also as the melting pot. People from different countries migrate to America in the hopes of living the American Dream. Furthermore, these same people are also contributing to society by bringing their cultural traditions with them; where one can learn and/or exchange their knowledges. We, new yorkers, are lucky to reside in New York City because is a place where in one neighborhood alone, you can hear many different languages being spoken at once. Through that, we can learn to appreciate and be exposed to something new. Despite the beauty that languages bring and the eagerness that people have to learn it, there exist some languages that are discriminated against due to economic, social and demographic pressure; specifically, in New York City. Such is the case of an Oto-Manguean language, Mixteco.

Many Mexicans come from La Mixteca community where the people speak a language called Mixteco, sometimes also refer as a dialect. These group of people migrated to areas in the United States, including California and New York. This past summer, I became part of the NSF REU Site Intersection of Linguistic, Language, and Culture program, where I am currently working under my mentor supervision, Dr. Daniel Kaufman, studying endangered languages. His current project is focusing on indigenous communities living in East Harlem, who speaks Mixteco, Nahuatl, Tlapaneco and Mam. We are also working with the Department of Health and LSA Family Health Center in East Harlem, to figure out ways we can help the Mixteco and other indigenous speaking community have an easy access to health services. Also, we are documenting and comparing the different variety of Mixtec being spoken. During my time in this ongoing project, I discovered that indigenous languages face discriminations from society. The people struggle to speak it in New York City because either they insulted from a non-Mixtec speaker or because they do not have someone to speak it with. Although, there are many different indigenous languages spoken in Mexico, my focus is Mixteco because I come from a family that speaks that indigenous language, but I never learned it. 
In New York City, data demonstrates that more than 17 percent of Mexican speak an indigenous language, Mixtec and Nahuatl being the most common. (Semple, 2014) Yet, despite having these data, it is hard to calculate an exact number of indigenous speaker in NYC because there are some undocumented people who prefer not to answer the demographic questionnaires, out of fear of being deported. Also, the Mexican consulate do not keep record of the first language of the Mexicans living in New York. (Velasco, 2014) Many Mexicans learn the languages orally because there is an absence of writing in indigenous language in some regions of Mexico. However, today there exist some books that teaches one how to speak Mixteco, also known as Tu’un Savi. Nevertheless, the people that come from small villages generally do not go to school at all and those who do, receive “bad doses of education” (Velasco, 2014). That means that these people have limited literacy skills in Spanish or just don't speak it all because they had minimal contact with Spanish before arriving to New York. Even though some of these people learn Spanish once they travel to City area, there is still a large number of monolinguals who are non-Spanish speaker. Being a monolingual in New York City leads to linguistic isolation. (Semple, 2014) The person is unable to communicate because he or she does not speak Spanish or English. They live an isolated life and also avoid any contact with government authorities. Due to the language barrier they won't be able to ask for help which will affect their health, children’s education and so forth. There has always been a misconception that all Mexican people speak Spanish and that is not entirely true. 
Despite the challenges that the community faces in trying to learn a new language in order to assimilate, those who actually achieve it face a different issue. Parents who are able to speak Mixteco, Spanish and sometimes English juggle between the three languages, yet, their behavior influences children. According to Bonvillian, she states that “children learn their rights and obligations from the kind of communicative interactions in which they are enmeshed” (Chapter 6). In Velasco academic article, she shares information from interviews she conducted on 23 mothers. In her research, she demonstrates the assimilation of the parents and their perspective on the children learning Spanish and English. It seems that the parents preferred their child, born in the United States, to learn those languages and neglect their indigenous root because they did not see it being useful in America. They did not want their children education to be affected by their lack of Spanish which is why they enforced their child to be in a dual-language program. The reason for such dramatic change in identity is due to the amount of discrimination they have faced. The community noticed that once they spoke Spanish or English they felt a sense of welcome and also of importance because they were now on the same level as important people. Parents generally spoke Mixteco among themselves or other known relatives but never to their children. 

In the project with Dr. Kaufman, we also conducted a similar survey asking mothers their opinion in teaching their children Mixteco. Majority were in favor of teaching them because they believed it would be beneficial to them. However, some mothers stated that their children were against it because they were ashamed, stating “it sounds Chinese” and “if you want to speak to me, learn English.” Mixteco is often referred to as Chinese because they have similar phonetics. Hearing this alarmed me because that is how a language is suddenly stopped from being passed down. It also made me realize the amount of pressure from society the children must have gone through to think this way. It is wonderful to see people learn a new language but is saddening to see them obligated to forget about their identity. Velasco states that, “Identity is an element fostered within family settings, through languages and culture.” It is important to not marginalize certain community just speak a language that is not well known to other or deprive them of their right to express their culture. Studies done on indigenous languages is still an ongoing research that needs further analysis. Dr. Kaufman's organization, ELA, the Department of Health and LSA are helping those people to embrace their language, embrace their roots, embrace their identity and to not be ashamed anymore. As well as educating the children about their parent’s culture. It is important to keep educating people about this matter, so they can think twice before judging a community. It is not fair to favor one language over another. It is crucial not only for the parents to stop neglecting their identity but to teach their children because even if they think it might not be useful in America (which I disagree), it helps children stay connected to family members back in Mexico. Those family members who do not speak one word of Spanish.  Luckily there are organization such as Mano a Mano, OrganizaciĆ³n Mixteca, Casa Puebla and AsociaciĆ³n Tepeyac that offer support to these community. 


Bonvillain, N. (2014). Language, culture, and communication: the meaning of messages. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Semple, K. (2014, July 10). Immigrants Who Speak Indigenous Languages Encounter Isolation. Retrived from

Velasco, P. (2014). The Language and Educational Ideologies of Mixteco-Mexican Mothers. Journal of

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