Niñas pertenecientes a la etnia Nahua del estado de Puebla, México ejecutan una danza tradicional, Puebla, Puebla, México

Indigenous Language Learning, Aesthetics, and Resistance

By Reynaldo Rivera Guerrero

The views that people held about indigenous languages some years ago have changed for the better in Mexican society. Before, it was believed that these languages were no more than the cause of the academic or social failure of their speakers. Sentiments such as “that language is worth nothing” or “nothing good will come if you keep speaking that language” were frequently directed at those of us who belong to native populations.

This was also the case when our people wanted to study at a university and we were sometimes told “in college you have to focus on Spanish,” or “your language won’t help you there.” This vision captures the scorn that society—and even higher education—had toward indigenous languages of the native peoples of Mexico, thinking that our languages had nothing to offer the country. Because of that, instead of being promoted, their growth was stunted because they were seen as unnecessary and not benefitting the nation.

Since the poorly named Spanish ‘conquest,’ native languages have been disappearing. It is thanks to the resistance of native communities that some languages have been able to survive for more than 500 years. The resistance of our people continues, despite the pressures that society imposes on them. The more than seven million of us who currently speak indigenous Mexican languages face discrimination on a daily basis. However, despite the different ways in which we are still stigmatized by those who want to make us feel inferior (through comments, dismissive insults, and even teasing about our accents or voicing when we speak Spanish), they have not yet gotten us to give up speaking our languages.

In my case, and hopefully that of many others, I have never once thought of stopping to speak Nahuatl, the language that is spoken in my community, Patlicha, located in La Montaña, Guerrero. This is because in Nahuatl I see a whole world, a universe that has given me so much knowledge that has shaped me as a human. This knowledge and way of seeing the world is not taught in school, which is supposed to be the institution in charge of giving us the knowledge we need to become citizens of our country.

There are many examples of people who have stopped speaking their native languages, but there are also cases of resistance. In search of a better life, more and more people from indigenous communities migrate to large cities seeking employment, and one by one they forget their languages—or maybe the city makes them forget it—losing the knowledge and ways of life that are intertwined with them. In this way, migration, which for many people from indigenous communities was presented to us as something natural that had to occur, has had negative consequences for our languages.

There are also those who resist and conserve their languages in the cities. For example, in Mexico City, which is amongst the largest in the world, 55 indigenous languages are spoken. However, we are also witnesses to the fact that the disappearance of numerous indigenous languages has been accelerated. In response, the State has promoted policies and diverse actions that tend to have some connection to native communities, but more often than not the focus is on aesthetics: events, cultural fairs, dances…a variety of representations of what is supposed to define native identity.

While it may be true that these staged events are visually attractive, in some cases instead of gaining more recognition for native communities, the events are seen as ‘cute’ in a folkloric sense. From this point of view, cultural representations of indigenous communities tend to become just another commodity. This has also happened to our languages. Over the past years the visibility of indigenous languages has been promoted, but in many cases with a folkloric tone. Young indigenous bands, artists, rappers, and rock stars are invited to perform at a variety of events. Our languages are also promoted on social networks and a variety of digital and institutional spaces as well as writing contests.

It is true that this has allowed our languages to reach many more people. It is also clearly important that we be seen because we are and always will be here. What worries me is the sense that many of these actions focus on a new way of seeing the indigenous languages of Mexico, with a romanticized aesthetic focus that tends to make what we express when, through our own ways of thinking, questioning, and resisting, we sing or write in our native languages void of meaning.

There are, without a doubt, positive effects to this visibility. For example, it draws attention to the growing interest in learning indigenous languages in Mexico City. However, when you ask people why they want to learn to speak an indigenous language, in some cases, you get responses like “I like how it sounds,” which can come across as very folkloric. When people respond in this way, it seems as if they fail to realize the importance these languages have. For us they are not simply tools for communication, but also, especially considering the use of oral tradition in our communities, a way of life and connection with the world, ourselves, and others.

The meaning of indigenous languages goes far beyond their superficial beauty, and their preservation is about more than just aesthetics. They are linked with their cultures, ways of understanding the world and connecting with others, and also resistance and self-expression as members of an indigenous community critiquing the system that has been imposed upon us. Our language thus also has political meaning. In this way, it stands to question, does it matter if someone learns a language for purely aesthetic reasons based on a romanticized view of it without considering the cultural and political dimension?

Learning a language is a positive thing, but it is a more positive and richer experience when a language is learned for the sake of preserving the knowledge that it transmits, connecting with who we are. When our indigenous languages are seen as something ‘cute’ but meaningless, they are robbed of importance when in fact, in spite of 500 years of conquest, they continue to be spoken and can be heard in both rural communities and cities. It is important that the value of indigenous languages go beyond simple aesthetics, as they are linked with the cosmovision of their people and have much more beauty to share than their pleasing sound.

—Reynaldo Rivera Guerrero, born in 1995 is originally from the Nahua Patlicha community in Copanatoyac, Guerrero. He has a degree in indigenous education from the Universidad Pedagógica Nacional (UPN Ajusco) and is an activist, educator, storyteller, translator, and interpreter of the Nahuatl language. He currently works as a community cultural promotor in the Secretary of Culture’s Promotores Culturales Comunitarios program in Mexico City.

Cover photo: Girls of Nahua ethnicity from the state of Puebla, Mexico perform a traditional dance in Puebla, Puebla, Mexico.