Olutec: An Indigenous Language in Risk of Extinction

By Modesto Ortíz

Olutec is an indigenous language considered to be at high risk of extinction. It is spoken only in the Olmeca region in the south of the state of Veracruz, Mexico. Historically, many factors have influenced its replacement by Spanish, leading to the current situation in which only one proficient speaker and some two-dozen people with some memory of the language remain. In the face of this situation, the State has not shown interest in its preservation, much less embraced cultural and linguistic policies that guarantee the documentation, preservation, and strengthening of cultural and linguistic diversity. Either for lack of knowledge or in pursuit of a different agenda, it has only promoted actions that stereotype, objectify, or distort indigeneity.

Mexico, as one of the top-three most linguistically diverse countries in the Americas, recognizes itself as a pluricultural state, where 68 indigenous languages and 364 linguistic variations are spoken. This diversity was officially recognized in 2003 with the General Law on Linguistic Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In turn, the state of Veracruz—where 15 indigenous languages converge with 31 linguistic variations, close to 10% of the population speaks an indigenous language, and more than 22% identify as indigenous—recognizes multiethnicity in its constitution. Veracruz is one of the most populated federal entities in Mexico. Of its 212 municipalities, 47 are considered indigenous, 141 have a sparse indigenous population, and 24 declare themselves to have a small but present indigenous population.

Despite the cultural and linguistic wealth that Veracruz protects, the lack of knowledge and lack of interest of the government as well as discriminatory acts committed by wide sectors of the population against indigenous peoples has led to the continued violation of indigenous rights, including the right to communicate in one’s mother tongue. At the center of this situation, indigenous peoples have protested and fought so that the State would establish institutions that would offer them protection and attention, but the results have been minimal, showing that the day in which indigenous people can fully assert and exercise their human rights is still far off. It is pressing that the relationship between the government and indigenous peoples change.

The origin of all this is the fact that the policies implemented in Veracruz, as well as in many parts of Mexico and the world, were conceived under monocultural, monolingual, and exclusionary principles, leaving cultural and linguistic heritage in a gravely vulnerable situation. The state, with the goal of showing that it protects linguistic diversity, has decided on numerous occasions to pay more attention to major indigenous languages. This is not a coincidence: through its own instruments it validates and demonstrates that it pays attention to indigenous people and languages, at least according to its own numbers and indicators.

This practice is harmful when seen from any perspective. Data are used to justify the level of attention paid to indigenous groups, but this does not consider cultural and linguistic diversity. In the case of Veracruz, Nahuatl and Totonac are the most common indigenous languages, spoken by 60% of the indigenous population. But, considering that there are 15 indigenous languages spoken in the area, this means that 13 are neglected. The government uses quantitative—not qualitative—reasoning to determine how to allocate attention to indigenous culture. It should be added that in many cases, this attention is not continuous and based in a human rights perspective, but rather enables stereotypes and strengthens classist conduct.

An example of how these policies put cultural and linguistic diversity at risk while at the same time violating the rights of indigenous peoples can be found in the Olutec language. In 2012, it was declared a language at high risk of extinction by the National Institute of Indigenous Languages through the Advisory Board for the Attention to Indigenous Languages at Risk of Extinction in the book México: Lenguas Indígenas Nacionales en Riesgo de Desaparición. From then on, the State has undertaken sporadic and small actions to support the revitalization of Olutec, showing that there is no lack of political will, but rather a lack of knowledge and inability to create successful linguistic and cultural policy. Though Veracruz is one of the states with the greatest level of linguistic diversity, 17 years after the passage of the General Law of Linguistic Rights of Indigenous Peoples it lacks its own local law on the matter, despite the fact that there have been a number of indigenous leaders in the local Congress and other government entities.

Diosgoro Prisciliano Esteban is the name of the only proficient speaker of Olutec. His work shows how interested he is in preserving his language and through this effort he is able to sustain himself through what we could call community work. Occasionally he joins forces with government institutions at the federal and state level, but despite his commitment to revitalize his language and culture, the institutional apparatus has not sufficiently developed the policies and taken the actions required to preserve this language and culture. Those who can be classified as having some knowledge of the language (but who are not necessarily proficient speakers) are generally from a vulnerable part of the population and are mostly older adults who do not receive economic support from the State, unlike what happens in other communities where people receive funds to preserve their culture. People with some knowledge of Olutec are not even able to cover their basic needs, so they do not have time to dedicate to the preservation of their culture and language.

Therefore, it is urgent that the State respect and guarantee full access and enjoyment of the human rights of Indigenous Peoples, directing its attention and efforts to protect the linguistic diversity. It is essential that the Local Congress, after 17 years , recognizes that it is necessary to have a local law for the protection of indigenous languages. It is essential that the State directed to the Indigenous Peoples under a human rights approach, tries to disappear the “decorative”, which they have often been treated, guaranteeing that the institutions in charge of caring for Indigenous Peoples are truly functional, with tangible results, favoring the participation of Indigenous communities and peoples in all processes.

On the contrary, it is up to our generation to bear witness to the disappearance of indigenous cultures and languages like Olutec as we watch the loss of our intangible cultural heritage, unable to save it. It is urgent that we stop thinking that we can meet the needs of all indigenous communities with a one-size-fits-all strategy. In the end, indigenous communities who receive the lion’s share of government support must demonstrate empathy for less-favored cultures—the minorities of minorities—and should promote and allow them to be strengthened without encroaching on their space and imposing practices. It is fundamental that we remember that successful strategies for their preservation of cultures will be unique for each and established under a framework of understanding that prioritizes their idiosyncrasies.

—Modesto Ortiz Flores is a native of Ixtaczoquitlán, Veracruz, Mexico and author of the book “Diosgoro: Historia de una Resistencia Lingüística.” He collaborates with different indigenous communities in Veracruz with the goal of strengthening their culture and language. He currently directs the Asociación Civil Tonemillis, Cultura y Género and produces the podcast “Historia de una Resistencia Lingüística,” which is available through Spotify.