Language Is Not Culture

Photo: Berenice Zambrano, Wikimedia Commons

For many indigenous peoples, land is a specific physical entity, but the notion of territory includes life associated with that land and the cultural manifestations linked to that physical entity, the sense of belonging and the way in which we relate to it.

Territory, it has been said emphatically many times, is not just land. Language is not only a specific linguistic system but also a cognitive territory that we are dispossessed of, in the case of indigenous languages, ​​that the Mexican State has historically fought against. From this approach, I can no longer think of the struggle for the vitality of languages ​​without the struggle for autonomic processes and for our territories.

I visited a Mixe community where some elderly people told me how, in the midst of negotiations with the State on government projects that the communities were opposed to, the use of the Mixe language created a space that was impenetrable for those officials. They spoke Mixe to talk to each other about where the discussion was going, or would decide to change their strategy by means of directions given in their own language since the officials did not understand them. Similar situations occur continuously, in situations of danger or defense of the territory, the use of the Mixe language creates a linguistic territory in which we feel safe and that the State cannot penetrate.

In the story they told me how, unable to understand the interaction in Mixe, the annoyance of the officials kept increasing during the dialogue with the community authorities, and that annoyance seems to me eloquent because it shows how our languages ​​have represented a discomfort to the Mexican national project, which has done everything possible to eliminate them.

Language is also territory, and I believe it’s a mistake to separate the fight for the vitality of our languages ​​from the process of defense of our territories and autonomy. While extractivist projects such as mining or other megaprojects have received government authorization to be implemented in our territories, despite open resistance, our languages ​​and linguistic territories have been diminished through violence associated with racism.

For the State, language is culture. At this point, we are faced with the two possible interpretations of the word “culture” in Spanish, in a sense, the word culture has a broad anthropological meaning that covers all manifestations of social life, in the clear sense that language is culture and the system of government or the operation of a certain economic systems are cultural manifestations. However, and in a different sense, “culture” covers only aesthetic and artistic manifestations; it is because of this latter meaning that there is a Ministry of Culture, Cultural Centers, or how we say that we will attend a “cultural” program on Mother’s Day at our daughter’s school.

In this sense, it seems dangerous to me to confine the processes of revitalization of indigenous languages within the Departments of Culture. Despite the importance of music and dance for our peoples and communities, it is true that these manifestations have specific temporal and physical spaces; citing an example, music and dance are not performed all the time while languages are experienced by all people all the time. Unlike artistic or aesthetic manifestations, language is a phenomenon that permeates all human interactions and also our concrete thoughts. When we are in an assembly discussing the election of our community authorities, when we are annoyed at our partner, if we are in the middle of a ritual, or reflect alone on the next day’s shopping, a language is present.

More than a cultural phenomenon, understood in the second sense, language is above all a societal phenomenon, as my Mapuche friend Viktor Naqill once said. All our struggles are steeped in the linguistic and the linguistic is deeply political.

When the linguistic strengthening and revitalization of indigenous languages ​​focuses only as a ​​cultural effort, the actions end up being symbolic, in many cases, and they themselves do not confront a State that can capture them to use them as folklore in different occasions. Based on this idea, it is not surprising that now that the celebration of multiculturalism is already part of the official discourse, the State is a little more permissible when it comes to celebrating or rewarding literary manifestations in indigenous languages, but it is hermetic and repressive when it comes to using our languages ​​to file a criminal complaint with the public prosecutor, as our right and the law they have created say we can.

The State has created permitted niches, often niches within cultural spaces and institutions, for actions in favor of indigenous languages, while the rest of the state administration continues to crush the use of indigenous languages ​​with its monolingualism. It is urgent to break those niches and say no, our language is not culture or, to be more precise, our language is not only culture.

While literary prizes in indigenous languages ​​multiply, which are still scarce compared to those for Spanish, cases of linguistic violence in hospitals, courts, and civil registry offices continue to multiply; it is still an aggressive odyssey to register a girl’s proper name in an indigenous language in many of those institutions. If language is a phenomenon that permeates society, we could ask ourselves what the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Communications and Transportation, the National Commission of Physical Culture and Sport, the National Institute of Women or the judicial system are doing to prevent an ongoing linguistic discrimination and violation of the linguistic rights of indigenous languages speakers.

As a mirror of state policies, unfortunately, an important part of the indigenous peoples movement has created in civil organizations and associations departments that also confine the language within the culture, areas, coordinations or departments of language and culture that reinforce the idea that the rest of the areas are foreign to the linguistic. It is unfortunate, but very frequent, that many people involved in the work for the vitality of our languages ​​confine our work within what we call cultural activities. Perhaps this partial vision of the struggle for language, confined to the departments of culture, explains the still very little commitment that the leadership of the indigenous movement has to linguistic revitalization and that is reflected in the fact that, in many cases, this same leadership has not been able to transmit their mother tongue to their own sons and daughters, a fact that is often very discouraging. More than a personal judgment, I am interested in trying to explain the reason for this phenomenon.

If there is something to be learned from good practices that successfully revitalized languages ​​at risk of disappearance in other parts of the world, it is that the fight for the cognitive territories of our languages ​​cannot be confined to the departments , coordinations or areas of culture; this fight must be understood as important for the strengthening of our autonomy as the fight for our territories against extractive projects is.

All our struggles are steeped in linguistics, in all of them our languages ​​can be strengthened. The fight for the vitality of our languages ​​is also on the front line of the fight for our existence as peoples, for our rights and for our autonomy. If this is not understood, it is very likely that in the future the only thing that remains of our languages ​​will be the demonstrations that the State held and promoted, cultural memories of dead languages.

An important part of the racist process of colonization implemented by the Mexican State involved taking away our language and fighting for it has a powerful subversive meaning. Where the State has said “don’t speak your language anymore,” we can say the opposite and that every word in Ayuujk, in Zapoteco or in Zoque is a resounding NO to the linguistic policies that, despite the legal reforms, continue to take place from almost all areas of public administration.

For this reason, today more than ever, we need to emphasize that language is not only culture and that we need to fight for that cognitive territory that becomes home to linguistic and autonomic resistance.

SOURCE: Originally published in Este País and republished with permission.

Yásnaya Aguilar

Yásnaya Aguilar

Yásnaya Aguilar, Ayutla Mixe, forma parte del COLMIX, estudió Lengua y Literaturas Hispánicas y cursó la maestría en Lingüística en la UNAM. Ha colaborado en diversos proyectos sobre divulgación de la diversidad lingüística, desarrollo de contenidos gramaticales para materiales educativos en lenguas indígenas y proyectos de documentación y atención a lenguas en riesgo de desaparición. Escribe el blog #Ayuujk en la web de Este País. Para leer más sobre la autora, ver “Yásnaya Aguilar: la defensora de lenguas que imagina un mundo sin Estados”

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