Water, Mexico and Its Many Hidden Names

By Yásnaya Elena A. Gil,* presentation at the Mexican Congress on February 28, 2019, to mark the international year of indigenous languages.

Nëwemp “the place of water”, mixe.

Giajmïï “about water”, chinateco.

Nangi ndá “the land in the middle of water”, mazateco.

Kuríhi “inside water”, chichimeco.

Nu koyo “humid town”, mixteco.

It was the name they gave this city. Then to this State, the Mexican State: Mexico. What is hidden inside the waters of Nëwemp? I intend to talk about some ideas, and I will try to answer a question. Why are languages dying?

Currently about six thousand languages are spoken around the world. From the Catalog of threatened languages of the University of Hawaii, United States, it is reported that on average a language dies in the world every three months. For its part, UNESCO reports that in one hundred years at least half of the languages on the planet will have been wiped out.

Never in history of humankind had this happened, never had so many languages died. Why is it that tongues are dying now? Around three hundred years ago, the world began to divide and establish internal borders: it was divided and without papers it was no longer possible to travel to other places. The Earth was divided into about two hundred countries, each with its own government, with a flag to which honors are given, with a privileged way of thinking: and, in order to build that internal homogeneity, the State value was assigned to a single language. Other languages were discriminated and fought against.

Two hundred years ago the State that is now called Mexico was established. Three hundred years after the Spanish conquest, in 1862, 65 per cent of the population spoke an indigenous language. Spanish was a minority language at the time.

Presently, indigenous language speakers are only 6.5 percent, and Spanish has become the dominant language. Two centuries ago, Nahuatl, Mayan, May, Tepehua, Tepehuano, Mixe and all indigenous languages were a majority, but these have been minorized.

A graphic showing the variety of Mixe-Zoque languages, based on their family of origin, and risk of dissappearance (riesgo de desaparición). Source: COLMIX.

How did they manage to make them minority languages? Or did we suddenly decide to abandon our tongues? It was not so. It was a process driven by government policies, which removed their value in favor of a single language: Spanish.

To achieve the disappearance of our languages, our ancestors received blows, scolding and discrimination because they spoke their mother tongues. “Your tongue is worthless,” they were told repeatedly. “To be a Mexican citizen you need to speak the national language, Spanish. Stop using your tongue,” they insisted. The efforts made from the State were arduous to establish a forced Castilianization in order to eradicate our languages, especially within the school system.

It was Mexico that took away our tongues, the water of its name erases and silences us. Even when the laws have changed, our languages continue to be discriminated against within the educational, health, and judicial systems. Our languages do not die, they kill them.

They also kill our languages when our territories are not respected, when they are sold and concessioned, when they kill those who defend them.

How are we going to help our tongues flourish when they kill those who speak them, silence or disappear them? How will our word flourish in a territory that is taken away from us?

In my community, Ayutla Mixe in Oaxaca, we have no water. Almost two years ago armed groups stripped us of the spring we historically supplied ourselves with and until now, injustice prevails, even though we have denounced and demonstrated our reasons. Although the laws say that water is a human right, it does not reach our homes and affects, above all, children and the elderly.

The earth, the water, the trees are what nourish the existence of our tongues. Under a constant attack from our territory, how will our language be revitalized?

Our languages do not die, they kill them. The Mexican State has erased them. A single thought, a single culture, single State, with its water oname, erases them.

* Yásnaya Elena Aguilar Gil is a linguist, writer, translator, linguage rights activist and researcher ayuujk (mixe). She received her Masters in Linguistics at the National Autonomous University of México, UNAM. Her work focuses on the study and dissemination of linguistic diversity as well as native languages at risk of disappearance in Mexico.

She has collaborated in Letras Libres y Nexos. It is part of the COLMIX collective, a group of young mixes that carry out research and dissemination activities of the language, history, and culture of Mixe. She collaborates with the Juan de Córdova Research Library in Oaxaca and writes the #Ayuujk blog in Este País.

ORIGINAL SOURCE (with permissoin from the Revista de Universidad de México):

[penci_video url=”https://youtu.be/502lzaNur8c” align=”center” width=”” /] Ponencia original en Mixe