Thursday, July 9, 2009

A little history: Mexico's indigenous peoples, the program, y yo

This summer, Rivers teachers are embarking on a variety of activities through the school’s faculty enrichment grants, which aim to promote the intellectual growth of Rivers teachers through research, education, and other independent projects. Today, we hear from Ben Leeming, who is traveling to Zacatecas, Mexico to study the Uto-Aztecan language of Nahuatl.

The indigenous peoples of Mexico and those of the United States share some similarities (you know, having their lands seized by invading Europeans and the ensuing oppression, forced assimilation, death, etc., etc.) However, there are significant differences worth noting. To be an Indian in the United States, one need only be able to claim blood relation. One can be one-quarter or one-sixteenth Indian and be accepted as such. While some still live on reservations, Indians of modern-day America (at least in the northeast) for the most part look and talk and dress like you and me. In Mexico, Indian identity is a radically different thing. Yes, blood matters. However, in the eyes of Mexico’s indigenous peoples, one must be 100% Indian to be Indian. If you even have one non-Indian blood relative, you are not Indian. But there’s much more.

The most salient identifying marks of the Indian from point of view of both Indians and non-Indians in Mexico are: skin color (dark, not light), where you live (rural, not urban), socio-economic status (poor, not middle class or rich), and most of all, language (indigenous, not Spanish). In fact, the word the indigenous peoples of Mexico use to name themselves is not "indio" but "macehualli", which is Nahuatl for "poor commoner, peon." If one doesn’t fit these characteristics, if, for example, an Indian leaves the village, moves to the city, adopts an urban lifestyle, dress, and speech, they are no longer Indian, they are now mestizo. Of course, it is precisely this process, young Indians leaving the village for the city, losing their language and their traditions, that is happening all across Mexico today and is resulting in the astonishing loss of indigenous language and culture.

However, can you blame them? To be Indian in Mexico, today and since the 16th century has been synonymous with being poor, uneducated, without opportunities for advancement or access to many privileges of society, and more often than not, the object of outright oppression, violence, and some would even say, genocidal programs aimed at forced assimilation or eradication. The pressure on indigenous peoples to assimilate continues to be strong and manifests itself in everything from government policy to racist attitudes among the non-Indian population.

The Program

When I tell people from Mexico that I am in Zacatecas to learn to speak Nahuatl, they all reply, "Zacatecas? Why Zacatecas? No body speaks Nahuatl here. You should try Veracruz." It's true. In general, there is no indigenous Nahuatl-speaking population currently living in the state of Zacatecas. (Although there used to be. Back in the colonial period this was a major Nahua area. In fact, one of the documents we have been working on translating here is a 17th century petition from a town called Tlaltenango, which is in Zacatecas. It's is written by the Nahuatl-speaking elders of the town in Nahuatl to the bishop of Zacatecas.) But the question is a valid one: why study Nahuatl in Zacatecas? The story goes like this:

About 15 years ago, a small group of Nahua teenagers from the Huasteca region (San Louis Potosí and Veracruz) came to Zacatecas on scholarship to study at a college preparatory school (in Spanish of course, not Nahuatl). The goal of the program was to enable young indigenous people to complete a high school education and then matriculate at a college of their choosing. Before too long, there was a good sized population of Nahuatl-speaking students living and studying (and in some cases, living and working) in Zacatecas. In 1992, John Sullivan moved to Zacatecas (already having completed a PhD and knowing Nahuatl) and discovered this diaspora community of Nahuas, met the program's co-founder, a native speaker from Veracruz named Delfina de la Cruz, and founded IDIEZ (Instituto de Docenia e Investigación Etnológica de Zacatecas). The goal of IDIEZ was and is to bring native speaking and non-native speaking students together at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas to conduct investigative research into the language and culture of Nahuatl-speaking peoples with the express purpose of "revitalizing" (not preserving - that sounds too much like a museum exhibit) Nahua culture and language in Mexico today.

What is so significant about this goal and this program? A few things come to mind:

1. The history of indigenous peoples of Mexico has been exclusively written by non-indigenous peoples. The scholars who research, teach, and write about indigenous peoples and their culture and history are by and large mestizo (if Mexican) or American/European scholars. This program aims to train indigenous researchers and scholars to be able to conduct research, publish papers, write books, or teach their own history and culture. Think of it: for (virtually) the first time since the early colonial era (when there were some indigenous historians and scholars), indigenous peoples are beginning to reclaim their historical voice and make an entirely different and critically important contribution to the history of their own peoples! This is not only exciting, it's vital.

2. This program links Nahuatl language and culture from the colonial period to Nahuatl language and culture of today. This link is critical because for the most part it has been severed. By and large, Nahuas of today (those macehuallmeh from the villages) have very little idea about their own history, that they HAVE a history beyond the traditions and beliefs which have survived by being passed down through the generations. This program reconnects these two worlds (the ancient and the modern) through education, research, language training, and scholarship. Nahua students learn that these are not two histories, but one.

3. For non-indigenous students (like me) there are many benefits of such a program. I have previously cited a number: exposure to native speakers and learning the intricacies of pronunciation, the benefits on my own research and scholarship of having first-hand knowledge of the culture of today's Nahuas, etc. But I think that perhaps the most important reason for attending such a program is the following. Indigenous languages and cultures are being lost at an alarming rate all across Mexico (and the world). There isn't that much being done about it, either. (John Sullivan reports to me that the Mexican government isn't interested in indigenous languages. Period.) Even if all the native-speaking graduates of this program were to go out and do scholarship, publish, and speak about their history, language, and culture, there is NO WAY it would be able to stem to tide of language extinction. Simply put: in order to counteract this loss, any and all qualified help is needed. White, North American scholars (like me) are a necessary part of the effort to save (revitalize?) indigenous histories. Hence this program, hence my interest in Nahuatl, hence my being in Zacatecas this summer!

¡hasta moztla todos!

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