recently learned to speak Spanish. David Maung
At age 10, Alejandra Bartolo Ortigoza already knows what's
it like to be singled out because of her ethnicity.
of her classmates teasingly call her oaxaqueña, which literally
means from the state of Oaxaca, but is a condescending term Mexicans
use to suggest a person is ignorant or lazy. She loses her smile,
lowers her gaze and her voice fades to a whisper at the memory of
this fifth-grade student at the Ve'E Saa Kua'a elementary school
can feel secure because she lives in a community of 200 Mixtec families
whose daily interactions strengthen their identity. Mixtecs are
an indigenous people from the southwest part of Mexico. The name
of the elementary school is in their language and means "House
of Learning." The students there learn Spanish and several
school is one of the few public or private efforts in Baja California
to try to preserve indigenous languages. There's no doubt that such
efforts are needed, and not just for matters relating to language.
California's own native bands the Kiliwa, Pai Pai, Kumeyaay
and Cucapá face the most critical situation in the
state. Their numbers have dwindled, and they live in poor, isolated
communities or have scattered into urban areas.
face the imminent disappearance of their native tongues, according
to a state-sponsored conference held recently in Tijuana to mark
International Day of the Native Tongue.
of these tribes' traditions have been mainly handed down orally;
keeping the language alive is the only way to preserve their history,
customs and lore.
of the speakers at the forum said everyone has contributed to this
problem, not just those in power.
always blaming (presidents George W.) Bush or (Vicente) Fox, but
we lack a little self-criticism; this isn't the responsibility of
the administration in power," declared sociologist Jorge Cocum
Pech, president of the Academy of Writers in Native Tongues, a national
organization formed a decade ago.
said that the distrust many indigenous communities feel of outsiders
and their infrequent participation in projects to preserve their
language and traditions are easily understood.
because we've been insulted and abused," said Cocum, recalling
his years in grade school when he was punished for speaking his
Baja California, no such prohibition ever existed for the large
Mixtec community from the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca that have
settled in the area since the 1950s. However, constant scorn has
kept them from integrating into the state's society.
who peddle arts and crafts on the street or beg are derogatorily
called Marías, a term used for native women, and Mixtec men
are called oaxaquitas, though most come from the southern state
of Guerrero, not Oaxaca.
than 30 years ago the first group of Mixtecs settled in Tijuana,
and about 15 years later the state created an indigenous education
department to meet their needs. The first school to serve Mixtec
students opened in Tijuana's working-class neighborhood of Colonia
Obrera in 1982, recalled Tiburcio Castro, an education leader and
current president of the Mixtec Language Academy in the Baja California-California
of those pioneering teachers is Gonzalo Montiel Aguirre, who 10
years ago became the founding principal of the Ve'E Saa Kua'a elementary
school in Colonia Valle Verde, a settlement on the east side of
Tijuana about 15 minutes from the Otay Mesa border crossing.
Verde was initially created as a resettlement zone for families
left homeless by the floods of 1993. Currently, about 200 Mixtec
families live there. The school serves some 500 students in each
of its two shifts, about half of whom are Mixtec.
interaction between these children who are just learning Spanish
and the non-
students hasn't been without some friction, but Gonzalo Montiel
maintains they have achieved positive results. "Our message
has always been to promote understanding and respect for diversity."
sons of Moisés Ramírez León are among the school's
students. A native of Guerrero, he has lived in Tijuana for 13 years.
didn't finish grade school, but he's made sure that his children
not only go to school but study both their native tongue and Spanish
so they can fully participate in the socioeconomic life of the border,
where sooner or later they also will have to learn English.
don't want what happened to me to happen to them, I want them to
learn Spanish but to keep speaking Mixtecan so they can communicate
with their grandparents," he said.
the use of native languages in family life and within the community
was precisely the main recommendation made by the conference on
native languages. Some of the projects planned for this year include
a census of native-language speakers; creating a center for the
study of the Purépecha, Náhuatl, Kumeyaay and Mixtec
languages; and holding classes and workshops on literary creations
in those languages.
a race against time, warned sociologist Cocum Pech. "If we
delay a little bit longer, we could find ourselves writing nothing
more than the obituaries of these indigenous languages."
García Sánchez contributes to the Union-Tribune's
Spanish-language weekly, Enlace.