UCLA and other schools, some students are forgoing French, Spanish
and Chinese to try indigenous Latin American languages such as Zapotec,
Mixtec and Quechua. Some leap in for the adventure. Others want
to get closer to their roots.
words come out in abrupt breaths, as if Felipe Lopez were whispering
to the chalkboard.
Rseidy," he asks his students to repeat. "Learns."
Dizh. Dizh, say it with me, is 'language.' "
unison, the students in the UCLA classroom follow, training their
tongues to the rhythm of Zapotec, an ancient language that few people
in Los Angeles have ever spoken or even heard. It comes from Oaxaca,
on the southern tip of Mexico, a state known for its elaborate,
of the students from La Puente, Redondo Beach, the San Gabriel
Valley have never traveled south to the Zapotec villages
and probably never will.
at UCLA and a few other universities, some are pushing aside French,
Spanish and Chinese to try rarely offered indigenous Latin American
languages such as Zapotec, Mixtec, Aymara and Quechua.
leap in for the adventure. Others want to get closer to their roots.
History and anthropology students sometimes sign up for the sake
of research. And then there are the doctors, social workers and
teachers who hope to put what they learn to immediate practical
standard languages doesn't help you understand the needs of regional
areas," said Ramona Perez, director of the Center for Latin
American Studies at San Diego State University. "But indigenous
languages show you all the diversity we have."
university began teaching Mixteco a decade ago. A few years later,
it partnered with UC San Diego and started to offer first Zapotec,
then Aymara, a language spoken in Bolivia, Peru and Chile.
at San Diego State remain small; sometimes as few as half a dozen
people show. When Angelina Torres was first asked to teach her native
language, Mixteco, there, she scoffed at the idea. "Why would
anyone want to learn Mixteco?" she thought to herself.
up in Ixpantepec Nieves, a mountainous village in Oaxaca, she had
seen anthropologists come and go, their notebooks full of words
she couldn't read. She didn't understand why they would spend months
studying her culture and history.
something we never had a chance to do ourselves," she said.
Instead, young people were encouraged to speak Spanish because Mixteco
"had no future."
she arrived in California at 22, she abandoned her native languages
altogether for English. It wasn't until she agreed to teach at San
Diego State that she began to take pride in her indigenous roots.
the students, I've learned to value my culture, to know my identity,"
Los Angeles, Felipe Lopez also gradually shed his shame for Zapotec.
of the estimated 300,000 Oaxacans living in Los Angeles County are
of Zapotec decent, he said. He wanted the language and the culture
recognized as distinct, even in a sea of Spanish-speaking Mexicans.
now represents his countrymen living in the United States by serving
as a liaison to the Oaxacan government. And he and two UCLA colleagues
worked for eight years in the 1990s to write the first Zapotec,
Spanish, English dictionary. The thick book defines 9,000 words
in Zapotec, a language that is hardly ever written.
class on a recent Tuesday morning, the small, soft-spoken man paced
across the front of the class, stopping now and then to glance at
a three-volume workbook he helped write for the course.
students focused intently on his tone; the slightest mispronunciation
can transform any Zapotec word, turning "flower" into
"stone" and "wind" into "ant."
Corona,a 23-year-old master's student in urban planning and Latin
American, studies took careful notes, paying particularly close
attention to each point Lopez made about Zapotec culture, about
its hierarchical structure and emphasis on respect and harmony.
After graduating next summer, she plans to live in Oaxaca for a
year or two to help indigenous groups organize for social change.
want to go down there and create a connection with the community,
immerse myself in it," Corona said.
Dufendach, a history student, wrote down the Zapotec words for "cat"
and "hat" peppered with y's and z's and h's
hoping they would one day help her tap into deeper meaning.
25-year-old from Gettysburg, Pa., intends to fly to Mexico soon
to work on her doctorate, translating century-old colonial documents
deeds, birth certificates, court hearings written
in indigenous languages.
important to interpret their history from their point of view, not
someone else's," she said.
Tapia joined the Zapotec class with his own plans for the future.
But they had nothing to do with academics. He was there to learn
about his history and the history of his Zapotec grandfather.
remembers as a child visiting his grandparents in Puebla, Mexico,
and hearing their tones rise and fall in their native language.
Now and then, when a word sounded like Spanish, Tapia pretended
day I'd like to go back to his village, run into some relatives
and be able to exchange of couple of words with them," he said.