Indigenous languages & Spanish: Special guest, Ana Alonso Ortiz talks language, identity and politics

While Spanish is a minoritized language here in the U.S., throughout much of the Americas, Spanish is the majority language and has been displacing indigenous languages at an increasing rate. Recently, in Dr. Faber‘s SPAN 779, Bilingualism and Cognition course, students began examining language ideologies and the relationship between language and nation states. On April 1st, the class was thrilled to receive Ana Alonso Ortiz, PhD Candidate in Hispanic Linguistics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a speaker and member of a Zapotec community in Oaxaca, Mexico, whose research focuses on the linguistic description of the Zapotec language and the bilingual childhood acquisition of Zapotec and Spanish in Oaxaca.

In her talk, La relación de las lenguas indígenas con el español en México y Los Ángeles, California: El caso de Zapoteco (English translation: The relationship between indigenous languages and Spanish in Mexico and Los Angeles, California: The case of Zapotec), Alonso Ortiz described the historical context behind Zapotec, an Oto-Manguean language spoken primarily in Oaxaca, Mexico, but also boasts a significant population in Los Angeles, California. She shared that during her time researching in Los Angeles, she was amazed to see young people who were trilingual in Spanish, English, and Zapotec and the efforts of the community to maintain and strengthen ties to the land and culture left behind in Oaxaca. Such is the case with a recent mural project at the L.A. Public Library (see below).

Visualizing Language: Oaxaca in L.A. from Library Foundation of LA on Vimeo.

Likewise, cultural aspects of Oaxaca can be found represented in Los Angeles, such as clothing, music, and traditions. Alonso Ortiz noted that sadly, as many have stated before, you sometimes have to leave and go live in a new place to fully recognize the value of your cultural heritage and pointed out cultural elements of Oaxaca represented in the following music video:

Alonso Ortiz affirmed that for many Oaxacans living in L.A., embracing their language and their heritage is a way to resist and exist in spaces where there is discrimination, racism, and violence against minority communities.

While attitudes toward Zapotec are generally positive in Los Angeles, the language has a history of marginalization in Mexico dating back to the arrival of Franciscan Friars in 1524 and reinforced by the formation of the Mexican Nation State. The vitality of the language is heavily impacted by linguistic displacement from Spanish, linguistic policies implemented by the Mexican government, interruption in the intergenerational transmission of the language, discrimination, and the death of its speakers (from old age, violence, and the Covid-19 pandemic, which much like in the U.S., disproportionately affects marginalized communities).

Often in Westernized education systems, there is a high value placed on bilingualism with European languages. Alonso Ortiz states that while bilingualism with French, English, and Spanish is all wonderful, it is a moral imperative that indigenous communities have access to education in their languages.


The map in the main image comes from:

The content from the main image comes from:


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