Tag Archives: Los Angeles

A Push to Keep the Zapotec Language Alive in Los Angeles

In Los Angeles recently, people from the small town of San Bartolome Zoogocho, located in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, honored their patron saint.  (Photo: Ruxandra Guidi)

In Los Angeles recently, people from the small town of San Bartolome Zoogocho, located in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, honored their patron saint. (Photo: Ruxandra Guidi)

Here’s a guest post from LA-based reporter Ruxandra Guidi

It’s 6 o’clock on a Friday night. About a dozen people gather inside a small office space in Los Angeles; in the MacArthur Park neighborhood, where many immigrants live. Sitting around a circle, they recite words in Dizha’ Xhon, also known as the Zapotec language.

Aaron Huey Sonnenschein, a linguistics professor at California State University, Los Angeles, is leading the group, focusing solely on the sound of Zapotec words. It’s called the “phonics” method of learning. Sonnenschein adds that it is a methodology that linguist Leanne Hinton, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, has innovated. Sonnenschein adds that it’s an approach that works especially well with indigenous languages like Zapotec, which counts on few native speakers. The idea is to avoid the “years it would take to create a full language program and create one as we go along.”

Aside from their Friday night meet-ups, the group in Los Angeles is creating a digital archive on Facebook featuring Zapotec words. It also has photos illustrating their meaning and their translation into English.

The web-based, interactive archive is meant for young, English-speaking Oaxacan Americans like 15-year-old Alison Morales.

“My whole family speaks Zapotec,” says Morales. “My grandma would always say hi to me in Zapotec and I didn’t know what it meant. So I decided to learn a few words here and there.” His mom, Celerina Montes, couldn’t be happier or more proud.

“I’m really proud to be Oaxacan,” Montes says. “Of course, I’m also proud to be Mexican, and to speak Spanish.” But, she adds, that with people who she knows speak Zapotec, she always bids them a good afternoon by saying “patir” rather than “buenos tardes.”

In Los Angeles, Montes constantly runs into people from her Oaxacan village, San Bartolome Zoogocho. So, the class is also a place to see old friends, and to get the latest gossip from back home. But San Bartolome Zoogocho is also shrinking.

There are only about 400 people left there these days. On the other hand, Los Angeles is home to about 1,500 Zoogochenses.

“Most of us live here. We have a ghost town, basically, at home,” says Odilia Romero, director of the LA-based Binational Organization of Indigenous Communities. It’s hosting the Zapotec classes. “If the language was to be rescued, it would be here in LA. But if we don’t do anything about it, by 2050, it’ll be gone,” says Romero.

On a warm Sunday afternoon, Romero and more than 50 other Zoogochenses stand outside a home in South LA, holding red gladiolus flowers. They wait for the brass band to start playing. Then, they march behind a framed 8-by-11 photo of an effigy of their patron saint, San Bartolome. The photo is taken inside a home and placed on an altar, surrounded by incense and more flowers. The display is similar to the type of ritual done back in the Mexican village, with the original effigy.

With flowers in his hand, Ted Lazaro says this little procession is one way of keeping his village’s traditions alive. Speaking Zapotec is another.

“To say that you’re indigenous is a dirty word for many people still. It implies that you have no education,” says Lazaro. “But these days, our kids go to school and learn about many cultures, including their own. So now it’s the kids that talk to their parents and grandparents here, and tell them, “Look, your culture is important.’”

Lazaro is a computer programmer by day. Lately, he’s spent evenings and weekends practicing Zapotec with his children and making traditional masks. On August 24, dancers will wear those masks at a fiesta organized by people in Los Angeles with ties to San Bartolome Zoogocho. It is something they have done in LA for nearly 45 years.



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Learning in two languages, and new Zulu words

A back-to-school edition about learning in a second language. We spend some time in the classroom with fourth grade teacher Stephanie Blanco of  Gauldin Elementary School in Downey, CA to explore the challenges of teaching English language learners. ELL came to the fore after 1998, when California voters approved Proposition 227, which ended bilingual education.  In ELL classrooms,  everyone — whether they or not they are proficient in English — learns in English.

Gauldin has a good record of improving ELL students’ English skills, in marked contrast to many of the schools in neighboring Los Angeles. The situation there is so dire that the the U.S. Department of Education has launched a investigation to determine if if the Los Angeles Unified School District is violating the civil rights of English Language Learners.  The feds are also taking a look at Boston schools. (A few months ago, Carol Hills and I  discussed Arizona’s decision to penalize ELL teachers whose accents are deemed too foreign. Arizona is still defending its policy, which itself has come under federal scrutiny.)

Also in the podcast, a Creole-speaking Haitian girl newly arrived in New York City enrols in a high school, with help from a community group in Brooklyn. The girl fled Haiti after the earthquake there earlier this year. Like most Haitians, she wants to master the language and stay here permanently.  But she only has a U.S. visitor visa.Then it’s back to California as an Arabic immersion program gets underway at FAME a public charter school in Fremont, CA. Reporter Hana Baba provided us with a nice slideshow of scenes from the school, including the photo above of school founder Maram Alaiwat. Not surprisingly, many of the students at this K-10th grade school are of Arab and/or Muslim descent.  More surprising is that the school has opened its doors to the FBI. The bureau offers FAME 5th graders the chance to become “junior special agents” .

Finally, the first Zulu-English dictionary in 40 years has just been published in South Africa. Some English speakers already know a few words of Zulu (also known as isiZulu) — words like ubuntu. Zulu has also borrowed from other South African languages such as Afrikaans, and many Zulu words offer their own linguistic takes on apartheid and AIDS. We talk with the publishing manager of Oxford University Press South Africa.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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