Tag Archives: Mexico

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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Caught Between Two Languages

School students from the United States now living Zacatecas State, Mexico (Photo: Myles Estey)

School students from the United States now living Zacatecas State, Mexico (Photo: Myles Estey)

Here’s a guest post from Mexico-based reporter Myles Estey…

It’s Saturday morning in the rural Mexican state of Zacatecas and we are in English class. Antonio Acosta gives basic lessons to 35 teachers. “In! Between! Over! On!” he shouts out during one exercise. English levels vary, so Acosta is reviewing some of the basics.

In the class is Nora Santana. She can speak English fine, but feels rusty, too. She’s here to feel more comfortable with the language in order to better connect with her new students, those who grew up in the United States and who are having trouble keeping up with classes in Spanish. “They feel so confused,” said Santana. “They don’t understand everything I teach in Spanish.”

Other teachers, like Eduardo García, speak very little English and hit communication walls quickly with new students, especially those now arriving unable to speak Spanish at all.

In recent years, Acosta, an education official here, has witnessed the influx of school-aged kids returning to Mexico. They arrive with their parents, who have left the United States because they are undocumented or couldn’t find work. Acosta says the kids can feel disoriented in a Mexican classroom—like foreigners, but in what is supposedly their own nation.

Now, Acosta is pioneering a project to get Mexican teachers more accustomed to English. While some believe that the money might be better spent other ways, Acosta says that English classes are critical to help teachers and their students adjust.

Mexican teachers learning English take a break from class (Photo: Myles Estey)

“If the teachers learn English, the basic English level, they are going to use this kind of tool to communicate with the children that are coming from the United States,” said Acosta.

The class is best suited for teachers like 28-year-old Ari Rodríguez.

Rodríguez says she can have a tough time communicating with some of her new students from the US and keeps English crib notes handy. She mentions one newcomer, Juan, though he goes by John in the US. He is a soft-spoken 13-year-old, who just moved here from Texas. But when you hear Juan and Rodríguez speak, it’s clear that Juan’s Spanish is improving fast.

Juan is getting good grades here, too, except in Spanish and History. He still cannot articulate his answers to his teachers. “Its kind of hard to explain it,” Juan says. “Like, when I don’t know how to say the words, I just try to explain it to them.”

But for most students, speaking isn’t the hardest part—it’s classroom comprehension.

Meet Ashley. She’s 11, and born and raised in Southern California. She just moved to Zacatecas with her parents, who were undocumented in the US. Ashley speaks Spanish perfectly, but has always done her reading and writing in English. She is struggling to read in Spanish and finds the overall transition “weird.”

Ashley’s younger brother, Yoel, is also having a hard time at it. But he’s relieved to be here with his older sister, and a cousin is here, too. Being together, speaking English in the schoolyard, it makes their new life in Mexico easier. And they keep in touch in English with their friends back in the US over Facebook.

Luis Roberto Castañeda directs Zacatecas’ Migration Institute. He says of the 13,000 or so kids who have lived in the US and are now in the Zacatecas school system, nearly all have some difficulty at school. And there are no national programs in Mexico to attend to these students’ needs. Castañeda says that when the US-born students cannot fully understand classes, they do mental translations back to English. It slows them down.

Like Castañeda, Acosta believes that his pilot project is more than learning English: It represents an effort to help US-born children feel more welcome in Mexico and tune their teachers to the fact that their students straddle two worlds.



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Re-learning Spanish, Super-Injunctions, and UK hearts Obama

Thousands of kids from the United States are enrolling in Mexican schools. The reason: their Mexican parents are moving back from the United States. There are many reasons for this. Among them: deportation, fear of deportation, the poor economy in the U.S.  Some of the children were born in Mexico, some in the United States. But now they are in Mexico after years of English-language education, they are  struggling to learn or re-learn Spanish. We have a report from the border city of Nogales, Mexico.

The language  of the border and immigration has long been politicized. Whether you call someone who has jumped the border an illegal alien or undocumented worker depends on your politics. Neither term works for children whose families sneak them across the border. We have a report on these expressions, and many more from Michel Marizco of the Fronteras desk, run by several public radio stations based in the US South West.

Then, the pod travels to the UK, where British gag orders known as supin-injunctions aren’t working, thanks to Twitter. British judges can prohibit British newspapers and websites from talking about certain topics, but they can’t prohibit people tweeting from say, the United States. Britain isn’t China: it can’t maintain an internet firewall around its citizens. So politicians have concluded that the laws on injunctions will have to change. The lesson of this episode may be that it’s no longer possible to keep a secret about a public figure.  And if you try, you may well find that the secret rapidly becomes  subject to the Streisand effect.  (Yes, that’s Barbra).

Staying in Britain, we ask this: does Obama heart Britain as much as the Brits heart Obama? It’s not clear, even after the President’s recent trip to the UK, where he spoke many fine and admiring words about British institutions.

However, it seems that the so-called Special Relationship, held dear by British politicians and journalists, may no longer be  so special.

When it comes to its relationship with Downing St,  the White House appears not to want to be pinned down to an exclusive dating arrangement. Instead, the Americans are trying to balance multiple partners: Israel, China, Russia, India, Afghanistan and others. None of these partnerships is a candidate for a new special relationship; most are based on geopolitics and expediency rather than trust. But it’s nonetheless galling for Britain. After all, Tony Blair risked his political future on the Special Relationship when he stood by George W. Bush and sent British troops to war in Iraq, for better or worse.  So soon after cementing the Special Relationship, the Brits are now watching it fade into relative insignificance.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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Speaking in Tongues and Dreaming in Chinese

A new PBS documentary, Speaking in Tongues, follows four students and their families at dual immersion schools in San Francisco. The film offers evidence that the study of math, science and other subjects in more than one language gives students an edge, despite what some disapproving relatives might think.

I heard about this film many months ago. What really intrigued me about it was that the filmmakers — Marcia Jarmel and her husband Ken Schneider — have a big stake in this subject themselves. Ten years ago, they enrolled their older son into a Chinese immersion elementary school. A few years later, they did the same with their other son. It seemed to me that the best way to do a story about the film was to do a story about the Jarmel-Schneider family. So I interviewed them all at their house in the Richmond District of San Francisco (where many local stores are owned by Chinese speakers).

Of the four school students profiled in Speaking in Tongues, one is close in circumstance and motivation to the two Jarmel-Schneider boys.  Julian Ennis is a high school sophomore, whose white middle class American parents have no obvious link to China or the Chinese language. Yet their son is taking the highest level of Chinese offered in San Francisco schools. He — and they — are in it for cultural exposure, as global citizens.

Among the the others profiled, Durell Laury is attending a Chinese immersion elementary school. He is the only kid from his housing project going to that school. He mother says learning Chinese is “a way in and a way out.” There’s also Jason Patiño, attending Spanish immersion school. His Mexican parents — who didn’t attend a day of school themselves — listen to other Spanish speaking parents at the school, as they demand more English be spoken. But without the Spanish Jason is learning in class,  chances are he’d forget the language of his parents.

Finally there’s Kelly Wong, whose Chinese-American parents speak virtually no Chinese. Kelly is learning both Mandarin and Cantonese. This allows her, among other things, to have a meaningful relationship with her Cantonese-speaking grandmother. There’s one extraordinary scene at a family banquet, at which her great aunt objects to her learning Chinese, while another family member defends the decision to send her to Chinese immersion school. That scene feels like it could one day be America writ large, as migration and globalization bring the world to America, and the idea of bilingualism takes hold — and not just in polyglot places like San Francisco.

Local listings for Speaking in Tongues are here.

Also, I talk with linguist Deborah Fallows on living in China and learning Chinese. In Chinese, she says, rude is polite, and brusque is intimate. This comes out in all kinds of disorienting (no pun intended) ways, but the bottom line is, if people feel close to you in China, they will use a language of intimacy. That’s another way of saying they will dispense with please, thank you and other niceties. Their language is likely to seem harsh and abrupt.  Just remember:  it’s a compliment!  Check out other interviews Fallows did with Time and NPR. Better yet, listen to my interview with her, which is longer, weirder and funnier: we do Chinese names for foreigners, English names for Chinese people, and what happened to the language during the Sichuan earthquake. Here’s her book in the United States and the UK.



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