A Way of Speaking: Identifying as Native American in Mexico

To speak or not to speak, that is the big question. It is a general understanding among Mexicans that to identify as Native American one must speak an indigenous language. Thus a native marker is not the colour of the skin, one’s ancestry, DNA research or a cultural identification. To be able to speak fluently an indigenous language is THE marker for people to identify as Native American in Mexico.

Before the Spanish came to the lands that are today Mexico, language shift was commonplace. The reasons for such a shift are many and complicated. Adopting a prestige language is a well known phenomenon all over the world. When a ruling group establishes itself in a new territory either by military conquest or by commercial domination, the players most involved with the new power broker soon start to speak the new language. Soon thereafter that language becomes the lingua franca. In settlements were two or more ethnic and/or language groups live together, adopting a prestige language makes it easier to communicate between speech communities.

The prestige language determines also which social class people belong to. Privileges and opportunities in the bigger society are determined by the social class. It is thus often desirable to gain access to more material goods and financial security. In such instances people leave an underprivileged social class to seek a place in a higher standing class. Adopting a new cultural identity complete with a new language explains some of the increase in the mestizo population. Spanish immigration was not universal in all sectors of what is now Mexico. In many instances mostly Spanish males emigrated to the New World. These males married to local indigenous women to create for the offspring a social class a step above the oppressed Native American population. In other instances whole families immigrated to Mexico. In such cases an ethnic cleansing took place and the most desirable lands are thus today occupied by European-descended people. In time a complex system of class distinction developed in Latin America based on the colour of the skin, ancestry and language. More of that in this article: https://manworldblog.com/2017/12/10/empowering-the-oppressed-the-mayas-part-2/

Maya kona
A Yuecatec Maya woman in a restaurant in Mérida in the Yucután Peninsula in Mexico.

Looking at today’s census for Mexico reveals the distinctive landscape of villages in the same municipality, some are peopled by speakers of Native American languages classifying as indios, while other villages are inhabited by Spanish-speaking folks, classifying as mestizos or simply Mexicanos. Little physical distinction between people can be made in most instances except that Spanish-speaking ones have less visible Native American cultural features than the ones speaking Native American languages. The pre-Hispanic highly stratified social system that the Aztecs called in the Nahuatl-language calpōlli, the community centered focus for every-day life, plays a major role in modern times in determining what role villagers play in regard to identity.

Adopting an elite language is a survival strategy in the brutal exploiting system that prevailed in Mexico from 1521 onward, or from the coming of the Spaniards. Sometimes this brutal system was an adoption of the traditional tax tribute system people in the Aztec Empire were accustomed to. More often however, the cruelty, genocide, oppression and the utter madness that the Spaniards showed their conquered subjects in their efforts to enrich themselves had no parallel in the history of mankind.

With the adoption of the new language villagers in one village gambled on being players in the larger society simply to survive. Their chances of survival would improve they thought from the lowest social rank of being indios. Other villages however opted to keep their language and culture as intact as possible. The idea was to isolate themselves from the larger society in the hope of being left alone. Both strategies were just different ways to survive in a changing and often times hostile world.

A cultural awakening across Mexico among Native Americans has brought changes to this landscape. Community radio stations broadcasting in Native American languages changes the views people have of speaking indio. In arts and culture it is now more accepted to openly speak a Native American language and express traditional culture. Rappers sing in Native American languages and tourists line up to see a colourful Amerindian culture on display. Although the tourist industry portrays Native American culture in their own culturally exploiting way, the display in itself can increase acceptance and revitalization of almost forgotten customs. Pride is creeping slowly into the picture. Identities are also changing so that to speak a Native American language is not a necessary skill to identify as Native American. Whether this will have a long lasting effect on the Mexican class system and the status of Native Americans within in it, only time can tell.

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