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The Last of the Mayans: Preserving Chiapas’ Indigenous Languages in the 21st Century

By Jordan Bazak
Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

October 17, 2016 – On January 1, 1994, indigenous members of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) marched into the city of San Cristobal de Las Casas in the state of Chiapas, Mexico the same morning that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect. This past spring, thousands of teachers belonging to the National Organization of Education Workers (CNTE) took to the streets of the nearby state capital, Tuxtla Gutierrez, to protest President Enrique Peña Nieto’s signature education reform. Separated by two decades, these movements seem to have little in common. The Zapatistas worried that a NAFTA-required constitutional amendment, which permitted the privatization of ejidos (communal lands), would lead to greater property concentration. Today’s opponents of education reform fear that new teacher evaluation requirements threaten the jobs of indigenous instructors, who are vital to communities in which many parents do not speak Spanish. Their core concern, however, was and is the same: that Mexico’s economic and social reforms have consistently neglected the values, cultures, and traditions of its native people.

Language is one of the most important components of a people’s identity and culture. Although Spanish is by far Mexico’s predominant language, 7 million Mexicans speak one of the country’s more than 60 indigenous tongues. The Zapatista Uprising brought new attention to indigenous language rights, resulting in the 2003 General Law on the Linguistic Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which guaranteed linguistic equality in education, public services, and mass media. Since then, Chiapas’ indigenous languages, if not those elsewhere, have experienced remarkable stability. While it is difficult to attribute this maintenance solely to a relatively new national piece of legislation, there can be little doubt that the cultural and political awakening that preceded the law’s enactment reinforced Chiapas’ native tongues in a way that did not occur elsewhere.

Located on Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, Chiapas is among the poorest and slowest growing states in the Mexio. Improvements in education, gender equality, and urbanization are much needed. Unfortunately, each of these changes is likely to threaten the continuity of the state’s indigenous languages. Granting greater autonomy to indigenous communities and supporting natives who migrate to urban centers would mitigate the effect of such reforms. Failure to promote inclusive development not only threatens Chiapas’ linguistic diversity but also its social order. As history has shown, if the state’s indigenous people feel marginalized by reform, they will not hesitate to defend their way of life at all costs.

READ MORE:The Last Of The Mayans: Preserving Chiapas’ Indigenous Languages In The 21St Century“. COHA. N. p., 2016. Web. 21 Oct. 2016.

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