Latin America's Indian languages struggle for survival

Wednesday, November 27, 1991

By Peter Gellert

MEXICO CITY — Despite 500 years of pressure and persecution designed to destroy them as ethnic entities, there are currently almost 45 million Indians on the American continent, grouped into 7500 distinct cultures.

These figures are obviously much lower in comparison with what existed when the European colonisers arrived. However, the question is not just historical, because it is still unclear what the future holds for Latin America's Indian cultures.

As rural communities and small towns where Indian groups live become integrated into the domestic market, and as the communications media reach the most isolated corners of Latin America, the "Castillanisation", or Spanish-isation process accelerates, particularly when a language does not enjoy the protection of a nation state.

However, in the last few years a new consciousness among the Indian peoples themselves has emerged concerning the value of their culture and the need to rescue and preserve their languages.

As a result of this new interest, almost all Latin American governments, to one degree or another, have embarked on programs aimed at maintaining Indian culture and language.

In Latin America, the main linguistic groups are the Tano-Axteca, Zoque-Maya, Otomi-Manque (including the Mixtec and Zapotec families) and the Tarasco language in Mexico and the Zoque-Maya, Paya, Lenca and Miskito-Chibcha languages in Central America.

Also, the Caribe-Arwak in Venezuela; the Chibcha and Caribe-Arwak in Colombia; the Chibcha and Quechua in Ecuador; the Aymara and Quechua language groups in Peru and Bolivia; Guarani in Paraguay and Araucano in Chile.

The most important languages in numerical terms are Quechua and Aymara in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador; Guarani in Paraguay, and Maya in Mexico. In other countries, the native Indian population is divided into many sub-groups, each with its own language.

In addition, the languages are very restricted, both in terms of geographical extension and their capacity to sustain growth or developed cultural expressions.

Millions of speakers

In some Latin American countries Indians are a majority of the inhabitants. In Bolivia, for example, only a minority of the population has Spanish as its native tongue, although the Indian majority is divided into Quechua and Aymara speaking groups. These two languages have 12 million speakers — more than Danish, Swedish, Greek or Hungarian.

Paraguay is the only Latin American country in which an Indian language, tatus along with Spanish. In some respects it is even more important than Spanish due to its colloquial and domestic character and its significance as a symbol and mechanism of national identity.

In Guatemala, also with an Indian majority, there are hundreds of indigenous languages, although only a few have national importance. In Mexico, the Mayan language in the Yucatan peninsula, spoken by 700,000 people, has fared the best. It is estimated that 55% of the state's population speaks Mayan, although only 8.8% is monolingual in that language.

Zapotec, the main Indian language of Oaxaca and the Tehuantepec isthmus, has 500,000 speakers and 15 dialects. Forty per cent of the Oaxacan population speaks it, although only 12% is monolingual in Zapotec.

Despite these statistics, the tendency in Mexico is clear: on a national level, less than 9% of the population speaks an Indian language. In the last decade, the level of bilingualism has dropped by 13.6% and monolingualism by 42%.

The high percentage of Mayan speakers in the Yucatan peninsula, according to specialists, reflects the low level of industrial development, the fact that there does not exist a plethora of local languages and therefore Mayan has better chances as a lingua franca. In addition, an important part of the local economic transactions are conducted in Mayan.

Since most native speakers live in rural and impoverished areas, the level of literary production and written material is very low. There are some local newspapers in Zapotec, Quechua, Aymara, and in almost all Latin American countries there are radio stations with programs in Indian languages.

Mexico and Ecuador have full-time government offices to coordinate radio programming in native languages. The shortwave services of Radio Havana; HCJB, the Voice of the Andes in Quito, Ecuador; Radio Beijing and Radio Moscow all broadcast in Quechua, while the latter also broadcasts in Guarani for Paraguayan listeners.

However, the missing factor is television. And the sad truth of the matter is that in the world that we live in, a language without access to TV has considerable difficulty surviving.

The 'Indian question'

In Latin America three ideas have predominated concerning the "Indian question".

There is the traditional conservative approach which considers the Indian groups as a relic of the past, a reflection of backwardness and unworthy of concerted efforts on behalf of their culture.

The liberal tendency stands for integrating native people into the different societies through a Castillanisation process. Proponents of this view do not see the indigenous groups as an obstacle to the country's welfare, but as a resource. Finally, there is the progressive current which bases its outlook on conceptions concerning defence of cultural, linguistic and human rights, and actively and consciously seeks to rescue and preserve native cultures and languages as worthy in and of themselves.

The first important programs for teaching and preserving Indian languages began during the 1920s and 1930s.

Of particular interest were experiences in Mexico: in the Yucatan Peninsula, under the Socialist government headed by Felipe Carillo Puerto, Mayan was declared the official language. In Michoacan, programs for rescuing the Tarasca language were implemented under the Lazaro Cardenas government in the 1930s.

Ecuador has had such programs since 1926, when the Indians themselves began to organise to defend their rights.

However, in general, it was only in the late '60s, when concern over the future of Indian communities and their languages began to be expressed, that Latin America and the world began to take the question more seriously.

In the '60s, the first pilot projects in Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico began to be formulated and implemented.

Interamerican efforts

The Interamerican Indigenist Institute (III), which has the backing of Latin American governments, government-organised and independent forums and an independent Indian movement, has been working since then on a series of projects centering on education (preschool, primary and high school and teacher training).

To give added impetus to this endeavour, the Linguistic Rehabilitation Project, organised by the III, UNESCO and 16 member nations, was founded.

In 1987 there was an agreement to coordinate work on an international level, with OAS and UN support, designed to rescue literature and create alphabets (based on the Roman alphabet) for languages that still had no written expression.

Scientific, technical and cultural words that were still absent from languages such as Quechua were invented, and newspapers and magazines were published.

I spoke with Jose Matos Mar, III director, and Alberto Hurtado, head of programs and projects for the institute. The two Peruvian specialists beamed with enthusiasm as they described the XVI Interamerican Course on Indian Observation and Practice.

The course, held in Oaxaca, Mexico, and sponsored by the OAS and the Mexican government, brought a dozen Quechua specialists together for eight weeks in May and June 1991. The goal was to transcribe Quechua into computers so as to homogenise and unify criteria and adapt the language for use in the modern world.

"It was an unprecedented experience", according to Matos. "For the first time ever, Quechua teachers were brought in from Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Five hundred years after the conquest, Quechua still did not have a common written form. It now does."

According to Cheng, "In five years all of the main native peoples will be able to write in their own languages. This is an III project to be implemented during the 1991-1996 period. Our idea is to extend the experience and methodological framework employed in Mexico to all Latin America."

These projects represent, in certain fashion, new thinking on the part of the III and other specialists concerning the Indian question.

"A modern Indianist movement must respond to new situations without forgetting traditions", the magazine America Indigena, published by the III, declares.

"In countries where the native population is larger and where the process of urbanisation is more intense, a new situation has arisen: the participation of Indians in mass social movements." The III is clearly attempting to adopt its policies and programs to the needs and possibilities of the 1990s.

While interest and work in Indian languages is not the property of any one political current and group, it has generally been left-of-centre organisations that have shown the most interest and initiative in this field.

Thus in Guatemala, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), in Mexico, both the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), and in Colombia the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) all conduct work in native Indian languages.

In the Andean countries, Peru's United Left and Sendero Luminoso conduct propaganda and agitation amongst peasants in their native Quechua. In Bolivia, in addition to native Indian political movements, the Bolivian Peasant Movement works both in Quechua and Aymara.

In Nicaragua, when the Sandinista government was in power, it undertook an unprecedented program in areas inhabited by minority ethnic groups along that country's Atlantic coast, where Miskito and Creole English are spoken.

Despite serious financial problems, the Nicaraguan government made an impressive attempt to organise literacy campaigns in native languages and promote their daily use.

However, it has been the growth in consciousness and organisation of the Indians themselves that has spurred a heightened interest in their culture and language in a not-always-receptive society.

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