Mixteca: Land and Language Loss

by Translation Guy on October 17, 2012
8 comments

When indigenous people lose a language, it’s worse than when losing their land, says linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann of the University of Adelaide.

I posted on that recently, with a bit of skepticism, based on my own family’s abandonment of French and Quebec for fatter paychecks here in the USA. A couple of generations ago, the Anglais needed mill hands; a good thing too, since selling out is so often a buyer’s market.

So, skeptical, but I flipped out when I saw Matt Black’s photographic project, After the Fall in the NYT’s Lens Blog.

Matt has documented the physical disappearance of Mixtec lands from underneath the village of Santiago Mitlatongo, one of many failing Mixteca towns left behind in Mexico. As the land is lost to erosion, Mixtec language and culture are blown away across a continent, as migrants walk dusty highways for a livelihood.

At 1-800-Translate our first professional exposure to Mixtec came when we had to develop a capability in that language to serve growing numbers of Mixteca immigrants. In the last decade or so, these people have been leaving their collapsing farms to hoe a row in the fertile fields of American agribusiness.

Finding linguists fluent in Mixtec and English is not easy. In Mexico, the Mixteca were left to their own devices up on their hill farms, isolated and scorned, so education and accompany language skills are lacking. Mixtec now face the same descrimination in El Norte, especially those who have not mastered Spanish or English.

Yet, should you ever visit the great mountaintop citadel of Monte Alban, one of the oldest cities in the New World, you would recognize the Mixtec as cultural heavy hitters, a people once urbane and literate. A culture of consequence, a people to be respected, now fallen on half a millennium of hard times.They gave Aztecs and Spaniards a run for their money, but lost out in the end.

Matt McCanin writes, “The Mixteca region, which straddles the Oaxaca, Guerrero and Puebla states in southern Mexico, has been subject to centuries of erosion. It’s unclear if it was initiated by the Spaniards and their crops, cattle and church-building, or even before the Spanish invasion, when the Aztecs exacted tribute from the Mixtecs, who perhaps overtilled their land to meet the demands. Either way, the erosion has probably been exacerbated by modern agricultural practices and the effects of climate change. Today, it’s a desert; the Mixtecs can barely feed themselves, so they migrate to the United States, leaving behind fragments of towns that can no longer function well enough to support themselves.”

Photojournalist Matt Black got on to this story when he started taking pictures of unemployed farm workers in the Central Valley of California. He couldn’t figure out how these people could tolerate the migrant life. That is until he learned where they came from. They had no choice. Necessity is a mother.

Driven by circumstances from their lands, they require new skills and new languages to survive. Language loss seems acceptable collateral damage under such difficult conditions.

So when I saw these photos of Mixteca land actually disappearing beneath the feet of the Mixtea, I was outraged by Zuckerman’s facile equivalency of land and language.

Sustenance is job #1 for any linguistic group, linguists included. Linguists may live off language, but farmers live off the land. In that light, language preservation seems of little consequence when compared to erosion control.

Perhaps some of my indignation comes from my envy of Matt’s amazing photography, a profession I gave up to make money in this business. Sustenance as job #1. Sigh.

8 Comments

  1. Nancy says:

    Coming from a language background, I feel that language and culture shouldn’t be lost under any circumstance. If you as an individual are lucky enough to speak two or more languages, maybe because your background is different from the place you live or you have learnt a new language throughout the years; then it’s always important to keep that ‘gift’ no matter the circumstance. As the article mentions, due to natural circumstances, the Mixteca culture is fading away. The Mixteca culture doesn’t have to end there. Even if the people are forced to move out, they can always take the culture with them, wherever they go.

  2. Terry says:

    Yet, should you ever visit the great mountaintop citadel of Monte Alban, one of the oldest cities in the New World, you would recognize the Mixtec as cultural heavy hitters, a people once urbane and literate. A culture of consequence, a people to be respected, now fallen on half a millennium of hard times.They gave Aztecs and Spaniards a run for their money, but lost out in the end.

    Matt McCanin writes, “The Mixteca region, which straddles the Oaxaca, Guerrero and Puebla states in southern Mexico, has been subject to centuries of erosion. It’s unclear if it was initiated by the Spaniards and their crops, cattle and church-building, or even before the Spanish invasion, when the Aztecs exacted tribute from the Mixtecs, who perhaps overtilled their land to meet the demands. Either way, the erosion has probably been exacerbated by modern agricultural practices and the effects of climate change. Today, it’s a desert; the Mixtecs can barely feed themselves, so they migrate to the United States, leaving behind fragments of towns that can no

  3. Bob Kuyper says:

    I honestly wish in this country we could have a real dialogue about immigration without descending into racist vitriol, they amount of suffering these people go through is unbelievable; and they come to this country to do jobs no one else would.

  4. Stacey says:

    Well, this just ruined my day, and I was in such a great mood. Seriously though, these people are facing abomidable circumstances, the photos are just shocking and now they face coming to America where they’ll be pariahs as most likely illegal immigrations. It’s just heartbreaking.

  5. I don’t want to be a doomsayer, but the environmental and economic situation facing these people could soon begin to face people in the Southern United States, where changing landscapes and poor economic outlooks will devestate smaller communities.

  6. Len Ochowicz says:

    You would think the Mexican government would do something for these people.

  7. Those photos, wow, it’s just a wasteland these people are trying to pull a living out of. I can’t imagine something like that.

  8. Laurie says:

    This is just a terribly depressing situation, not just losing their language, but the fact that their ome is literally sinking into the earth. I wish all the best to these people, God bless them.

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