In language is the preservation of the world

CUETZALAN, Puebla, Mexico.

Immersion has brought me back to Cuetzalan del Progreso, or Cuetzalan Magico in the tourist brochures.  This is a largely indigenous town in the northern highlands of Puebla.  I first came here for a weekend as an immersion student.  Now, I’m here to visit a my friend Lorena – or Lore – who coached me in conversational Spanish several years ago.  She now works for ChildFund Mexico, a program to help tthe language and culture of Mexico’s largest indigenous group.  In this case, the Nahua.

Trained in anthropology, she is now works with Nahua children from the hamlet of Yohualichan to teach them health, their civil rights, and other subjects.  Some are taught in Nahua, and some, like math, are taught in Spanish.  While teaching others, this remarkable young woman is in Nahua immersion as well.

A majority of Cuetzalan’s 10,000 residents follow their Nahua traditions.  Their language, Nahuatl, enriches Mexican Spanish and dots maps with names like Popocatepetl, Tehuacan, and Huaquechula.  Among the common words in Mexican Spanish are ‘coyote,’ ‘elote’ (sweetcorn), ‘atole’ (cocoa with corn flour), and guacolote (turkey) which is ‘pavo’ in regular Spanish, ‘cacahuates’ for peanuts, and ‘chapulines’ for grasshoppers.

Despite torrential, tropical rain, Lore and I spent three hours with poet Manuel Espinosa Sainos, a poet of the Tutunaku language, a sometime teacher, writer, translator, and radio broadcaster, in Tutunaku.  This is the language of his birth and his heart.  His mission is to advance Tutunaku by making it relevant to and useful in contemporary life.  This isn’t easy because Spanish, the language of conquest, administration, public education, and commerce overrides it.

Tutunaku and Nahua towns are scattered across this is a region of Gulf Coast jungle, steep mountainsides, deep valleys, and tropical agriculture.  It’s a lush, verdant region of waterfalls, temple ruins, and millenia-old traditions under assault by expropriation for economic exploitation of its natural  resources.  The indigenous people are resisting mines and hydroelectric projects.  If the projects succeed, more than  material resources will be lost.  Development threatens to rip the social fabric, the underlying culture, and the language.  And it is Manuel’s love of his language that gives him the energy to advance it as a working language.

Here, in still largely isolated tropical mountains, it’s easier to see how Spanish, Nahuatl or Tutunaku are more than vehicles for the transmission of data and information.  Regardless of the language, the words we use, and how we use them express our state of mind, our emotions, and what is hidden inside us.  At some level, our particular language reflects our deepest and truest self.

Despite the pounding rain, our conversation with Manuel continues.  He asks probing questions and listens carefully.  It is now easier to see how each of our respective languages affords subtly different view of the cosmos, as expressed, described, and defined by words.  Language gives us a particular mentality (or two) that shapes while it reflects it social setting, its culture.  Gaining the mentality behind the language, the basis of fluency, isn’t possible by learning in isolation, or with CDs.  Without interaction with others, it’s difficult to grasp or use the words precisely or with nuance.

Sloshing through Cuetzalan last night, and then a trip to the village of Jonotla, deep in the mountains, I realize immersion is a process that continues, or can continue, long after the classes are completed and all the certificates are awarded.  Language is fluid, evolving, and there is always more to learn as circumstances and places change.  And we must change and evolve with it.  Ongoing immersion sounds like a lot of work … unless you love it; then it becomes a way of life.

Addenum: The radio station is an important tool in the cultural surival of the Nahua and Tutunaku people of Puebla’s northern highlands. The programs and broadcasts on a range of practical topics, of news, and announcements, put these indigenous languages on par with Spanish as relevant means of communications in the 21st century.

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