Mixtec is a broad term for a dialect cluster of over 50 closely related language varieties spoken in the region of Mexico sometimes known as “La Mixteca” and encompassing parts of Oaxaca, Puebla, and Guerrero. As many as 500,000 people are thought to speak this cluster of Mixtec varieties, with neighboring communities often understanding each others’ dialects and varieties separated by greater distances being mutually unintelligible. Before the Spanish Conquest, the Mixtecs had a distinctive logographic writing system, like some other Meso-American groups, and produced codices which can still be seen today. The current writing system for the language is based on the Latin alphabet, although many speakers appear to have greater literacy in Spanish.
Varieties of Mixtec, classified as being in the Eastern branch of the Oto-Manguean language family, are sometimes put together with Trique and Cuicatec languages into a larger “Mixtecan” grouping. Like all other members of Oto-Manguean family, Mixtec languages are tonal.There are also close connections to Amuzgo, another focus of ELA research. The vast internal diversity within Mixtec, comparable in some cases to the difference between Romance languages such as French and Spanish, has not been fully analyzed or grasped by researchers, partly due to the complexity of historical population movements.
While Mixtec as a whole is vibrantly spoken, with the number of speakers possibly even growing slightly, UNESCO considers nearly a dozen Mixtec varieties to be endangered, and in addition a dozen others are thought to have fewer than 2,000 speakers. Some Mixtec communities are shifting to Spanish under economic and demographic pressures. The Academia de la Lengua Mixteca (Academy of the Mixtec Language), founded by language activists in 1997 in Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca, coordinates many of the efforts to maintain the language in schools, communities, and media outlets, where it has a limited but important presence.
Some of the earliest outside of Mixtec was undertaken by Spanish missionaries in the wake of the Conquest. Today, there are some Mixtec dialects that have been documented professionally and in great detail while others are virtually unknown. The Summer Institute of Linguistics has undertaken some research on at least 25 different varieties, with many of the results accessible here, including full-length dictionaries and grammars.
ELA’s work on Mixtec initially focused on varieties spoken in the New York area that have not yet been well-documented anywhere else or have small numbers of speakers. More recently, ELA has been working with Mixtec speakers and city agencies to improve language access for speakers of this major, but largely invisible, language spoken across New York.
After a first wave from Puebla and a second from Guerrero and smaller ones from Oaxaca, the population of Mixtec speakers in the New York area has grown significantly in recent years, likely including thousands if not tens of thousands speaking many different different varieties, and making Mixtec (along with Nahuatl) the most widely spoken indigenous Mexican language in the New York area. In addition to isolated individuals and families, communities with Mixtec speakers in the New York area include a large number who from the area around Tlapa de Comonfort, Xalpatláhuac, Metlatónoc, and Yuvi Nani (in Guerrero); many from Atlixco, Tulcingo, Izúcar de Matamóros, and Acatlán de Osorio (all in Puebla); those from San Miguel Ahuehuetitlán (Oaxaca) in the Bronx, such as the owners of the restaurant La Morada; those from San Jerónimo Xayacatlán (Puebla) and San Marcos Natividad (Oaxaca), of whom several hundred are clustered in Staten Island.