Indigenous Languages

Hundreds of distinctive Indigenous languages are spoken across Latin America, with many now having a strong presence in the New York area

Mexico is home to 68 languages officially recognized by the Mexican government, and linguists have identified well over 300 or even more distinct language varieties. Between 6 and 8 percent of the population are reported to speak an indigenous language, and several of them–notably Nahuatl, Yucatec Maya, and Mixtec–have hundreds of thousands of speakers, if not more, as well as significant histories of documentation, literacy, and media. Most Central American languages south of Mexico belong either to the Mayan language family in Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras, and El Salvador, or to the Chibchan language family of Costa Rica and Panama, extending into Colombia. Many Central American languages have only small numbers of speakers: oppression, civil war, migration, and job prospects are among the factors driving a shift to Spanish in some communities.

Over the last two decades, New York has become home to large immigrant communities from two western Mexican states, Oaxaca and Guerrero, which are among the world’s most diverse linguistic areas. Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Estatisdica y Geografia (INEGI) and the Mexican Consulate in New York have estimated that more than 250,000 of the city’s 320,000 Mexican-born population are of indigenous origin (Nevaer 2012) and that one out of three speak an indigenous language. The Guatemalan community in the New York area has also been growing continuously for the last few decades, bringing with it many Mayan languages.

The Indigenous Languages of Latin America Project includes ELA’s documentation work on Mexican languages such as Amuzgo, Mixe, PurhepechaTlapanec, Totonac, and multiple varieties of the highly diverse languages Mixtec and Nahuatl. The city also has numerous speakers of Zapotec, Otomi, Mazatec, and Chinantec varieties, among others. Besides recording words, grammatical features, and a variety of stories and narrative, ELA has also worked on public outreach around these languages, including a special event on indigenous Mexican languages at El Museo del Barrio, work with the local organization Mano a Mano, a class on Nahuatl, a pilot program on Mixtec literacy with ELA associates Lluvia Camacho-Cervantes and Lauren Spradlin, and growing initiatives with city agencies including the NYC Department of Health. There was also the film “Meso-American New York” in collaboration with Intercultural Productions, featuring Totonac-speaking shaman Don Jose Juarez, who now lives and works in the New York area.

Although speakers of Chibchan languages are relatively rare in New York, ELA has been working with a few speakers of Bribri, an endagered language of the Costa Rica-Panama border area, and ELA collaborator Natalia Bermudez has worked in depth documentation on Naso (Teribe), spoken in the same region by only a few thousand speakers–as well as one speaker in upstate New York.

Whether you are a speaker yourself, a partial speaker, or know someone who might be, we are always looking for more resources on lesser-known Mexican and Central American languages. Please get in touch!