At school in Tecate in the 1950s, a city sitting on Mexico’s border with the United States, Josefina Meza was welcomed by a chorus of children’s chants in a language she did not understand.
“Pinches indios, pinches indios,” her peers called out. At first, Meza thought they wanted to be her friends. But her brother clarified: Using Spanish, which she had yet to learn, they were humiliating her, chanting a slur for indigenous Mexicans that rang as strong as the “n” word in English.
The silver-haired, 72-year-old remembers quizzing her brother in her native Kumiai, now one of the dozens of rapidly disappearing indigenous languages in Latin America.
“I asked him what that word, ‘indio,’ meant,” the indigenous activist said of how she had not known the term used by some Mexicans to refer to her people, similar to the English “Indian.” “But when I started to speak more Spanish and talk with them, I understood the mockery,” Meza said.
These experiences were among the reasons the Kumiai people and other indigenous groups the length of Latin America started teaching their native languages to their children less – to avoid discrimination.
Decades later, the racism evident in “pinche indio” remains widespread in the region, combining with globalization and technology to threaten with extinction some 170 languages, including the 381-speaker Kumiai, which remains at risk despite efforts by governments and civil society organizations since the mid-20th century.
Though language extinction is a “natural process” due to the constant transformation of cultures, it comes with a price, said Frédéric Vacheron, representative of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, in Mexico.
“It is not only words that disappear, it is a perspective, a wealth of cultural practices, a worldview,” Vacheron said.
UNESCO named 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages, committing to working with governments and native peoples to rescue endangered and threatened tongues among the 600-some surviving indigenous tongues in the region.
Preserving indigenous languages has become a race against the clock. It may be too late.
Read more: Reuters