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Behind Tijuana's Mixtec curtain

An ancient Indian language makes its way to local classrooms

Julita Lopez: "They destroyed our buildings and our cities and the culture of people like the Mixtecs and the Aztecs."
  • Julita Lopez: "They destroyed our buildings and our cities and the culture of people like the Mixtecs and the Aztecs."

What's the third-most commonly spoken language in California? Mixtec, according to Professor Tom Davies, director of the Center for Latin American studies at San Diego State. But the only place you'll see that fact reflected in the education system is in Baja California.

Here at the José Vasconcelos public school in the hilltops of Tijuana's Colonia Obrera Tercera Sección, the kids are taking bilingual education, Tijuana-style. Mixtec to Spanish. Today they're showing the projects they did last Columbus Day. Most have drawn the explorer's three ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María, carrying the great man across the Atlantic to discover...their grandparents, the indigenous people of America.

Most of the children in Julita López's class are Mixtec. They still want to make Columbus the hero the textbooks say he is, but López won't let them. "We are Mixtecs," she says. "So we have to study Columbus objectively."

She looks at the kids surrounding her, José, Paulino, Rocío, Jessica, Miguel, Jesús, Laura-Ocorina, Adela, and a dozen others, all around 10, 11, 12. "Christopher Columbus 'discovered' America," she tells them. "He came across the Atlantic and he found us. But guess what? We weren't lost. He was. He thought he was in India. So because of this mistake he called us real Americans 'Indians.' Was it good that he came?"

"He made it hard for our grandfathers," says Miguel, who's 12.

López says she simply tries to teach the children the truth. "I teach them the story of how Columbus brought his religion, his customs, how he had many men with him from Spanish prisons who brought diseases, raped our women, had mestizo sons of mixed blood, indigenous and Spanish, and how for this...we have inherited evil. Yes. Evil. They destroyed our buildings and our cities and the culture of people like the Mixtecs and the Aztecs. And the small groups that survived had to flee to the mountains to avoid being exterminated. [Columbus Day] used to be very important. Now it is 'El Dia de la Raza.' It's no more, 'Thank you, Christopher Columbus!' "

This changed attitude toward Columbus owes more to teachers like López, she says, than government authorities. "Our history books are the same as they ever were," she says.

Partly because of these different perspectives, bilingual education south of the border faces opposition similar to California's. "Moms and dads of many Spanish-Mexican kids don't want us to spend time on bilingual education," says López. "They say it slows down their children and the Mixtec children too."

Yet with 30,000 to 40,000 Mixtec people in Tijuana, López says bilingual education is essential if these children are to have any chance in today's job market. She, her husband, professor Tiburcio Pérez, and other Tijuana Mixtec leaders have been fighting for recognition of Mixtec culture and rights since the early '80s. They have also been establishing bilingual Mixtec-Spanish teaching programs without textbooks or other aids.

Now they're getting a boost from San Diego State University.

"We've got a grant proposal that we sent off," says SDSU's Davies. "And if we get funded with it, and I think we will, [we'll] take $10,000 and really develop some [Mixtec] reading materials. We'll bump some money in that direction because the Mexican [authorities] just aren't going to do it. Julita is doing a fantastic job. On her own! She has set up this school in Colonia Obrera for Mixtec children at various speaking levels of Spanish. Most of them come up [to Tijuana from Oaxaca] with nothing. She has a four-year phase-in program where she eases them in from pure Mixtec to mainline Spanish."

But Lopez's problems go beyond lack of books, Davies says. First there's the differences between languages. "Mixtec is a tonal language. Spanish and English are not. So these kids have to be taught that the tone doesn't mean anything. In Spanish, however, you say a word, it means the same thing. That's a radical conceptual difference. The second thing is Mixtec has three major dialects that are not mutually intelligible. There are even 52 subdialects in Oaxaca.

"The other problem is that Mixtec is a very ancient language. It has a very small vocabulary. So they have added things onto a root word to explain what they want to say. For example, 'bark' becomes 'the face of the tree.' But you can't do that in 1999 with rockets and cars, so it's hard to get it in their heads that there are literally millions of words that they don't have any knowledge of.

"Julita and [her husband] Tiburcio and others are trying to mainstream these kids so they don't get locked in at the bottom, but they also want them to retain their Mixtecness. To convince them that they can do both and be both."

It was almost serendipity that Davies's department became involved with the Mixtec people.

"We crash-landed into this. It happened a year and a half ago through a graduate student of mine, Patricia Rodríguez. She wanted to learn Mixtec. We hadn't given it a thought before."

Soon Davies discovered other incentives to take action: Health authorities have trouble communicating with Mixtec workers in North County. So do schoolteachers, so do courts.

"The federal government is very interested in this, and they've been very supportive," says Davies. He got an idea: find funding to not only help Julita and other bilingual teachers in Tijuana teach Spanish to Mixtec children, but also to set up a course for his own students to learn Mixtec. He got initial funding from a federal Title 6 grant. "We have what are called 'foreign language area scholarships,' and they pay the student up to $11,000 for tuition. That doesn't buy you anything at Harvard, but it buys you a whole lot at San Diego State."

With the help of Davies's money, the National Pedagogic University (UPN) at Otay in Tijuana agreed to set up the first Mixtec language program for foreigners last year.

UPN is known for its crusading policies for a multicultural Mexico. Mixtec professors, including Julita's husband Tiburcio and Francisco Sierra, already teach multicultural courses to Mexican student teachers. Teaching Mixtec to Americans was new.

Davies says last year "6 or 7" SDSU students crossed the border every Saturday morning to study the language for four hours. This year the number of students has doubled to 15. Included are health workers, teachers, and Davies's wife Adele. "We have become very close to the Mixtec community," Davies says. "And Adele became very close to Julita. Every time there was a birthday party or a special ceremony in the community, they took my students out there. It was marvelous. We just love them. They're beautiful people. And yet for a thousand years someone's been literally kicking the shit out of them. The Mayans beat them up, then the Aztecs beat them up, and then the Spanish, and then the Mexicans. These are people who have always lived outside the Mexican culture. Even the Mexican Revolution didn't want them. If they gave them land, it was marginal. Now Chiapas has blown up in Mexico's face. It was a sign these people they had ignored were not going to be ignored anymore. There are revolutionary movements in 19 of the 31 Mexican states. You're surprised?"

Despite Chiapas, Davies says, there's still a "shame factor" that inhibits Mixtec parents from encouraging their kids to go to bilingual class. "They've been told that they're...shit! All their lives. That their language is not good, that their culture is corrupt and stupid. They've also been heavily discriminated against. So parents react the same as I used to see in New Mexico 30 years ago. An immigrant Mexican father would say, 'If I make sure my kid speaks only English then he won't be discriminated against like I was.' Today Mixtec parents in Tijuana say, 'Maybe if my kid speaks only Spanish then he won't be discriminated against like I was.' Of course, that's not true. They'll still be discriminated against. But they don't know that. So it really is a tough one."

At least Tijuana has six bilingual schools. But through López, Davies learned of the absence of formal teaching materials. That gave him and López's husband Tiburcio Pérez their idea to create written Mixtec materials -- both for the Mixtec children learning Spanish as a second language and for his SDSU students learning Mixtec as a second language. "I'm going to insist that we set up materials in such a way that they can be used in Julita's school and in the classes for my [students]," he says. "Because my kids are starting at zero too."

And he's realized what computers can do to save a language. He's looking to use his department's own resources to write down this largely unwritten language. "My Language Acquisition Resource Center can put Mixtec up onto a template to make sure it doesn't disappear."

Then Davies discovered a true windfall. "San Diego State's going to throw away a thousand 486s! They made me take a new one the other day. So now my old one is operating at Julita's school. We're making sure that thrown-away 486s somehow -- miraculously! -- wind up in [Tijuana bilingual] schools. We're taking them down one at a time in our trunks."

Davies acknowledges the anti-bilingual backlash currently raging through California could turn against him. "I do a lot of talking to the community, and this will always come up. Someone will say, 'My grandfather came to this country and didn't know one word of English and did just fine.'

"And I say, 'No he didn't. He had the lowest-rung job, he barely made minimum wage, probably didn't make that, people chased him with brooms, and he had a hell of a time.' But the public-school system in the United States from the 1820s on enabled his children and grandchildren to go to school. And they learned English, and they did okay. He didn't. If you take a student and you throw him into a class where he doesn't understand anything at all, in a very short period of time he's going to drop out. And we've lost him. And what we don't need is 150,000 kids dropping out of our schools, because they're going to wind up in prison."

But Davies doesn't have much hope for helping Mixtec kids in San Diego County. "Now with the so-called end of bilingual ed, no one's going to be interested in starting something in Mixtec on this side of the border. That'd be just too dangerous. Some clown in the state legislature would hear about it and come down on them like a ton of bricks."

He fears that the Chiapas situation will cause even more serious anti-bilingual backlash in Baja California. "But what I'm hoping is that we can throw whatever umbrella we've got at San Diego State around Julita and the Mixtec professors at UPN and protect them. And I think we can."

Back in the schoolroom, profesora López is explaining how the Mixtec word koo can mean "viper," "let's go," or "no," depending on the tone.

"I have been working here 17 years," she says. "I started because so many of the children just couldn't understand the lessons in Spanish. Now I want to make sure they don't abandon their Mixtec either."

I notice José speaks only Spanish to López. I ask if he speaks Mixtec at home. "No, my parents only speak Spanish to me," he says.

I ask why.

"They say I will have a better job when I am a man."

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