Indigenous Latin Americans are not Latin!

A plea for the teaching of indigenous languages of Latin America 

Sergio Romero

Speakers of indigenous languages inhabit worlds not easily described under the rubric of “Latin” or “Hispanic”. The values guiding their daily lives, the rituals giving meaning to their existence and the structures of the languages they speak are incommensurable with those of peoples of Spanish and/or Portuguese tradition. A Maya language like Q’eqchi’, for example, has four verbs of eating. Choosing the right one to describe a particular meal involves the texture of the food item as well as the manner in which it is cut and eaten. An entire culinary culture and a distinct typology of natural textures are presupposed in something as prosaic as food talk. A Uto-Aztecan language like Nahuatl allows entire sentences to be encapsulated in a single word such as na:mech:tlaxcalchi:hualia “I make tortillas for you all”. If we examined briefly the enormous corpus of sixteenth and seventeenth century texts written in Nahuatl, we would soon run into even higher levels of morphological complexity in the grandiose yet subtle speech of nobles and priests as in the Hue:hue:tlahtolli or in Sahagun’s Codex Florentine.  No Romance language would allow such artifacts of discourse; no monolingual speaker of Spanish or Portuguese could inhabit the aesthetic worlds and semantic universes of societies in which the art and the everyday sounds of speech are uttered in such intricate interleaving of word and sentence. Indigenous onomastics, horoscopes, calendars and numerical systems capture ways of seeing, classifying and engaging the universe and human history alien to those of European Christianity. Nevertheless, they continue to be part of the bone and marrow of the conflicts, traumas, diversity and beauty giving life to Latin America today.

Preserving indigenous languages should be neither a collector’s obsession, nor a philanthropist’s pride, but rather an enlightened exercise in justice and self-introspection for Latin Americans and LatinAmerican scholars alike, the realization that this continent is not really “Latin”, at least not the way most people understand this term. If it is at all “Latin”, then “Latin” means something quite different from what the received notion purports to represent. For example, there is no better way to understand the roots and social value of dialectal variation of Peruvian and Bolivian Spanish today than to know some Quechua or Aymara. Listening to speakers of Andean Spanish –especially in Lima- one cannot help hearing the echoes of Andean languages with their complex systems of evidentials and diminutives, the linguistic substrate that makes Peruvian and Bolivian Spanish so distinct and, for that reason, such emblematic signs of these nations. Even the proud descendants of Spanish conquerors or the self-appointed defenders of a “hispanidad peruana” cannot avoid the “indio” that lingers in their accent and lexicon or in the very rejection of the everyday speech of most of their compatriots.  To understand Mario Vargas Llosa, one must first hear the Quechua voices in Jose Maria Arguedas prose and poetry, the ones that the proud Limeño –like his ancestors- hopelesslyseeks to deny.

Sergio Romero Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
LLILAS/Dept. of Spanish and Portuguese
University of Texas at Austin

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.

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