The Declining Use of the Mixtec Language Among Oaxacan Migrants and Stay-at-Homes: The Persistence of Memory, Discrimination, and Social Hierarchies of Power (Working Paper #180)

Elizabeth Perry, University of California, San Diego

Abstract: Drawing on binational ethnographic research regarding Mixtec “social memory” of language discrimination and Mixtec perspectives on recent efforts to preserve and revitalize indigenous language use, this study suggests that language discrimination, in both its overt and increasingly concealed forms, has significantly curtailed the use of the Mixtec language. For centuries, the Spanish and Spanish-speaking mestizo (mixed blood) elite oppressed the  Mixtec People and their linguistic and cultural practices. These oppressive practices were experienced in Mixtec communities and surrounding urban areas, as well as in domestic and international migrant destinations. In the 1980s, a significant transition occurred in Mexico from indigenismo to a neoliberal multicultural framework. In this transition, discriminatory practices have become increasingly “symbolic,” referring to their assertion in  everyday social practices rather than through overt force, obscuring both the perpetrator and the illegitimacy of resulting social hierarchies (Bourdieu, 1991). Through the use of symbolic violence, the dominant class cleans its hands and history of discriminatory practices based on race, ethnic, or cultural “difference,” while at the same time justifying increasing inequality on the outcome of “unbiased” market forces. Continuing to experience and perceive discrimination, many Mixtec language speakers are employing silence as a social strategy, in which Mixtecs forgo using, teaching, and learning the Mixtec language in order to create distance between themselves (or children) and stigmatized practices, such as indigenous language use. The use of silence as a strategy does not signify that Mixtecs devalue or find no meaning in the Mixtec language. Rather, it suggests that silence is perceived to be an available and increasingly attractive social strategy in contemporary contexts.

Working Paper #180 »