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Mexico Just Announced It Will Offer Legal Representation In More Than 100 Indigenous Languages And It’s A Huge Victory

Let’s finish this convoluted year with a piece of information that gives us at least a bit of optimism shall we?

The Mexican government, led by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has gotten many things wrong according to its critics. However, one area in which it has delivered on its promises is on a different, more inclusive approach to indigenous communities that recognizes the centuries-long dispossession of which they have been subject. Plus, the fact that their culture has been crushed by the weight of mestizo, monolingual social structures.

States such as Yucatan are making good progress by, for example, making Mayan language compulsory in schools, which is a recognition that the original owners of a land that was never ceded still comprise an important part of the state’s identity. 

Even though since colonial times Spanish became the official language of what is now the Mexican territory, the country houses hundreds of indigenous languages and dialects.

Credit: Roma / Netflix

People who speak indigenous languages in addition to Spanish should be celebrated! After all, how many of us can claim to be fully bilingual? But this is not the case. As Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma showed, languages like mixteco and zapoteco, which originated in Oaxaca, are looked down upon by the white and mestizo elites.

This is a form or racism that not only embodies a form of self-hatred (most Mexicans have European and indigenous blood) but also plants the seeds of marginalization. The fact that indigenous languages are looked down upon does not only involve issues of cultural identity, but increases the social divide in more areas. 

But Mexican society experiences an endemic racism that basically punishes those who speak their mother tongue.

Credit: The Yucatan Times

Up to one million Mexicans speak only an indigenous language and even though many more are functional in Spanish, not being fully fluent causes socioeconomic gaps to be further exacerbated in a country defined by inequality.

For example, the job market for people with indigenous languages as a first tongue is limited, particularly in professional sectors. Spanish is the lingua franca and this means that those who do not master it are at a disadvantage. What is even worse, indigenous populations have historically been subject to abuse by the judicial system. If they are not fluent in Spanish, the accused are likely to be convicted as legal representation is compromised by miscommunication or totally non-existent. 

AMLO started his presidency with huge expectations on what he would do for Indigenous Mexicans.

When AMLO took power there was skepticism about how much he would do for indigenous populations after so many campaign promises.

As USN argued back then: “The plight of Mexico’s more than 12 million indigenous people, who often face inequality, injustice and persecution, has been thrown in the spotlight by the election of leftist leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in July. Lopez Obrador, who campaigned on a platform of “first the poor,” has held ceremonies with indigenous leaders and vowed to bring meaningful change to these impoverished rural communities. But as the President turns his focus to major infrastructure projects, there are fears that all the rituals and rhetoric may end in broken promises once again.”

However, there are positive signs that lead us to believe that this sexenio (how a Mexican presidency is known, as it lasts for six years) will be different.

Now the government is providing legal representation in 103 indigenous languages, and this is a great step towards reconciliation.

Credit: South World

The Instituto Federal de Defensoría Pública (IFDP; Federal Institute for Public Defense) has significantly increased the number of indigenous languages in which it can offer legal advise and defense. The number has increased from 39 to 103, which is a huge step towards fairer trials for indigenous individuals.

Among the languages that are included in the list we can find maya, mixe, mixteco, mazateco, náhuatl, otomí, purépecha, tarahumara, huasteco, huichol, tepehuano, totonaco, triqui, tzeltal, yaqui, amuzgo, chatino, chinanteco, chol, chontal, cora, cuicateco, zapoteco and zoque. The states with the largest concentration of these languages are Guerrero, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Tabasco, Nayarit, Jalisco, San Luis Potosí, Campeche, Quintana Roo, Yucatán, Sonora, Sinaloa, Querétaro, Estado de México, Chihuahua, Michoacán, Durango  and Puebla.

The service is therefore not concentrated in a single region, as is the case with several federal programs, but is spread out across Mexico’s geography. Added to this, the number of staff who is fluent in indigenous tongues was increased almost twofold, from 51 to 90. This legal personnel is comprised of lawyers who grew up with an indigenous tongue and understanding the indigenous worldview, which makes them a great asset during trials. Further, they have been granted permission to act as interpreters if there are no other speakers available. 

The goal, however, is to reach the 364 languages spoken in Mexico.

Credit: Mexico Desconocido

According to government officials the new appointments are only the first step and the final objective is to cover all the languages spoken in Mexico. 

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