Fifty-five indigenous languages are spoken in Mexico City today, yet this population remains largely invisible.
Though Mexico City’s celebrated National Museum of Anthropology is dedicated to native Mesoamerican culture, living indigenous culture is banished to its margins. Even the most basic institutions of communal identity are absent in the city. There is not so much as a single community center in Mexico City for its 785,000 indigenous inhabitants. “I would like to build a Wixáritari temple,” says Hilario López Bautista, a Wixáritari artisan from the mountains of the state of Jalisco. “How can it be that all these foreign religions have temples and we who are from here don’t have a single church?”
Nonetheless, native Mexican culture seems to be emerging slowly from the shadows. In politics, the opinion of indigenous communities is increasingly relevant due to consultation requirements for things like infrastructure projects. The quality of indigenous handcrafts and art is increasingly appreciated, too. The spectacular colors and designs of Wixáritari art are increasingly appropriated in mainstream projects, a potential source of income and exploitation for artisans such as López. In the culinary scene, a new Mexican gourmet cuisine, impelled by chefs such as Enrique Olvera, is developing around staples of indigenous cooking such as tortillas and tamales.
Juan Santiago Tellez, also known as Juan Sant, came to Mexico City in 2000 at the age of 15. He had already lived alone for several years while his parents worked the fields far up in the mountains. A native Totonaco speaker, he learned Spanish as he put himself through school. He came to Mexico City for work, but between discrimination and difficulty in adapting to the urban economy he found it hard to hold down a job. Finally, he ended up in a carpenter’s workshop manned by gang members. Now he raps in Totonaco and Spanish.
According to Tellez there are at least twenty MCs who rap in their own language. “For some, speaking in their own language is a joyous thing because it is an act of community—if there are many speakers,” says Tellez. “But if there are very few speakers it is an act of resistance, an attempt to maintain the language alive.”
Many indigenous people believe it is better not to be heard speaking their language in Mexico, according to Tellez. Sometimes parents can feel they are protecting their children by not teaching them one of Mexico’s 68 native languages. “We are basically the same,” says the Totonaca rapper of the variety of indigenous cultures. “Though we speak different languages, we have the same attitude and share the fact that we are all discriminated against.”
Many communities of indigenous communities develop in the megacity’s periphery, drawn by cheap land, informal settlement practices and space. The municipality of Valle de Chalco on the edge of the city boasts 38 languages, largely due to the influx of migrants from the highly diverse state of Oaxaca where there are 16 ethnolinguistic groups. “When we are in our village we have a tradition called la gozera in which we would build a house for somebody in a communal manner,” says Alejo Juárez Cabrera, a Mixe from Santiago Yaveo in Tuxtepec, Oaxaca. “This is not something folkloric, but a way of doing things.”
Such practices often do not survive translation to the city, according to Juárez. Mutual assistance is much more limited in the city, and sometimes older hands will even discriminate against newcomers. “It [as if] we come here only to learn malice,” says the 55-year-old Mixe.
Historically, adults from Albino Lopez’s village would find work in the sugarcane plantations of Veracruz. But in the 1950s, word got around that better employment was to be found in Mexico City. That’s when 14-year-old López went alone from the Mazateco indigenous village of Mazatlan de las Flores in the mountains of the state of Oaxaca to work in the capital. After living in different parts of the city, cheap land drew him to Valle de Chalco.
Maria Sara Guzman, now 60, was 11 when she came to Mexico City in 1979. She was living on an island in the lake of Pátzcuaro where her Purépecha family lived. A visiting couple from Mexico City needed a household servant, spoke to her parents, and brought her back with them. She spent the next four years working in a house in Xochimilco and only saw her parents when they came to collect her pay.
According López, indigenous women—who often are the first to migrate because of the ease of finding work as a housekeeper—suffer the pervasive machismo in indigenous culture. “Sometimes people see us as if we are all good and noble,” notes Tellez. “But there are good and bad people among us, too.”
Silvia Miranda, a speaker of Nahuatl from San Agustín Oapan in Guerrero came to city at the age of 15 to sell handcrafts. She marveled at all the people and things as she entered Mexico City by bus. She did not speak Spanish and could not write when she arrived at the city. Now her children cannot speak Nahuatl. “People would make fun of us when we spoke Nahuatl and make faces,” says the street vendor. “Now it happens less and less. People have even sought us out and asked us to teach them the language. Things are gradually getting better.”
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