Posted on April 8, 2024

These Latines Are Learning the Indigenous Languages Colonialism Stole From Them

Damaly Gonzalez, Refinery29, April, 3, 2024

Across the United States and the world, an Indigenous language revitalization movement is taking shape. In 2022, Indigenous representatives across the globe convened on the Cherokee Nation reservation to kick off the United Nations’ International Decade of Indigenous Languages initiative. But it’s not just this worldwide push that is fueling some to connect to the language of their ancestors. To attune themselves to parts that feel undiscovered or untouched, U.S.-born Latines are reclaiming the languages that colonization stole from them.

There are currently 7,164 Indigenous languages around the world. Around 40% qualify as endangered because there are not enough speakers to pass them down. There are 560 Indigenous languages across Latin America and the Caribbean, according to a 2019 World Bank report. One in 5 people in the region have lost their native tongue in recent decades, and 26% of Indigenous Latin American and Caribbean languages are at risk of disappearing altogether. In comparison, at the time of the Spanish invasion, there were a reported 2,000 native languages spoken.


Today, this devastating loss of languages extends to the extinction of cultural practices and traditions, ways of being, beliefs, and knowledge of the land and spirituality that have guided Indigenous peoples for centuries. Losses like this create an increasingly hegemonic world that imperils diversity of thought, expression, and values.


Kelsey Milian Lopez, 26

Kelsey Milian Lopez is Mexican and Guatemalan. She lives in New York City but grew up in Miami. Lopez is learning Zapotec, specifically from Istmo de Tehuantepec. Zapotec has many different variations, about 30 to 75 versions, depending on the area. “If you walk to one town it will be a different Zapotec. People are called Za, translated to cloud, so people of the clouds,” Lopez says.

She has studied the language for two years and is still at the beginner level because the language is tonal, meaning she must expertly master pronunciations to communicate. To learn this specific version of Zapotec, she is taking private classes with a musician and language instructor, a family friend who grew up in Juchitan.

Why did you want to learn Zapotec?

It was a combination of things. My grandfather spoke Zapotec but never taught my mom because there is a lot of discrimination toward Indigenous people. Growing up, I was taught my cultural values and my Indigenous identity compared to what it means to be in Mexico as a nation-state. Language is a big one for us because the Zapotec language is very poetic and musical and very much connected to the land. Since I grew up with love and pride for my Indigenous identity, I learned the importance of revitalizing it.


What are your ultimate goals in learning the language?

I want to finish the PhD and be a fluent speaker, so when I have kids, I can start teaching them our Indigenous languages. I want them to have pride and maybe long-term, they can use this pride to change policy for Indigenous people.


Bairaniki Mayowakanex Citò Colòn, 41

Bairaniki Mayowakanex Citò Colòn is Puerto Rican. He lives in Lynn, Massachusetts. Colòn joined the Higuayagua tribe in 2019. Jorge Esteves, who was part of the Smithsonian’s Taino: Native Heritage and Identity in the Caribbean exhibition in 2018, started the group. He is studying Hiwatahia, a mix of six different root languages that stems from the Arawak language. He started learning it in 2020 and is in between the intermediary and expert levels.

Colòn uses the Hiwatahia: Hekexi Taino Language Dictionary and writes one sentence every morning from English to Spanish to Hiwatahia, speaks to his tribal siblings every morning, and incorporates words throughout the day.

Why did you want to learn Hiwatahia?

I’ve always connected to being Taíno and finding the Higuayagua tribe was a divine intervention to learn the language. It’s an up-and-coming group, and I like the work they are doing and what they stand for. It has been said that Taíno people are extinct, but we’re not. Now being part of this language team is honoring our ancestors.

What is this process offering you?

It offers me connection and medicinal purposes and properties that heal a lot of traumas. I’m able to use it with my family and reclaim space. I feel I’m doing my ancestors proud and keeping them alive. It’s my soul and my happiness right now. Learning this language reignites a passion to continue to do work like this and even public speaking to bring to the forefront all Indigenous issues. It gives me a backbone.

What are your ultimate goals in learning the language?

To be able to have community spaces where this language is thriving, and you hear the richness and people speaking it when you enter the room. To also have the right to have a seat at the table for Indigenous rights and have the language picked up throughout the generations.