Indigenous Mexican community in Lawrence saves language from extinction – The Lawrence Times


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Indigenous languages ​​are under threat. With up to 95% of the world’s languages ​​set to disappear by the end of this century, the value of generations of indigenous traditions and history may remain a mystery.

That’s why a coalition of KU professors teamed up with a local immigrant community in Guerrero, Mexico to reclaim Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱: one of many indigenous languages ​​threatened by colonialism and the cultural erasure it inflicted for centuries.


In 2018, Tamara Falicov noticed that new members of her service-learning program at Centro Hispano didn’t just speak Spanish. Instead, they spoke Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ (pronounced as meh-PAH), a language indigenous to Guerrero, a mountainous coastal state in southern Mexico.

When Falicov spoke with the Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ families, they worried that their children would not learn the language. This created a sort of language barrier within families because some young Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ could not communicate with their grandparents at home.

They got in touch with Philip Duncan, a KU linguistics professor who works with Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱, and started working together on an online trilingual talking dictionary. This interactive tool includes translated words in Spanish, English and Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱, with audio clips on how to pronounce them. The collaborative project also allows speakers to submit their own recordings of spoken stories.

But the meaning of the project goes far beyond the simple creation of the dictionary. This is to celebrate the Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ people: not only by facilitating the recovery of their language, but also by recognizing their contributions to Kansas culture and educating others about their experiences.

A collaborative approach

Falicov and Duncan brought their team together with local Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ speakers, Centro Hispano, and other linguistic experts.

“We use a framework called participatory action research, which is inherently collaborative,” says Falicov. “The idea is to bring stakeholders together to work as a team to determine the needs of the community.”

Eugenia Policarpo, a Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ speaker and Lawrence resident, says the purpose behind why she is working on this project dates back to her own childhood.

“I grew up talking to people for my parents. My mom doesn’t talk much and I know that if my kids go to see her they’ll have a hard time communicating,” Policarpo says. “That’s the main reason why I do this work: because we want our children to be able to communicate with the older generations.

This initiative does not give voice to the Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ community; it’s giving them the means to use the voice they already have. This is especially important for Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ speakers living in Kansas. It is essential for the group to be able to transmit its culture, especially for those who live far from their ancestral lands.

“We teach people that everyone has something to say. And we all call [Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱] parents to make sure that this culture is not just a mystery in the hearts of our children,” Policarpo says.

As this project continues, the Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ living in Guerrero are fighting a legal battle to defend their homeland from the mining industry. Even separated by 1,800 miles, the Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ peoples of Mexico and Lawrence are united in their goal to reclaim their heritage for future generations.

The program also includes a community outreach component. Policarpo and Duncan attended events such as the St. John’s Mexican Fiesta earlier this summer, where they educated attendees and distributed pamphlets with me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ texts and translations. They collaborated with Hubert Matiúwàa – a Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ poet, activist and winner of the 2017 Native American Literature Award – to share his poem “Ixe̱” (“Tree”) at the event.

Duncan believes the collaborative nature of this program is key to its success. Bringing in various stakeholders to create the database, design the website, coordinate meetings, etc., he says the work is still ongoing and improving over time.

This type of collaboration is also essential to keep the focus where it needs to be: on the Indigenous perspective. According to Duncan, they are trying to break down the legacy of “extractionism” in the field of linguistics.

“Sometimes researchers just walk in, grab some data and think, ‘See you later, community, I’ve got what I need,'” he says. “The discipline has learned a great deal over the past decades about the role that non-speakers should play, particularly in Indigenous contexts, and the ethics surrounding it. Our approach has been to keep the focus on people and on notions of justice. It helps to think about our priorities and whose needs are really being met. »

Obtain financing

As Falicov and Duncan noticed their project gaining traction, they worked with Centro Hispano to apply for a culture preservation grant from Humanities Kansas (HK). Since its founding in 1972, the nonprofit has pioneered statewide partnerships that elevate cultural diversity through stories and conversations.

According to those responsible for the Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ project, their work would not be possible without the support they received from HK.

Grants and Outreach Director Leslie Von Holten says HK has awarded hundreds of thousands of grants to organizations in Kansas. These grants, which range from $1,000 to $10,000, have generated a vast network of projects all linked by a single axis: the humanities.


“It’s extremely important for Kansans to have a strong sense of belonging and to come together to share ideas, because that’s how we grow and become stronger together,” says Von Holten.

She believes it all comes down to the importance of conversation. This is where the real patterns emerge.

“A person can tell their story and we can be empathetic, but when we connect that story to other stories and reactions, those are the building blocks of community,” says Von Holten.

Looking Ahead: Continuing Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ Traditions

The Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ project is still relevant. The dictionary is a living and constantly evolving resource that depends on people who continue to submit entries and recordings.

As leaders work to ensure the sustainability of the project, they are trying to get more people from the Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱-speaking community to get involved, even beyond Lawrence.

“I’ve spoken with people in Mexico who speak and work with the language, some of them in professional organizations,” Duncan says. “I would like to see cross-border collaboration. There’s already some interest, I just think we need these built-in tools to make it happen.

Jordan Winter/Lawrence Times Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ is a tonal language, which means that the inflection with which a word is pronounced can change its meaning.

Falicov added that beyond providing a dictionary, they want to look into community development.

“Our hope is that by opening this up to the general public, we will have rallies at the Lawrence Public Library and eventually bring a Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ poet from Mexico to perform,” she says.

With Argentinian parents, Falicov knows firsthand the importance of being multilingual. She believes her team’s partnership with Centro Hispano has allowed them to build trusting and collaborative relationships that will help the entire city thrive.

“Having access to multiple languages ​​is so important to expanding the public sphere and having broader conversations in our community,” she says. “It’s an incredibly valuable tool.”

Language endangerment, which primarily affects Indigenous peoples, is a historic and ongoing problem fueled by colonialism. The settlers attempted to exterminate many indigenous ways of life through forced assimilation, which had lasting generational consequences. But Indigenous peoples are now turning the script around through projects like this.

By recognizing and challenging these external forces, the Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ community is reimagining its future through the cornerstone of language. It is a foundation to help bring the community together, honor traditions, and encourage younger generations to become speakers themselves. And it creates a model for other Indigenous communities to leverage digital resources to preserve more than just language.

“I’m proud of this project, our heritage and being here in Kansas,” Policarpo said. “I don’t want our roots to be lost.

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Lawrence Times contributor Jordan Winter (her) graduated from KU 2019 with degrees in journalism and political science.

Discover his work on See more of his work for The Times here.

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