by Vanessa Bauch
Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)
Mexico and the United States appear very different. Yet the two countries share a grave history, building their modern democracies on the elimination and oppression of indigenous groups that inhabited the continent for millennia before the arrival of the European colonialists. Recently, indigenous rights movements are becoming more visible and successful in their attempts to fight for justice.
On October 13, CUSLAR and Native American Students at Cornell hosted Odilia Romero, a Zapotec woman from Oaxaca, México for her talk, Mother Tongues: Indigenous Language Justice in Urban California, about fighting for the revitalization of indigenous language and culture in both México and the United States. She has dedicated many years in the Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales, or Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations, as a human rights activist and translator. According to Romero, “The FIOB is a political organization that works for the development and self-determination of indigenous migrants and non-migrants in Mexico and the United States.”
She started her discussion with an insightful exercise by asking every member of the audience their name and where their grandparents were from. Many people’s families came from Latin America, Native tribes from Canada and the United States, and various European countries. Odilia encouraged her audience to recognize our identities; we are not Americans because that is what is stated on our birth certificates, just as the Zapotec community resides in México but do not identify themselves as Mexicans. She then introduced herself. “I am Odilia Romero. I migrated to the United States when I was ten years old. I came to Los Angeles only speaking Zapotec, and not knowing any English or Spanish.” She spoke about how this experience inspired her to become involved in the FIOB and become an interpreter.
The Zapotecs who have migrated to the U.S. face the potential disappearance of their language and cultural values. When Romero was growing up, many parents discouraged the use of the native language. Romero’s mother, for example, didn’t want her daughters to have to suffer the discrimination, insults and disrespect she went through as a factory worker in Los Angeles. So she had them stop wearing the traditional dress and emphasized learning English. “Our parents told us, ‘Zapoteco won’t get you anywhere. It hasn’t helped us,’” Romero said. “So we became embarrassed of speaking Zapoteco.” This loss of connection is a tragedy for Romero.
“Something dies when you forget to speak the language, or when you don’t speak it. There is a whole world that dies in that language,” she said. Romero and other indigenous rights workers are beginning to reverse this process. With the FIOB, “we started working on language rights for giving people due process in their language with trained interpreters, but we didn’t stop at that. We had to rescue the language.”
They are developing a smartphone app that teaches Zapotec with phonetic English spelling so that more young people raised in the U.S. can learn the language of their parents and grandparents.
Romero has become a leading advocate for reclaiming Zapotec culture and language in California.
She wears traditional embroidered blouses to work and beams when she hears someone speaking Zapotec on a city bus. Her work in the FIOB emphasizes “decolonizing the indigenous mind” by promoting traditional clothing, food, traditions, and most importantly, language. The group uses their own fundraised money for celebrations so that the Zapotec can find solidarity and encourage them to be proud of their own identities.
Odilia also discussed cultural solidarity of the varied indigenous groups in Los Angeles. This past summer, she helped to organize the first Indigenous Languages Literature conference at the prestigious Los Angeles Public Library.
This event was crucial in challenging the narrative that indigenous traditions are a relic of the past. With the conference, cultural celebrations and their political action north and south of the border, they remind others that they exist, and they are here to stay with their cultural practices.
“Our indigenous communities throughout the Americas have suffered a lot, but our language still lives today, and some of our traditions still live today. We have been in the process of resistance for more than 500 years,” Romero said.
Now more than ever, it is important to recognize past and present injustices that have been brought upon indigenous peoples in the United States and throughout the Americas, as well as their consistent resistance to cultural and economic structures that have tried to eliminate them.
If justice is to prevail, it will be because of the efforts of thousands of emerging leaders like Odilia Romero.
Vanessa Bauch is a senior at Elmira College majoring in International Studies and Spanish.