Spanish surnames, indigenous languages

In the United States, the Spanish language is often used as an identifying marker for U.S.-born Latinos and Latin American newcomers, whether they speak it or not — because not all Latinos speak Spanish, and I am not just referring to later-generation descendants of Spanish-speaking people.

There are 45 million indigenous people in Latin America, and many more from the 826 distinct indigenous communities have come to the United States after being displaced by violence or environmental degradation and/or seeking the same sort of alternatives and opportunities that many other immigrants do. Although about 60% of indigenous people in Latin America are bilingual (meaning they speak both the dominant language in their country, which is Spanish for the majority of the continent, as well as one or more indigenous languages), 20% speak only the dominant language, and the other 20% speak only indigenous languages (according to recent studies by ECLAC).

Receiving communities across the U.S., including West Michigan, are learning that they can’t assume that all people from Spanish-speaking countries indeed speak Spanish, which challenges the bilingual (English and Spanish only) support structures that are set up to accommodate Latinos with limited English proficiency. Voices of NY reported earlier this year on the case of a Guatemalan man who went missing in Brooklyn and it took his family 8 months to find him because court records had the wrong spelling of his name; the Spanish spoken by the court interpreters offered as little to him in the way of understanding as the English spoken by the court officers.

domincan-letter-of-sanctuary-endorsement
Letter from the Dominican Friars of Grand Rapids declaring the Koinania House as a sanctuary for Central Americans. From the Grand Rapids People’s History Project.

Grand Rapids is home to indigenous Guatemalans as well. In 2014 the Grand Rapids People’s History Project published an online series about how faith-based groups in the area created a sanctuary for Central Americans fleeing violence in the 1980s. The first people to arrive in Grand Rapids under the Central American Sanctuary movement were two indigenous families from Guatemala in 1987. The history of this community does not seem to be well documented, from what I can find, but it makes sense that other indigenous people followed their relatives and neighbors to Michigan. In fact, approximately 6,000 people or over one-third of the residents of Cajolá, a Mam Mayan town in Guatemala, have come to the United States — and 1,000 of them have settled in Grand Rapids (according to NACLA).

Indigenous Latin Americans, especially those who don’t speak Spanish, are stigmatized and marginalized by the majority culture in their own countries. When they come here as immigrants, they are frequently invisible as part of the larger Latino community. When I searched several different combinations of the words indigenous, Mam, Guatemalan, Grand Rapids, and West Michigan, I found very little information online. Colleagues who work with Latino organizations in the area are aware, at least anecdotally, of the Mam-speaking community here, and it appears that there are Mam interpreters working in the healthcare and legal settings.

It’s important for those of us who advocate for bilingualism to acknowledge and to continue to expand the space for indigenous Latinos to have their own voice, even if it is not one that speaks Spanish.

[Update: After writing this post, I came across this Latino USA segment about a trilingual Mam interpreter – it’s worth a listen if you are interested in hearing more about this topic from someone much more qualified to speak about it!]

Voseo Vs. Vosotros

Although I now consider myself a near-native Spanish speaker and I refer to Spanish as my second language, I am definitely a product of the language classroom. I was first introduced to Spanish in the classroom as an elementary schooler, through a video-based (we’re talking VHS video, people) curriculum called “Saludos.”

(Wow, this “vintage” video makes me feel really vieja!!!)

At the same time, this was in South Florida in the early 90s, so for me Spanish was not confined to the classroom nor did I imagine it as a language spoken in a country somewhere far away. I learned how to say vestido in school, but I also learned how to order maduros at the Cuban restaurant near my house. I also learned that my friends who came from Latino families didn’t necessarily learn Spanish at home or even speak it with their parents. Some did, but not all.

Those of us who learn Spanish in school can form a lot of ideas and stereotypes, often without intending to, that can only be modified or corrected by our experience outside the classroom. This is not a criticism, just an honest observation. Obviously it is impossible for an educator to introduce every variation in language and culture that exists in an entire linguistic community.

However, I do feel compelled to present a criticism of one very specific component of the way Spanish is generally taught in the United States. As any one who has taken a Spanish class in school or in college in the US will be able to testify, all verbs are introduced with conjugations for the following persons: yo, tú, él/ella/usted, nosotros, vosotros, ellos/ellas/ustedes. In my experience, I was never tested on the vosotros conjugation of verbs, but it was always there just to make sure we were familiar with it. Every little colored box in every textbook that broke down the conjugation of a verb had it there, between nosotros and ellos/ellas/ustedes. We were taught, correctly, that vosotros was used in Spain, but that ustedes was used in Latin America. Great, thanks for making me aware, got it!

But as soon as I set foot in a bilingual office setting working with colleagues who were born in several different Latin American countries, I learned that there was another widely used second-person pronoun and verb conjugation that no teacher had even introduced to me: vos.

An example of a PSA from Costa Rica employing the voseo.

So, let’s see, there are about 47 million Spanish speakers in Spain, plus some more around the world, who use vosotros. According to Wikipedia, the voseo (use of vos) is used exclusively in place of the tuteo (use of ) in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, but it is also used in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Chile, and in parts of Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, and Belize. Just the populations of Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay alone represent over 56 million Spanish speakers who use vos.

Numerically speaking, shouldn’t we be including vos in the little colored verb conjugation boxes?

Map showing where vos is used, from Wikipedia. See page for author [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
All I am suggesting is that we at least expose students of Spanish to the voseo, in the same way that we expose them to vosotros. (There’s a whole other level of linguistic variation in how the voseo is used from country to country, which I am not going to get into here and probably is more detail than we need to introduce in the classroom.) Let’s help students become familiar with it, without necessarily testing them on it. As they are more than likely to come into contact with it at some point, we would be doing them a great service. In fact, unless a student is planning to go to Spain, he/she is statistically far more likely to encounter vos than vosotros.

I rest my case.