"The narrative of the last two speakers who don't speak to each other is a powerful one," Anthropologist Daniel Suslak of Indiana University stated. "It strikes a chord with a lot of people. It just happens to not be quite true."

Fighting Off Extinction: The Story of Indigenous Mexican Languages

Rick Kearns

Mexico has 60 indigenous languages in danger of disappearing with 21 of those idioms in critical danger due to dwindling numbers of native speakers and other factors but reports of the imminent demise of the Ayapaneco language, which is on the critical list, are premature.

There are at least 6 million indigenous people who are speaking an indigenous language in Mexico, including approximately 1.6 million people who speak Nahuatl and 796,000 Mayan speakers. While these larger groups are gaining some momentum, with more and more books and literature being produced in the languages, others are in danger.

In late March, Mexican scholars were quoted as saying that of the country's 143 Native languages, 21 are in critical danger of disappearing, meaning that they have less than 200 speakers. Among the most critical are Kiliwa of Baja California that has 36 speakers, and Ayapaneco from Tabasco that is spoken by two adults.

Prior to this year's announcement though, media outlets from around the world have focused on the story of those two Ayapaneco adult men who are supposedly the last speakers of their language. The stories about them, from a variety of publications, asserted that the language was in even greater danger as the last two speakers, Manuel Segovia, 78, and Isidro Velazquez (also known as Don Chilo) in his 70s, were not speaking to each other.

But according to Anthropologist Daniel Suslak of Indiana University, who has worked with the two Ayapaneco men for 10 years, that story is not accurate.

"The narrative of the last two speakers who don't speak to each other is a powerful one," Suslak stated. "It strikes a chord with a lot of people. It just happens to not be quite true."

"While Manuel and Isidro are far and away the best remaining speakers of Ayapaneco, they are not the only two left," he asserted. "Several of the speakers that I met have passed away in recent years, but a handful still remain, including Isidro's brothers and sister and a cousin of Manuel."

Along with those family members, Segovia' son, also named Manuel, has been running an Ayapaneco language school in their village and this year they will celebrate the 2nd Annual Ayapaneco Language Festival.

"They also worked with a Mexican anthropologist [Denisse Rebeca Gomez Ramirez] to make a book that describes all of the Ayapaneco terminology for talking about human anatomy," Suslak added. "So in fact, you could say that they aren't the last speakers of Ayapaneco – they are the first writers!"

Suslak also mentioned that he had just submitted a new Ayapaneco dictionary to the Mexico's National Institute of Indigenous Languages which will be printed before the end of the year.


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dsuslak's picture
Submitted by dsuslak on
Great piece! Here are just a pair of quick corrections: - don Manuel's last name is Segovia, not Vazquez. - to give credit where much credit is due, the anthropologist who has been working with him in his family on the body parts book and other projects is a talented young scholar named Denisse Rebeca Gomez Ramirez.

sweetgrass777's picture
Submitted by sweetgrass777 on
How Millions of indigenous people in Mexico became "Hispanic" and replaced their languages with "Spanish" baffles me. Another product of Mental and cultural genocide. We let it happen. Wake up native people.