Welcome to Oaxacalifornia, where the language spoken in Alfonso Cuarón’s Golden Globe-winning "Roma," is part of a huge Mixtec community in the West Coast.
The success of Roma, the award-winning film by Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, is impressive not least because it's a film mostly in Spanish, but because it features a language older than Mexico itself. The story follows Cleo, an indigenous live-in housemaid and nanny in a Mexico City household in early 1970. Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and Adela (Nancy García), her friend and coworker, speak in a language unintelligible for the family they work for, even prompting Pepe, one of the children, to whine about not understanding. “What are you saying?,” he asks bewildered, as they continue their conversation. “What are you saying? Stop talking like that!” he whines to them.
Like most Mexicans, Pepe is unable to comprehend even the slightest word of Mixteco, Cleo and Adela’s first language. This language is spoken by the Mixtec people, who call themselves the Ñuu Savi, or “People of the Rain.” Their region, La Mixteca, is located mainly in Oaxaca, but it also extends to some parts of Guerrero and Puebla.
Yet, Mixtec culture is as different from Mexican or mestizo culture, as Algonquian was for the Puritans. And if that doesn't surprise you, maybe this will: there are an estimated 500,000 Mixteco speakers today, almost one-fifth of whom live in the United States at least part of their lives, but they take many aspects of their culture with them, specially their language.
Mixteco traces its roots as far as 7,000 years ago, but that doesn’t mean that present-day Mixtecs speak only one language. There are up to fifty variations of it, and sometimes they could be mutually unintelligible even if the speakers live only a few miles from each other!
The Mixtec people go a long way back. Archaeologists agree there were small farming settlements in the region by 1500 BCE. Centuries later, they developed into kingdoms and nowadays Mixtec institutions, religious beliefs, practices and have outlived Spanish dominance. They do, however, face discrimination in Mexico, where the mestizo hegemony often marginalizes people of indigenous descent.
Mixtecs are a migrant people and always have been. There are records of them moving outside of their region towards Mexico City as well as other Mexican states. But for the past three decades or so, many have crossed the border escaping from difficult social and economic conditions.
The first significant wave of Mixtecos coming to Central California was during the Bracero Program in 1942, when much cheap labor was needed as the United States continued their war efforts. Many indigenous men came to work and in the 70s and 80s, and many of their families were able to become US citizens. There are now as many as 55,000 Mixtecs living in Central California and other parts of the West Coast of the United States.
Here they work in labor-intensive agriculture and have been a vital part of California’s economic success since the 1970s. They don't call it "Oaxacalifornia" for nothing. However, not everything is good news for Mixtecs. This native American community is culturally and linguistically isolated. Many of them are illiterate, and not only do they not speak English, but they don’t speak any Spanish either, a language naturally associated with Mexico, Latinos, and Hispanics, if you will.
This makes the Mixtecs a vulnerable group, subject to discrimination in everyday life, and exploitation at work. Most of them live in extreme poverty and lack the tools to communicate, which hinders their ability to negotiate better working conditions and wages, and prevents them defending their most basic civil rights.
They also struggle to get basic documents from Mexican Consulates, since all the paperwork is in Spanish. This forces them to make use of any impromptu translators that are available around. Often, these are their own children. Picture, for instance, this surprising but not uncommon situation in Central California: immigrants’ children grow up to be trilingual, speaking their parents’ Mixteco, their community’s Spanish, and their country’s English. Quite impressive!
Strictly speaking, Mixtecos are Mexican, but as you may have observed in Roma, a film that delves into class and racial tensions between indigenous population and the Mexican mestizo hegemony, Mixtecos suffer severe discrimination back home. Roma is a film that makes Mexicans confront themselves, but it also signals a turning point in Mexican awareness in that it puts the focus on Mexican minorities and diversity. Another groundbreaking aspect of Alfonso Cuarón's film!
Cover picture: @oax_art
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