Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

GUATEMALA: New Law Recognises Indigenous Languages

Néfer Muñoz

SAN JOSE, May 30 2003 (IPS) - A new law in Guatemala, the birthplace of the ancient Mayan civilisation, officially recognises 23 indigenous languages for the first time, and requires that state funds be made available to rescue tongues that are in danger of disappearing.

The Law on National Languages, which went into effect this week, maintains Spanish as the Central American nation’s official language, but recognises 23 native tongues, most of which began to emerge over 4,000 years ago.

An estimated 65 percent of Guatemala’s 12 million people are descendants of the Mayan Indians, while another large proportion of the population is made up of people of ”mestizo” or mixed- race heritage.

Many of Guatemala’s indigenous people do not speak Spanish, or do so only poorly.

”This is a major achievement, because Guatemala is a country where there is still heavy racism and discrimination,” Domingo Sosa, president of the Academy of Mayan Languages of Guatemala, said in an interview with IPS.

The Academy will be in charge of enforcing the new law, which was approved by Congress on May 7 and came into effect on May 26.

The law recognises 21 Mayan languages, as well as the Xinka tongue, and the language spoken by the Garifunas, an ethnic group comprised of the descendants of African slaves and indigenous people.

The new law amounts to a historic, long overdue act of justice, which takes a step towards righting wrongs that began to be committed when Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado reached what is today Guatemala in 1524, said Sosa.

”Ya’ol utzil” (”this is what is going to bring us peace”) he added, with emotion, in K’iche’ (Quiche), the most widely spoken Mayan language in Guatemala.

The 28-article law stipulates that all national provisions, statutes and regulations are to be translated into the 23 recognised languages, that all public institutions must provide services in those languages, and that the state is to earmark funds for rescuing native tongues that are in danger of dying out.

”In Guatemalan territory the Mayan, Garifuna and Xinka languages can be used…without restrictions in the public and private spheres, in educational, academic, social, economic, political and cultural activities,” states article 8 of the new law.

The 21 Mayan languages recognised by the new law are k’iche’, q’eqchi’, mam, kaqchikel, poqoman, ch’orti’, awacateko, uspanteko, mopan, sipakapense, sakapulteko, achi, akateko, chuj, itza’, ixil, jalateko, q’anjob’al, tekiteko, pogonchi and tz’utijil.

Although their use was not banned in the past, public and private institutions did not offer services in those languages, and this is the first time the government has recognised the rights of ethnic groups to have access to education, justice, health care and other services in their native tongues.

In Guatemala, ”Indian” is a disparaging term and is generally used as an insult.

According to Sosa, the new law will give a boost to the self- esteem of Guatemala’s indigenous people, who are frequently ridiculed and mistreated when they speak their own languages, and who often feel ashamed to do so.

Another important aspect of the new legislation is that it permits Spanish names of people and towns to be changed to names in the Mayan, Garifuna or Xinka languages.

”I am deeply moved, because the Mayan languages are now being recognised, 479 years after the invasion by the Spaniards,” the president of the Mayan League, Daniel Matul, told IPS.

Matul, whose non-governmental institution is dedicated to preserving and disseminating Mayan culture, said the values and the world view of that civilisation have been very important in the history of humanity.

The Mayan culture, which has been admired and studied for centuries, was located in what today is Guatemala, Belize, southern Mexico, Honduras and a small part of El Salvador.

A common linguistic trunk known as ”proto-Mayan”, which dates back more than 4,000 years, was the origin of the 21 Mayan languages that are now officially recognised in Guatemala, as well as nine that are spoken in Mexico. The Mayan tongues have alphabets of 27 to 32 characters.

”The Mayan languages are full of references and links to the cosmos. For example, in k’iche’ a simple greeting like ‘how are you?’ is said ‘a utz a wach la’, which means ‘how is your cosmic, physical and spiritual balance?’,” said Matul.

But the experts pointed to the enormous challenge of modifying longstanding discriminatory social practices and of learning to be a truly multilingual and multicultural country.

The Academy of Mayan Languages, with a staff of 350 and an annual budget of around one million dollars, will have to train public employees from around the country, and will need more personnel to handle the huge number of translations.

To make that possible, the Academy hopes for a large injection of state funds, and plans to forge strategic partnerships with non- governmental organisations.

But others argue that the law is merely a political expression of goodwill that would require an overwhelming amount of funds to fully put into practice.

”It is a recognition of our indigenous peoples,” Congresswoman Nineth Montenegro, with the leftist opposition party New Nation Alliance, commented to IPS. ”But to tell you the truth, it is non-viable. There is no way it can be totally put into effect.”

She pointed out that Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, education receives just three percent of the national budget, and it would be exceedingly difficult to educate, legislate and govern in multiple languages.

The annual budget for education amounts to 426 million dollars, according to official figures.

”We believe it would be necessary to at least triple the education budget (to implement the new law), and that is very unlikely. For that reason, it cannot be completely enforced,” said Montenegro.

Some critics say that instead of merely recognising the indigenous languages, they should have been made official as well, as foreseen by the peace deal signed in 1996 to put an end to a bloody 36-year civil war, whose main victims were Mayan Indians.

That objection is also raised by the United Nations Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA), which welcomed the new legislation, however, as an acknowledgement of the country’s rich ethnic and linguistic heritage.

MINUGUA ”urges indigenous peoples to demand that their right to express themselves in their own languages is respected, and urges society in general to respect and take part in this linguistic diversity,” the UN mission said in a communique.

Other initiatives in Latin America to rescue, preserve and disseminate native languages include a radio station in northwestern Argentina that broadcasts in Spanish and Quechua, as part of a programme that plans to create six additional stations.

 
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