March 25, 2005

Tu’un Savi: Seeing the world through the eyes of Mixtecos

San Diego State University’s Department of Latin American Studies offers a Mixteco-language program.

By Pablo Jaime Sainz

San Diego’s North County is home to a large community of Mixtecos, immigrants from the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Many of these Mixtecos speak little or no English, and even though they are immigrants from Mexico, they speak little or no Spanish, as well.

Mixtecos’ maternal tongue is Mixteco, or Tu’un Savi, as they call their language.

So you can imagine how it is being an Indigenous immigrant living in San Diego who doesn’t have basic public services in his or her native language.

Also, there are hardly any translators who can speak Mixteco.

For this reason, San Diego State University’s Department of Latin American Studies, created the Mixteco Language Program.

One of the primary purposes of this program is to provide training to students who will eventually work in public health, education, criminal justice, public administration, or other areas where there are unmet needs for Mixteco speakers.

Mixtec profesors Juan Julian A. Marcos and Cruz Bautista (holding plaques), Dr. Romana Perez and Jim Gerber.

La Prensa San Diego interviewed Dr. Ramona Perez, an anthropology professor and director of the Mixteco Language Program at SDSU, to find out more about this interesting and beneficial program.

La Prensa San Diego: How big is the need for Mixteco speaking professionals who might be able to meet the needs of the Mixteco community in North County?

Dr. Perez:: It is substantial as we have fairly significant enclaves of Mixteco communities throughout San Diego, including Linda Vista, Escondido, Vista, Carlsbad and Oceanside. Many of the women are monolingual Mixteco speakers or have limited Spanish speaking skills and they struggle in supporting their children in school, accessing medical care, and maintaining awareness of issues affecting their new community. By the way, the term they have for their language is Tu’un Savi.

La Prensa San Diego: How would you describe the situation of Mixtecos in San Diego?

Dr. Perez: Most Mixtecos in the San Diego area have come a great distance with very few initial resources.

Unlike migrants from the north of Mexico, their exposure to US culture is more limited and many of their communities continue to function within an indigenous social and political system that centers around usos y costumbres that include communal labor, councils of elders for religious and civic management, a mayordomo or cargo system of communal spiritual growth and maintenance, processes of redistribution for resources, and social and kinship networks that aid them in times of need.

When they arrive in the United States they find themselves very alone and marginalized from existing non-indigenous migrant groups. They tend to seek employment in the agricultural arena although construction and day labor work are also very popular.

Following traditional practices for household dynamics, Mixteco women are not encouraged to seek employment and when you couple this with limited Spanish, much less English, speaking skills it makes them more vulnerable to exploitation.

La Prensa San Diego: Are there any general statistics on the Mixteco community of San Diego?

Dr. Perez: We would all love to find a location for data on the Mixteco community but unfortunately none of our standard measures such as the Census or school registration collect specific data on the ethnicity of incoming migrants and refugees.

Some areas collect data on the language used inside the home but there is not a central repository for such information. We tend to estimate numbers based on enclaves we have been able to document but these are very rough numbers.

We estimate that there are between 45,000 and 55,000 Mixtec workers in Central California and that the current Mexican migrant population in San Diego is comprised of around 12% from Oaxaca.

La Prensa San Diego: What’s the main purpose of the Mixteco language program?

Dr. Perez: To train students who will work in areas directly connected to the Mixteco population including teachers, health professionals and advocates, police officers, social workers, business leaders, political leaders and other such professionals.

In addition to language instruction, we seek to teach our students the specifics of Mixtec culture, geography, history, and community rebuilding.

La Prensa San Diego: How many students participate in this program?

Dr. Perez: During the academic year we probably train six to ten students but these numbers vary and have been as high as 30. The summer program, where we receive doctoral and other graduate students from across the United States, will train fifteen to thirty each summer.

La Prensa San Diego: How did the program get started?

Dr. Perez: The Center for Latin American Studies at SDSU has been National Resource Center for Latin America since 1976. In 2000 the Department of Education placed a new emphasis on National Resource Centers to focus on the issues of indigenous language. We chose to focus on Mixteco as this was and remains one of the most dominant indigenous groups in the San Diego area.

La Prensa San Diego: What’s your background, and how did you get involved in the program?

Dr. Perez: The program actually existed before I arrived at SDSU. I accepted the faculty position I now have in Anthropology in 2001 and the following summer the Center for Latin American Studies asked me to help with the Mixtec summer program because of my experience working in Oaxaca.

I have been working in Oaxaca since around 1993 and lived in a rural artisan community, Santa María Atzompa, from 1995 through 1996 while I was conducting research on the effects of global tourism on small communities in the area.

I have a doctorate in anthropology (1997) from the University of California Riverside that focuses on the issues of gender and community identity in Atzompa.

La Prensa San Diego: Is this program opened to non-SDSU students?

Dr. Perez: Yes! Our summer program is open to anyone with a desire to learn Mixteco and we are starting to offer Saturday schools for local communities in Escondido, Linda Vista, and Oceanside.

We have been meeting with local community leaders to make these arrangements and we are very excited about the response.

Our effort is being coordinated by our Mixteco instructor, Angelina Trujillo, and one of our Mixtec students Val-entina Torres. Our academic year program requires that students register through the University either as enrolled students or through their Open University program.

La Prensa San Diego: This is a unique program in the U.S. What’s the response from the community?

Dr. Perez: It has been very positive but in reality it’s not as unique as most would think. In fact, SDSU is sponsoring a conference on the teaching of Latin American indigenous languages on April 22nd and 23rd . Most of the participants are part of the Department of Education’s grant program for Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTLs) but some have chosen to offer instruction in languages that include Mayan, Nahuatl, Qichua, Quechua, and many others.

La Prensa San Diego: Is Mixteco a difficult language to learn?

Dr. Perez: Yes and No; it is a tonal language that requires the learner to develop an ear for the fluctuations in emphasis in order to communicate fluently. Perhaps more importantly, Mixteco is a language with more than 48 variants some of which are not mutually intelligible. We teach the Huitepec, Mixtepec and Silacayoapan variants and try to train our summer participants to recognize how some of the variants change.

La Prensa San Diego: Who teaches the courses, and what are their backgrounds?

Dr. Perez: Angelina Trujillo teaches Mixtec for us during the academic year. Maestra Trujillo is originally from San Francisco Nieves and teaches the Silacayoapan variant. Profesores Juan Julian Caballero and A. Marcos Cruz Bautista have been teaching our summer program since its inception.

La Prensa San Diego: Why would you recommend this program?

Dr. Perez: For a variety of reasons that actually exceed the language acquisition component. Students who come with us to Oaxaca have the opportunity to truly experience the diversity of Mexico and can begin to understand how this translates to the many people of Mexican descent that they encounter on a daily basis.

It makes a huge difference when people can see the beautiful communities from which many of our current migrants come and how much they have given up for the opportunity to be here.

Oaxaca is extremely poor and has been greatly neglected in the development of the larger Mexican state. When students are able to actually visit the communities in the mountains, valleys, and coast they begin to understand this loss that so many Oaxaquenos experience and they also are able to understand how different the cultural practices are from what they thought they understood.

The immersion in the language takes these experiences to another level as students begin to see how the Mixteco worldview is reflected through their language. We receive letters from students who may have only participated in one of the six-week programs but they constantly speak of how important this experience was to their own work with Oax-acan men, women and children.

For further information about the Mixteco Language Program at SDSU, visit the Department of Latin American Studies homepage at

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