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Mixtec Indians Face Language Barrier

May 2, 2012

By Zack Budryk and Christine Stoddard
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In public education, the philosophy of doing the greatest good for the greatest number reigns supreme. The Richmond public school system illustrates this point in its English as a Second Language program.

In a school system where nearly 90 percent of students are African American and native to Richmond, serving immigrant communities – especially obscure ones – can be a secondary priority.

ESL resources are clearly targeted to the Spanish-speaking members of the city’s 13,000 Hispanics. Indigenous Latin Americans, like the Mixtecs of Mexico, cannot reap the full benefits these programs offer because Spanish is not their native language.

In terms of language and culture, the casual observer might not notice much difference between Richmond’s Mixtec community and any other Latin American immigrant group in the city. Neither would the average teacher, school counselor or education specialist. For both the Mixtecs and their allies, however, the distinction is all too evident.

Richmond’s Mixtecs hail from the small, isolated village of Metlatónoc, in Mexico’s southwestern state of Guerrero. They are pure Amerindian, not of Spanish descent, and speak their own Mixtec language, which belongs to Mexico’s Otomanguean linguistic family.

This linguistic family represents a cluster of languages spoken by more than 500,000 Mexican Amerindians, though the number of people who speak the same dialect as Richmond’s Mixtecs is much smaller.

“Their Spanish is not very good,” said the Rev. Shay Auerbach, the pastor of Sacred Heart Church, where most members of the Mixtec community attend Mass in the city’s Manchester district. “And some of them don’t read and write, period – whether that’s Spanish or anything.”

Like many school systems in Virginia, the Richmond school district has designed its ESL program with Spanish-speakers in mind. The district’s Office of the Bilingual/ESL Parent Liaison, for instance, ensures that school documents and announcements are translated into Spanish for parents, but not necessarily other languages.

The problem extends to the suburbs as well. Henrico County Public Schools, for instance, employ a Latino liaison but no one to reach out to children and parents who speak other foreign languages, particularly Amerindian ones.

Auerbach said illiteracy exacerbates the language gap.

“Mixteco is a written language, but many of them may not know it,” he said. Only some schools in Mexico teach indigenous languages, Auerbach noted.

Mary Wickham, director of the church-affiliated Sacred Heart Center, said the language barrier varies throughout the Mixtec community.

“The children speak beautiful English,” Wickham said. “I don’t know how their Spanish is, but they probably speak better Mixteco English than Spanish.”

Paradoxically, learning English at school could be both helpful for the Mixtec children and detrimental to the communication gap between their parents and the schools, Wickham said.

“Kind of the pattern is, whether it’s Spanish-speaking people or Mixteco-speaking people, that the children are learning English faster than the parents because they’re in school,” she said.

“And so they become the translators, which can be good but also can have a downside, because it puts a lot of responsibility on children, and can put them in situations that they shouldn’t really be involved in.”

Such responsibility may also weigh down on children whose parents speak other foreign languages.

The Richmond Public Schools have 21 ESL teachers. This year, the district reported serving about 1,000 students with limited English proficiency. Those students speak about 30 different languages, from Afrikaans and Arabic to Vietnamese and Yoruba. The vast majority – more than 770 of the students – speak Spanish.

The number of limited-English-proficient students has grown dramatically in Richmond and across Virginia in recent years. Eight years ago, for example, Richmond had fewer than 400 students needing ESL services.


For the current school year, the Richmond Public Schools reported serving 965 students with limited English proficiency. Here are the languages spoken by those students:

Related stories:

A Spanish translation of the above article

Mixtec Artisan Co-op Debuts in Richmond

A Faith Community on the Margins of Society

Parts of this package were published by Quail Bell Magazine.