Indigenous poets at SLCC event say their languages have ‘right to coexist’

The event, held mostly in Spanish, focused on the cultural importance of ‘mother tongues.’

(Carolina Bloem | SLCC) Miguel Ángel Oxlaj Cúmez, left, and Rosa Maqueda Vincente, Indigenous poets from Guatemala and Mexico, respectively, speak at an event, “Mother Tongues and Their Right to Coexist,” at Salt Lake Community College on Feb. 21, 2024.

This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.

There was a moment, the Guatemalan poet Miguel Ángel Oxlaj Cúmez said, when he thought to himself, “if my humanity was going to be ridiculed, why would I speak [it]?”

Speaking at Salt Lake Community College, Cúmez recalled how Spanish colonizers often punished, beat or killed Indigenous people for speaking their mother tongue. The subsequent rise of the Spanish language even resulted in a crop of great significance to the Indigenous Kaqchikel culture — corn — being used against them.

“They would make us kneel on corn kernels until we admitted that Kaqchikel was useless,” he said.

Cúmez spoke at a Feb. 21 event called “Mother Tongues and Their Right to Coexist.” The event — which also featured poet Rosa Maqueda Vicente, from México and of the Hñähñu people — was presented primarily in Spanish (with translation devices available), and put on by SLCC’s Latin American Studies Program and the nonprofit Artes de México en Utah (Arts from México in Utah).

The event focused on languages in Latin America, and the systemic erasure and importance of Indigenous languages. Both poets speaking detailed the stories of their respective languages, and the roots of erasure and discovery.

Before the 16th century Spanish colonization of what’s now México, one could find an estimated 350 Indigenous languages across the region. As of 2020, according to one study, only 5.8% of people in Latin American regions speak Indigenous languages.

Carolina Bloem, associate professor of Spanish at SLCC and director of its Center for Latin American Studies, said language can be a tool of resistance. While some may not realize it, she said, Spanish has become a tool of erasure for Indigenous languages in Latin America.

Indigenous languages, Bloem said, aren’t simply tools of communication. When a language dies out, so does a whole block of knowledge and words.

Cúmez said that continuing to speak his mother tongue is a way to respect and “[honor] the memory of the pueblos.”

Vicente said she often questioned whether her culture left a legacy. She shared how her need to reconnect with her own mother tongue came from the realization that her education was only centered on Mayan history — and the denial of her own roots motivated her to learn past that one version of history.

Vicente, talked about a group project, Siwar Mayu (“A River of Hummingbirds”), a website that highlights Indigenous languages through poetry from different artists — Vicente, and Cúmez among them.

“Being a part of a collective pushes you forward,” Vicente, said.

Fanny Guadalupe Blauer, executive director of Artes de México en Utah, shared a familial story of reconnection — about her grandfather, who held regret for not learning his mother tongue.

Her grandfather’s final words, Blauer said, were “I ask for forgiveness from my mother, because she spoke to me in her mother tongue, and I never answered. I ask for forgiveness of you, because you carry her name but not her language.”

Andrea Silva, a staff member at Artes de México en Utah, said events like this one raise the question of where our languages come from. Although some people may not speak a mother tongue, the discussion can lead them to question the origins of their language.

“It is important to question where you come from, who you are, and who you want to be,” Silva said.

Ashley Orduna wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.