Honoring Indigenous Heritage:
Mexican Folklorist David Peña Flor Talks About Teaching Pre-Columbian Language and Culture to Latino Students

David Peña Flor, a Mexican folklorist of Nahuatl descent, teaches native languages to children of MesoAmerican farmworkers through the UnidosUS Affiliate RCMA in Florida. Photo by Julienne Gage.

It’s taken several hundred years to make progress, but now a number of states, cities, and educational institutions across the United States are replacing their observation of Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. In the midst of this trend, the public is developing a greater appreciation of the many peoples and cultures from which Latinos draw their heritage, such as, the first people in the Americas.

UnidosUS’s civil rights work in education puts a major emphasis on the language learning experience, and as we look for ways to better include English learners in schools, we are reminded that not all Latinos grow up speaking Spanish and English as their primary languages. In fact, many of them speak indigenous ones, and preserving those words is an important part of their identity and communication.

To learn more about this, ProgressReport.co spoke with David Peña Flor, a Mexican folklorist of Nahuatl descent, who teaches language and cultural preservation to predominately Mesoamerican migrant farmworker children in Florida through the UndiosUS Affiliate Redlands Christian Migrant Association or RCMA. We met him this spring at the RCMA Wimauma Leadership Academy on Florida’s Gulf Coast during a parent-student celebration of Mesoamerican heritage.

Q: Replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day is becoming a trend, and with it, there seems to be more interest in indigenous language preservation. What’s helping to drive that, and how can it help you and the thousands of Latino students in Florida whose families hail from places like Mexico and Central America and speak the languages of their Mayan, Mixteco, or Nahua ancestors?

A: UNESCO, the United Nations Educational Scientific, and Cultural Organizationhas named this year the International Year of Indigenous Languages. RCMA is conducting a census of the dozens of indigenous languages spoken across the state. The school has a very large presence of people whose families come from Oaxaca, where there are many languages. For example, there is Zapateco, and there is Mixteco, which has three dialects.

Q: How do you help these young students growing up in a state like Florida understand the breadth of their family heritage and preserve the languages associated with it?

A: We try to involve our children and their families in their heritage through the arts. One of the barriers we want to break is the shame that they sometimes have. They can be very shy about expressing themselves in their native language. Centuries of repression and teasing have made it very hard for them to do it in public. But 90% of the migrant farmworkers in our community left their homeland because of poverty. If these children don’t have an opportunity to value where they came from, there will be a void in their personality. If they’re proud of where they come from and accept that, they value and quit depreciating themselves and they quit believing that their culture is inferior.

Q: You identify as an indigenous Mexican. What indigenous language do you speak?

A: I speak a little Nahuatl. My grandmother spoke it, but she quit speaking it precisely because of this fear and shame. I’ve recovered a bit of it, and the goal is for the children to have the chance to feel proud of their roots. Even though they were born here, on the outside they’ll always be seen as what they are, as Mexicans, or as Hispanics or Latinos from somewhere else, so it’s important that they recover their identity through their language and that it bring them pride and a sense of belonging.

Q: What are some of the artistic activities that help to impart these traditions and words?

 A: I have a master’s in culture and identity of Mexico, so I have the advantage of using art, music, and singing. I play indigenous instruments, and I’ve always been a folkloric artist. As a result, I have had the opportunity to see my whole country through singing, and so I have elements for them to rediscover, like why their towns are called as they are. We have a calendar full of festivals and celebrations like El Día de los Muertos, El Día de la Guadalupana, and I use those dates to try and involve them in their heritage.

Q: What about with the parents? Many of them worry about integrating their kids into a society that is often hostile toward immigrants, minorities, and English learners. And even though they may want to teach their kids about their indigenous heritage, they may feel like they don’t have the time or the tools.

 A: I’m also in charge of the adult education program, and there’s a family here in the school where the mom is Mixteca and only speaks Mixteco. Her husband speaks functional Spanish, but they’re both learning to read and write. Their girls understand Mixteco, they understand and speak Spanish, and they almost speak English as a first language. I brought them some literacy notebooks in Mixteco so that they can discover how to write it, and so that they have this link.

Q: That’s amazing. You must have to think like a linguist to facilitate this process. Is it challenging?

 A: It’s been hard because Mixteco is a hard one to learn, and there’s variations of it. But my advantage is that there are students who are trilingual. Here in the community, I’m helping students doing their GED in Spanish, and they help me with the Mixteco pronunciation. The bigger challenge is that while they speak it, writing is another process. There’s a lot of details like sentence structure.

Q: We know that multilingual learning has many benefits. It helps their attention span, their impulse control, and makes them better multitaskers. But critics will still say there are so many other subjects students need to know well to get to college and find a profession in a competitive job market. What’s your response to that?

I think it’s excellent that they get technically and professionally prepared, but identity is necessary, and we need to reevaluate how we look at it, just as the media is now doing. Look at Yalitza Aparicio, indigenous Mexican actress who recently starred in the Oscar-winning film Roma. She’s been really important because I can say to the girls “don’t just be dreaming about a beauty pageant. Look at the consistency and the training she had to have to get where she got to be valued.”

And there are many other careers. For example, anthropology and history are academic fields that are complimented by culture, language, and folklore. In fact, there are 30-40 folkloric Latino groups across Florida, and remember, the first Hispanic school in the United States was in St. Augustin. The Spaniards arrived there before English settlers came to America, so I try and help them see the connection between the Gulf of Mexico and Florida. There are so many points of contact, and that’s something being done in the Latin American studies programs at St. Petersburg University and the University of South Florida right here in the Tampa Bay area.




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