Reconstituting Xinkan: Translating a marginalized culture on the brink of extinction

Reconstituting Xinkan: Translating a marginalized culture on the brink of extinction

Guatemala has had a long history of racial discrimination and cultural marginalization of indigenous groups (as is generally true for most countries throughout the Americas). This history was significantly exacerbated by European colonial principles of nationalistic monolingualism and perceived cultural and racial superiority. For many indigenous communities in Guatemala, this has led to the forcible diminution or extinction of their languages and cultures. However, in 1995, after decades of civil war, these indigenous groups and their languages were finally officially recognized and the value of a multilingual nation was formally accepted in the Acuerdo sobre Identidad y Derechos de los Pueblos Indígenas [Resolution on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples]. Subsequent legislation has strengthened support for a linguistically and culturally diverse country in the form of the Ley de Idiomas Nacionales [Law on National Languages] in 2003 and the Reglamiento de la Ley de Idiomas Nacionales [Regulation of the Law on National Languages] in 2011.

For some groups these policies and official recognitions have come too late; little remains of their languages and cultures on which to build a unique identity or a diverse nation. In these situations, communities are required to reconstitute an identity prescribed by legislation, but which they no longer maintain in order to be completely recognized and to compete for the same social and political resources other communities may have access to. This reconstitution is the translation of the remnants of their past into current trends of national urbanization and globalization. This article reports on the reconstitution of the Xinkan identity in light of the documents mentioned above.

The Xinkas live in the department of Santa Rosa in southeastern Guatemala. Available information suggests only that the Xinkas were part of a loosely connected network of communities - each with a unique language - and that most likely there was never a centralized Xinkan government or community. The Xinkan identity has been all but extinguished by the extreme discrimination and civil war throughout Guatemala’s history. Only a single native speaker of any of the Xinkan languages remains, though there are a handful of people who remember some frozen phrases and words in one or more of the languages. There are only memories of cultural practices, most of which date only to the colonial period, and nobody currently practices a uniquely Xinkan culture.

While the Xinkas were recognized as speaking various languages belonging to a distinct linguistic group since at least 1770, they were only acknowledged as a unified cultural group through the legislation mentioned above. The label ‘Xinkan’ represents a contemporary construct that reflects colonial-era administrative characterizations rather than pre-colonial community cohesiveness. The modern-day policies define the Xinkan indigenous identity based on five elements: descendancy, language, worldview, cultural practices, and self-identification. However, because of the extreme losses in the Xinkan community, there is little tangible evidence of these five elements anywhere, making the promised support of little practical use. In order to gain access to the protections and rights offered in these documents, the Xinkas must reconstitute their identity in novel ways and through the prescriptions given to them. Without a doubt this new identity will be different than that shared by their ancestors, but it will be an identity that creates a Xinkan space in the linguistic ecology of modern-day Guatemala.

Fundamental in the formation of this identity is the re-valuing of Xinkan heritage. There are most likely hundreds of thousands of descendants of the Xinkas in the communities of Santa Rosa, but not all of them readily self-identify with this heritage. Within their communities many people are still (understandably) reticent to accept this heritage and see it as different than their non-Xinkan neighbors. Most Xinkan communities are a mix between descendants of three groups, the Xinkas, Mayas, and Europeans, and self-identifying as Xinkan creates a three-way conflict for recognition and prestige. In order to mitigate this conflict, the Xinkas are attempting to show internal cohesiveness through an overt recognition of their unique descendancy (a requirement for the recognition of their identity suggested in the Ley de Idiomas Nacionales). Two grass-root cultural organizations have been formed in Santa Rosa for this purpose: the Parlamento del Pueblo Xinkan de Guatemala (PAPXIG) [Parliament of the Xinkan Peoples of Guatemala] and the Consejo del Pueblo Xinka de Guatemala (COPXIG) [Council of the Xinkan Peoples of Guatemala]. These groups provide physical spaces to meet regularly, a limited amount of political representation, and support for the communities in valuing and understanding their heritage as separate from the other linguistic and cultural groups in the region.

Unfortunately, there has not been an uninterrupted transmission of Xinkan worldviews and cultural practices from pre-colonial times until now. In light of this and the requirement for these to exist, the Xinkas often create a set of new and unique cultural practices, which provide cohesiveness for the entire community. These practices are negotiations between, and conglomerates of, the worldviews of the other cultural groups and the Xinkan oral legacies told by their parents and grandparents. This emerging culture is based on novel linguistic etymologies and an intimate connection to nature. Through the emergence of this new culture they are attempting to address the conflict between their modern-urban lifestyles and the more agricultural patterns of their grandparents. This is an ongoing process that requires individual and collective motivation, but if they are successful the modern-day Xinkas will have developed their own concept of Xinka-ness.

Language is likely the most significant obstacle in re-creating the Xinkan identity. Both the Acuerdos and the Ley de Idiomas, mentioned above, recognize language as “the pillar of cultural transmission”, and “the principle means for cultural transmission and preservation”. This makes cultural identity, rights, and recognition directly tied to the state and use of a community’s language(s). In Guatemala, Spanish is the official language, though Mayan languages, Xinkan languages, and Garífuna are recognized as national languages. Each of the national languages is understood to represent a unique cultural group. However, in the Xinkan communities Spanish is the predominant language used, and Xinkan languages have not been used in public for decades. Since language is required as a fundamental element of indigenous identity, the Xinkas are faced with the urgent task of revitalizing and preserving any linguistic information that they have. This results in efforts to record utterances from the last speaker, meeting together to study and learn the languages as foreign languages, and then using this information in public spaces (such as in local festivals and on social media).

The goal suggested in the legislation is “stable bilingualism,” meaning that each recognized language has a secure place in personal and/or public life. The Ley de Idiomas and the Reglamiento provide ways to accomplish this for every indigenous community and language, including their free use in public domains, translations of official documents, bilingual education, financial resources, training in linguistic pedagogy, a regular sociolinguistic census, geographical delimitations of specific language communities, and support for the study of the history and culture of each group. However, the suggested means for achieving stable bilingualism are Mayan dominant and require evidence of a non-Spanish language spoken in the community. This automatically disqualifies the Xinkas from the promised support because Spanish is the language the Xinkas use on a daily basis and their identity is internally and externally defined as non-Mayan. In fact in the Ley de Idiomas Nacionales, a language community is defined as “a group of people that possess, recognize, and use a common language”. By this definition there is nothing to distinguish the Xinkas from other Spanish speakers in their communities, and thereby no linguistic evidence for a separate Xinkan cultural or linguistic identity. The revitalization and reconstitution of their languages is essential as one way to create new domains for their languages, and thereby create a “language community”.  

There is cultural and scientific value in each of the roughly 6,500 languages spoken around the globe. In the case of endangered languages, speakers are shifting to new languages to meet the demands of globalization and cultural conformity, representing a significant loss of cultural practices, social identities, human rights, and linguistic information. In an effort to mitigate this loss, international and national policies, such as the Guatemalan legislation mentioned above, are enacted to preserve and safeguard individual and collective rights and information. However, these policies prescribe new elements for the linguistic ecology of a region that themselves affect the sustainability and recognition of a language and its community of speakers.

While these policies are generally beneficial to the communities that they cover, these new elements can create the need to reconstitute an authentic and authoritative representation of a language and a cultural identity that may already be lost. In light of these policies, indigenous communities, like the Xinkas, are required to redefine what it means to use their language(s). Without doubt this new requirement will require undoing years of discrimination and marginalization and the negotiation of social spaces for the use of these languages and reconstituted identities.

Chris Rogers is currently an Assistant Professor of linguistics at Brigham Young University. He immensely enjoys linguistic field work and has significant experience with working with native communities in the Americas and beyond.  He has conducted original research on the Xinkan languages (Guatemala), Mixteco (Mexico), Wichi' (Argentina), Quechua (Peru), Ninam (Brazil), Máku (Venezuela), Sapé (Venezuela, Brazil), Uruak (Venezuela, Brazil), North Saami (Finland), and Karen (Myanmar).  His current projects involve Máku, Tol, and Xinkan.