A New Life for Indigenous Languages in New York City

José Juarez jots down notes in the last minutes before going on air. On the other side of a foam-padded wall, his colleague Leobardo Ambrosio pushes the dials of a soundboard up and down, preparing for the two of them to take their indigenous mother tongues to the mics.

Every Monday night, the duo hosts “ALCAL” (Latin and Central American Linguists) radio. The show runs out of a nonprofit organization based in midtown Manhattan called the Endangered Language Alliance (ELA), dedicated to protecting linguistic diversity. Juarez and Ambrosio migrated from Mexico and Guatemala, respectively, to New York, where they strive to keep their indigenous cultural heritage alive.

According to the Mexican Consulate, as of 2012, of 320,000 Mexican-born people in New York City, 250,000 are indigenous, and a third speak one of the country’s 68 recognized indigenous languages. For many migrants from these speaker communities, finding community abroad can determine whether they sustain their mother tongue.

Ambrosio, whose native language is K’iche, which comes from Guatemala, says that ALCAL radio aims to explain the barriers that indigenous peoples face in the United States. “It isn’t just work but also the language, because we hide ourselves with Spanish and English.”

For many indigenous migrants like Juarez and Ambrosio, the pressures to assimilate into U.S. society often eclipse the desire to preserve their language and culture. Experts estimate that there are some 800 languages spoken in New York City, with the highest concentration of endangered languages of any place in the world. Daniel Kaufman, the director of ELA, says that some of these languages have only a single speaker in the New York City area. For many indigenous migrants, finding community abroad can determine whether they sustain their mother tongue.

Ambrosio lives among 52 other K’iche Guatemalans from Sololá province, all concentrated in a five-block radius in Brooklyn. But even for more populous indigenous groups in New York City with many speakers, geographic distances between them often lead to cultural and linguistic dissolution.

Read more: NACLA

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