From UWE to Otomi

by Russell McIntyre (Russell is a UWE graduate in Linguistics and Spanish)

I joined UWE in 2007 as a ‘mature’ student of Linguistics and Spanish. Note that ‘mature’ is a relative term in the student world: I was the ripe old age of 23. But I was clear about what I wanted, and that was to study. Not just anything, but my passion. Back then my passion was the Spanish language and I set myself the goal of reaching a native level within four years. The other half of my degree was Linguistics. I can’t specifically say what I initially hoped to gain from it, but I always had an interest in words, their usage, formation and interpretation. Wouldn’t we be like any other animal if it wasn’t for our ability to talk? Within the first semester I realised that it would be difficult to ever reach a truly native-like level in Spanish. At the same time, my interest in language was developing into much more than that – it was a passion, it was becoming an obsession.

The big questions about my future remained: What would I do with the ability to speak Spanish? After all there are over 400 million native speakers who I would never be able to match. The common talk is of translating or interpreting within the UN but we all know that very few make the cut. The majority of language students end up teaching EFL in a country of the language they studied or as foreign language teachers in the UK, but I knew that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. My career as a Spanish speaking graduate was looking bleak before it had begun. On the other hand, I was also studying Linguistics. So: what do linguists actually do?

I ploughed ahead with my study, a year in Spain studying Linguistics, followed by a year in Mexico, teaching. Returning to UWE for my final year, I was still undecided what it was I wanted to do after graduating but I knew where I wanted to be. It wasn’t until I was given a homework task of investigating endangered languages that I knew what I wanted to dedicate my life to.

Within a couple of months of graduating, I was back in Mexico contacting local charities, organisations, politicians and government with a project defending language rights for the local Huichol people in the Sierra de Durango. Door after door remained closed, emails and phone calls unanswered. Meetings were arranged and then cancelled at the last minute. My project sat on my desk, collecting an interminable amount of desert dust. I was told that there was such little interest in the area that I would probably never be given a chance. Meanwhile my EFL teaching job developed into one of teaching Linguistics at a local university; the pay was bad, my boss, well, let’s say that at least I was doing something that I was passionate about. However, I felt it was time to rethink what it was I wanted to do.

As the war on drugs raged on, I recognised that it was probably a blessing that I wasn’t traipsing around the sierra being confused for a rich gringo, and I realised that it was time to move on. So after two years of frustration and rejection, I found myself in central Mexico in a new (teaching) job. I checked out the local university, which had an indigenous language course, which I duly signed up to.

Otomi classes are difficult to say the least. Although initially I signed up as a hobby, I never lost sight of my interest in working with the local culture and helping to protect their language. During the first semester, I became aware of a Master’s programme in Mesoamerican Linguistics that was being offered by the university and I applied. It includes the study of endangered languages, my big passion. After handing in an unguided ante-proyecto (a kind of pre-thesis) I was accepted on to the week-long intensive admission course. Of the 87 applicants only 9 would be accepted. Only one wasn’t a native Spanish speaker. Once again I found myself having to answer some difficult questions as to why a foreigner would want to fight to protect a culture that wasn’t theirs.

For me, protecting a language is much more than the protection of a culture (I term I despise due to its vagueness): It’s the conservation of knowledge, of information, of history. It’s the protection of the roots of a modern society that has been too easily homogenised, all too Americanised. A society where branded coffee shops are filled with trendy hipsters with state-of-the-art laptops. Bristol, Madrid, Mexico City, why would we want them to be the same?

What we need to protect are our differences, what makes us unique. What is it that made me want to live in Mexico? The language? The food? The weather? These are components of Mexican culture but superficial ones: What makes Mexico unique is its people, and what defines its people is their history. And there is only one way that we can define, investigate and protect that history: through its pre-Colombian peoples, their customs, beliefs, and of course, their way of transmitting them. Language is the basis of who we are.

In Mexico, the indigenous groups are often highly discriminated against – the term indio is used derogatorily and associated with ignorance, laziness and general stupidity. At one event in Durango I was interviewing a young Huichol lady: the first thing she was asked upon arrival was whether or not she could read. She was a graduate in economics. The beer served at the event was Indio. Changing attitudes will not happen overnight.

This week I was told that I had passed the admission course, and made the final cut. The hard work lays ahead and many barriers are still to be crossed, but now I feel that I am finally at the starting point of being able to make a difference.


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