Julita Lopez: "They destroyed our buildings and our cities and the culture of people like the Mixtecs and the Aztecs."
  • Julita Lopez: "They destroyed our buildings and our cities and the culture of people like the Mixtecs and the Aztecs."
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What's the third-most commonly spoken language in California? Mixtec, according to Professor Tom Davies, director of the Center for Latin American studies at San Diego State. But the only place you'll see that fact reflected in the education system is in Baja California.

Here at the José Vasconcelos public school in the hilltops of Tijuana's Colonia Obrera Tercera Sección, the kids are taking bilingual education, Tijuana-style. Mixtec to Spanish. Today they're showing the projects they did last Columbus Day. Most have drawn the explorer's three ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María, carrying the great man across the Atlantic to discover...their grandparents, the indigenous people of America.

Most of the children in Julita López's class are Mixtec. They still want to make Columbus the hero the textbooks say he is, but López won't let them. "We are Mixtecs," she says. "So we have to study Columbus objectively."

She looks at the kids surrounding her, José, Paulino, Rocío, Jessica, Miguel, Jesús, Laura-Ocorina, Adela, and a dozen others, all around 10, 11, 12. "Christopher Columbus 'discovered' America," she tells them. "He came across the Atlantic and he found us. But guess what? We weren't lost. He was. He thought he was in India. So because of this mistake he called us real Americans 'Indians.' Was it good that he came?"

"He made it hard for our grandfathers," says Miguel, who's 12.

López says she simply tries to teach the children the truth. "I teach them the story of how Columbus brought his religion, his customs, how he had many men with him from Spanish prisons who brought diseases, raped our women, had mestizo sons of mixed blood, indigenous and Spanish, and how for this...we have inherited evil. Yes. Evil. They destroyed our buildings and our cities and the culture of people like the Mixtecs and the Aztecs. And the small groups that survived had to flee to the mountains to avoid being exterminated. [Columbus Day] used to be very important. Now it is 'El Dia de la Raza.' It's no more, 'Thank you, Christopher Columbus!' "

This changed attitude toward Columbus owes more to teachers like López, she says, than government authorities. "Our history books are the same as they ever were," she says.

Partly because of these different perspectives, bilingual education south of the border faces opposition similar to California's. "Moms and dads of many Spanish-Mexican kids don't want us to spend time on bilingual education," says López. "They say it slows down their children and the Mixtec children too."

Yet with 30,000 to 40,000 Mixtec people in Tijuana, López says bilingual education is essential if these children are to have any chance in today's job market. She, her husband, professor Tiburcio Pérez, and other Tijuana Mixtec leaders have been fighting for recognition of Mixtec culture and rights since the early '80s. They have also been establishing bilingual Mixtec-Spanish teaching programs without textbooks or other aids.

Now they're getting a boost from San Diego State University.

"We've got a grant proposal that we sent off," says SDSU's Davies. "And if we get funded with it, and I think we will, [we'll] take $10,000 and really develop some [Mixtec] reading materials. We'll bump some money in that direction because the Mexican [authorities] just aren't going to do it. Julita is doing a fantastic job. On her own! She has set up this school in Colonia Obrera for Mixtec children at various speaking levels of Spanish. Most of them come up [to Tijuana from Oaxaca] with nothing. She has a four-year phase-in program where she eases them in from pure Mixtec to mainline Spanish."

But Lopez's problems go beyond lack of books, Davies says. First there's the differences between languages. "Mixtec is a tonal language. Spanish and English are not. So these kids have to be taught that the tone doesn't mean anything. In Spanish, however, you say a word, it means the same thing. That's a radical conceptual difference. The second thing is Mixtec has three major dialects that are not mutually intelligible. There are even 52 subdialects in Oaxaca.

"The other problem is that Mixtec is a very ancient language. It has a very small vocabulary. So they have added things onto a root word to explain what they want to say. For example, 'bark' becomes 'the face of the tree.' But you can't do that in 1999 with rockets and cars, so it's hard to get it in their heads that there are literally millions of words that they don't have any knowledge of.

"Julita and [her husband] Tiburcio and others are trying to mainstream these kids so they don't get locked in at the bottom, but they also want them to retain their Mixtecness. To convince them that they can do both and be both."

It was almost serendipity that Davies's department became involved with the Mixtec people.

"We crash-landed into this. It happened a year and a half ago through a graduate student of mine, Patricia Rodríguez. She wanted to learn Mixtec. We hadn't given it a thought before."

Soon Davies discovered other incentives to take action: Health authorities have trouble communicating with Mixtec workers in North County. So do schoolteachers, so do courts.

"The federal government is very interested in this, and they've been very supportive," says Davies. He got an idea: find funding to not only help Julita and other bilingual teachers in Tijuana teach Spanish to Mixtec children, but also to set up a course for his own students to learn Mixtec. He got initial funding from a federal Title 6 grant. "We have what are called 'foreign language area scholarships,' and they pay the student up to $11,000 for tuition. That doesn't buy you anything at Harvard, but it buys you a whole lot at San Diego State."

With the help of Davies's money, the National Pedagogic University (UPN) at Otay in Tijuana agreed to set up the first Mixtec language program for foreigners last year.

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