Indigenous voices speak about their communities in East Tennessee

Hispanic Heritage Month

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Like many societies, there are several types of people with various backgrounds, experiences and languages. Within the Latinx and Hispanic community here in East Tennessee, there are people of Indigenous origins.

They, too, have a part in the conversation on inclusion, which we wanted to amplify during Hispanic Heritage Month.

WATE 6 On Your Side’s Melanie Vásquez Russell spoke with some Indigenous Maya who live and work here in Knoxville and they shared their stories about how they want to raise awareness in preserving their languages, customs and bridging linguistic divides to create better opportunities.

There are many Indigenous Latinos in East Tennessee, working in and building the communities. Among some of the underlying issues is that of language.

People like Luci Diego and Mateo Francisco-Andrés are working to protect their native languages and educate others – doing so because of empowerment and support from Centro Hispano de East Tennessee.

“I feel good about helping our community, so that they can better understand what’s going on and whatever’s going on and getting the message,” Luci Diego, a youth and family liaison at Centro Hispano, said.

Luci speaks three languages: Alkateco, English and Spanish. She has been acting as the go-between for clients at Centro Hispano who speak the Indigenous Mayan language, Alkateco, for information shared by government and schools especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

There’s a huge language barrier. Because some people just assume that just because you’re a Brown person or Hispanic person, they assume you speak Spanish and understand it really well.

“There’s a huge language barrier,” Luci said. “Because some people just assume that just because you’re a Brown person or Hispanic person, they assume you speak Spanish and understand it really well.”

Luci, who grew up in Knoxville with Indigenous Guatemalan parents, understands the challenges many Indigenous people face – which is why she has dreams of helping her community find its voice.

She’s not the only one, though.

“We have roots,” Mateo Francisco-Andrés said. “It’s the roots of who we actually are… and knowing that is going to die eventually is kind of sad, because that’s the sense of or culture we’re going to lose… I don’t want that to happen. It’s who we are.”

Mateo Franciso-Andrés is a full-time student at Pellissippi State Community College who grew up in Phoenix and his family is also Indigenous Maya from Guatemala. Mateo’s parents only speak their native language, Alkatec, while he speaks English and Alkatec.

Mateo is also a runner, and his parents greatly support his education and running. That’s what they came here for, to create better opportunity and Mateo carries this with him. He’s also been participating in programs at Centro Hispano for a few years.

“Just having the resources of people who actually want to help the Latino community, I feel like that’s a network in which I can… express what I want to do, my mission, so there’s lots of resources that I have here,” Mateo said.

Improving communications and educating others in understanding the Indigenous experience is what both Luci and Mateo are working toward at Centro Hispano and in their community.

“When it comes to one of my dreams, is to open an interpretation office, with Mayan dialects so that people can understand everyone and everyone can understand what’s going on,” Luci said.

Mateo is running a race the first weekend of October to fundraise for the nonprofit that has given him so many opportunities — using his passion for his mission to promote education.

“During this race, I want to reflect back on the experience – I really want to reflect on the times that Centro Hispano helped me grow in times where it was just me,” Mateo said about a week before his 36-hour Buffalo Mountain Endurance Run. “I know a lot of young Hispanic and Latino people have really experienced what I experienced, I know a lot of kids can related and a lot of people care, too. So just bringing awareness to that is something I want to work on. But during this race, I really want to reflect on that.”

Mateo competed in the Buffalo Mountain Endurance Race beginning Friday, Oct. 2, entering as one of the youngest runners in the 36-hour run and for each mile he ran, he was fundraising $10 for Centro Hispano.

UTK Alum sees similar linguistic divide while working with Indigenous students in Guatemala

A view of Chichicastenango, Guatemala. (Photo by: Savannah Dixon)

It’s not just in East Tennessee’s Indigenous communities where linguistic divides exist and are getting worked through, but also in countries such as Guatemala.

A University of Tennessee-Knoxville alumna is living in Guatemala and works for a nonprofit with similar values to that of Centro Hispano — in that she and ‘AKEBI’ are working to educate and empower communities in multiple languages, as well.

Guatemala is a geographically small country but has a vast history — and it’s also where more than 24 Indigenous languages are spoken, apart from Spanish.

“Guatemala is the size of Ohio, it’s tiny and so there is a lot of code-switching, but there’s a little bit of a divide amongst the linguistic, I would say, ethnic groups,” Savannah Dixon, UTK alumna and Fulbright Scholar, said.

Dixon works as an academic coordinator for the English language programs with AKEBI, a nonprofit that connects people to education and resources in several languages, including the dozens of Mayan languages that are spoken in Guatemala.

“We have a lot of people who identify as such culturally, because of the language that they speak, there are over 24 languages spoken… And they are direct descendants from what we call proto-Mayan language, which was spoken thousands of years ago,” Dixon explained. “But when students are only spoken to in their native language and their Indigenous Mayan language at home and then they go to school, they’re basically forced to acclimate to Spanish, but the good thing at least is, that the Guatemalan government is trying to improve this in they have early education, there are a lot more bilingual programs… but once the students get old enough, and it’s harder for them to learn that native language of their parents, that’s when they automatically start losing cultural ties to land and cultural ties to history.”

Dixon says she sees this often among her students at AKEBI. She teaches in a region of Guatemala where the local town population is around 98% Indigenous. There are different languages spoken here, all derived from the proto-Mayan language spoken by their ancestors.

“Qui’che is a derivative but it’s technically its own language,” Dixon said. “It’s kind of like hearing Spanish versus Portuguese — they can kind of understand each other, but not completely, right? My trilingual students and my assistant coordinator, she’s trilingual, as well, but most of her teaching knowledge comes from her grandmother, who only speaks Qui’che. So that’s something that immigrants that come to the US lose — that familial tie, that generational tie because a lot of the Mayan languages changed. Their adaptation has been incredible, especially over the last few hundred years; but you have to be immersed in it in order to learn it, otherwise, it’s impossible.”

Dixon’s perspective as a teacher, a coordinator has also allowed for her to be a learner again, herself — learning the local customs, language patterns and helping her students who may be struggling to balance their language skillsets.

“I know one guy that I work with — who is incredible, he speaks many languages, he runs an institution here and it’s amazing, and when you talk with him about that language divide, that culture, he told me, ‘We have to pass this on. We have to grow a pride in this not out of an unhealthy or elitist manner, but just to save ourselves… We are losing ourselves, we are losing our culture.'” Dixon shared. “As language dies, that when it starts to matter, less and less heritage, cultural history, especially in a world where so much of the history is in narrative form. Narrative history is everything here. The Spanish literally burned everything written down. The Mayan stories that they still tell, are centuries old. And that’s all they have. They’re in those original languages, I mean the ‘Popol Vuh‘ is in Qui’Che. For me, it’s heartbreaking because, obviously, I’m white, so there’s only so much I can do. I can’t come in here and say like, ‘We should save all these languages,’ because that would be naïve of me and that’s not my place. It would be so privileged for me to think that I could ever fix that problem.”

‘We have to pass this on. We have to grow a pride in this not out of an unhealthy or elitist manner, but just to save ourselves… We are losing ourselves, we are losing our culture.’

Dixon continues to work with her students and connect them to education empowerment — knowing her role is there to help the local community want to go to school, open doors for job opportunities, build up their homes — finding their voice along the way.

“A lot of the things that I want to accomplish has to be with a cultural mindset change. Like I want the Indigenous girls that I work with, to feel like they have a voice. I want them to feel like they are powerful, and that they can be leaders. And I see it when we’re together. But when we’re outside, it disappears. With the boys that I work with, I want to see them grow up to be men, fathers. I want to see them grow up to be men and fathers that won’t abandon their families that aren’t going to leave — that are going to be invested in their communities that are going to be entrepreneurial, creative problem-solvers. And it takes breaking a cycle. That is really difficult. And it’s no one’s fault. I mean, sociologically, historically, you could blame a lot of people, but it’s not a cultural problem. But it is something that as a United States citizen, going into that and deciding to fix something is really, really difficult, because you’re fighting a lot of different barriers.

“A lot of my work is just code-switching all day. My fiancé is Guatemalan, his family doesn’t speak English, but he speaks English but it’s that’s just my life. There’s just code-switching all day long. And I think a lot for my students as well,” Dixon shared. “That’s what they do for most of their days because they’re writing and doing homeworks in English. They’re watching videos. In English, they’re doing homeworks in Spanish and they’re talking to their parents (in their Indigenous Mayan language) and so they’re code switching as well. It’s fascinating because it exhausts me. I don’t know how They do it. Day in and day out — so that it’s been something really interesting.”

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