Ancient language being spoken in Riverhead

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Many Mixteco people in Riverhead live on Harrison Avenue, near Riverhead High School, and come from the same mountainous region of Mexico.

Some say there’s a phenomenon happening in Riverhead, but to catch on, you’ll have to listen closely.

An ancient Mexican language called Mixteco — which originated, and is still spoken, in the mountainous regions of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Puebla — can be heard in area parks, stores and schools.

Mixteco is tonal in sound, like Mandarin Chinese, and until about 30 years ago, when a group of professors created a Mixteco alphabet to promote and preserve the language, its only written form was in codices — symbols similar to hieroglyphics.

In recent decades, the Mixteco-speaking population in this country has grown, as more people search for a better life away from their poverty-stricken homelands, where work is scarce. And on Long Island, Riverhead appears to be their town of choice.

VIDEO: Listen to the ancient language called Mixteco

Leslie Martino-Velez, associate director at the CUNY Institute of Mexican Studies, said that although Mixtec immigration to the U.S. has risen, it can be difficult to pinpoint the numbers, because U.S. census data doesn’t track detailed information about sub-groups from Mexico and many immigrants don’t readily identify themselves as Mixtec, mainly because of past discrimination in their native land.

Ms. Martino-Velez said she believes Riverhead’s agricultural industry appeals to Mixteco speakers because many are already farmers.

“Economic opportunities drive people to leave where they’re from,” she said.

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One of those immigrants is 28-year-old Lorenza Leal, mother of five children ages 2 through 10. She and her husband came to America from Guerrero in 2002 to start their family in Riverhead after a friend told her about the employment and education opportunities that were available.

During an interview last month at the North Fork Spanish Apostolate in Riverhead, where Ms. Leal volunteers, she told the News-Review why she left her home, where her ancestors have lived for thousands of years.

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Lorenza Leal, 28, and her son, Juan Basurto, 7, at the North Fork Spanish Apostolate in Riverhead last month where she volunteers. Ms. Leal is from Guerrero, Mexico, and speaks an ancient language called Mixteco.

“There’s no work,” she said of Mexico, as Sister Margaret Smyth of North Fork Spanish Apostolate translated. “There’s no way to survive.”

Ms. Leal, who works in a local health clinic and is a leader in her church, said of Riverhead, “Everything here is peaceful. Everyone is nice.”

Although she’s proud of her ancient heritage, Ms. Leal said she knew early on that she would have to learn Spanish to get ahead in life. But even after becoming fluent in both languages, economic opportunities weren’t available to her back home.

She attended just a few weeks of first grade, she said, because her family couldn’t afford to buy a pencil for her to take to school. After dropping out, she began working at age 6.

Her desire to get more out of life came from witnessing the constant suffering her family endured back home.

“They had absolutely nothing,” Sister Margaret said while translating. “She saw her father working so hard, and he was farming. He died very young. She would observe how her family suffered and she decided, even at a very young age, ‘I need to go to work. There’s got to be a better way to live than this.’ ”

When asked if it’s hard to see how much easier it’s been for other people living here in America, Ms. Leal began to tear up.

“That’s why they come here,” Sister Margaret said, as Ms. Leal dried her eyes. “Who wants to stay home and die?”

There’s been a push in Mexico to initiate policies aimed at expanding opportunities and change for Mixteco speakers, Ms. Martino-Velez said. Because many Mixtec people are illiterate, can’t afford an education or don’t have access to schools, she said, there’s also a misconception that no written Mixteco language exists.

“The written language is not universal,” she said. “From the perspective of a migrant coming to the U.S., they might have not ever read any text.”

Sister Margaret believes that low literacy levels hinder their potential here and that local Mixtec residents need to learn and get a command of Spanish before they can learn English.

“You can’t jump to anything if you don’t have literacy in your own language,” she said.

Developing the written form of Mixteco, one of 62 different languages spoken in Mexico, was complicated by the fact that it has 41 dialects of its own that arose over time in small towns and isolated villages separated by mountains, Ms. Martino-Velez said.

When Mexico started bilingual education in 1979, educators got together to come up with a way to revitalize the oral language through a written form. The move aimed to preserve stories about native history from thousands of years ago. Since then, many Mixteco-speaking people have become bilingual.

Like Ms. Leal, many Mixteco speakers now speak Spanish as well, and English is quickly becoming their third language, she added.

Ms. Leal’s children speak both Spanish and English. She’d like them to be fluent in Mixteco as well, but having them learn and consistently use the language at home and with family hasn’t been easy.

Sister Margaret said the majority of the Mixteco children in Riverhead are American-born citizens and usually start with Mixteco and Spanish in the home. They’ll then pick up English quickly in school.

“Parents have to work hard to make sure their culture continues because the children become so Americanized, because they’re Americans, that they want to only speak English,” she said, adding that it’s rare for a student who speaks only Mixteco to enter a local school.

Elizabeth Scaduto, director of the Riverhead school district’s ESL program, said one way educators can determine if a student is Mixtec is to recognize when a student is having difficulty speaking Spanish.

It’s challenging to find out if incoming students speak Mixteco, Ms. Scaduto said, because families will frequently indicate only “Spanish” on school registration forms. In addition, she said, state reporting currently requires schools to indicate only one language.

“I have spoken with Sister Margaret about this and encourage families to indicate all languages on the registration forms,” she said. “Sometimes the person helping to register the family does not realize there are additional languages in the home. It is a concern that we are seeking to resolve so that we may best help all of our students.”

Ms. Leal said she doesn’t believe the Mixteco language is being lost, because children are born into it.

She also believes it’s important for her American-born children and others whose parents came from the poorest areas of Mexico to learn the value of hard work and not take some of the comforts of life in the U.S. for granted.

To help on that front, she took her children for a visit to their native land this summer. She knew the trip had a positive affect, because they kept asking whether they could “bring up all the children so they can have a better life here, too.”

During the trip, one of Ms. Leal’s daughters became ill. A visit to the nearest clinic cost 400 pesos or about $31.60, which, Sister Margaret said, is as much as some people there make in a month.

The experience prompted Ms. Leal’s oldest daughter, Diana, 10, to start thinking about the type of work she wants to do as an adult.

Ms. Leal recalled Diana saying, “Mommy, I’m going to become a nurse and I’m not going to charge. I’ll only have to charge for the medicine we have to buy because I want to help the people who can’t go to a doctor.”

“I tell my children, ‘You need to help people,’ because I understand how hard it was when I came here,” Ms. Leal said. “I want to help people when they need help.”

In Riverhead, many Mixteco-speaking families live on Harrison Avenue near Riverhead High School and came here from the same villages. Ms. Leal is currently working to motivate them to learn both Spanish and English to further enhance their lives.

Sister Margaret said her group is also working with BOCES to establish Spanish and English classes for Mixteco-speaking adults.

Ms. Leal said she’s proud of her ancient heritage, but after learning Spanish, she wants to get started on becoming fluent in English.

When asked about the difficultly of learning multiple languages, Ms. Leal said it’s easier to learn Spanish than English because Spanish and Mixteco have more connections and many modern words are the same in both languages.

Although it is more difficult to learn English, she’s still trying.

“If you want to, you can learn any language,” she said.

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with Carrie Miller