Language

The Disappearing Tz’utujil

Alex Shur

Alex Shur is an international development professional, social justice journalism graduate student at Northwestern University, and freelance content writer.

Alex Shur
Alex Shur

Alex Shur

Alex Shur is an international development professional, social justice journalism graduate student at Northwestern University, and freelance content writer.

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antiago Atitlán is an indigenous Guatemalan town surrounded by three imposing volcanoes and Lake Atitlán, widely regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful lakes. Most of the town’s residents consider Tz’utujil as their mother tongue. According to the 2002 Guatemalan Census, there were 78,498 ethnic Tz’utujil people and 62,237 Tz’utujil speakers in the country; around two-thirds of them live in Santiago Atitlán. But a lot has changed in the past two decades. Population growth has remained stable, but the language isn’t faring so well. If the census were updated, it would most likely show that while the ethnic Tz’utujil population has grown, the language has not.

The geological features surrounding Santiago Atitlán rendered it nearly impenetrable by cultural and military intervention until the Spanish arrived around half a millennium ago. Before then, Tz’utujil — the primary language of five cities in Guatemala — was the only language spoken in the town. And until the Guatemalan Civil War crippled Santiago Atitlán in the 1970s, nobody cared to speak Spanish. But when the American-sponsored dictatorial Guatemalan military held guns against the heads of parents, and schools were forced to implement a Spanish-first policy, the Tz’utujil language took a formal backseat to Spanish.

Families in Santiago Atitlán kept speaking Tz’utujil behind closed doors throughout the deadly war. The Tz’utujil language and dress became symbols of resilience: as the Guatemalan military pillaged lands and murdered farmers, the language and clothing were all that many families had left. The people faltered, but the language never did. Until recently, almost everybody in town spoke Tz’utujil as their first language, including its few ladino, or mixed ethnicity, residents. But now, less than 25 years after the conclusion of the Civil War, the Tz’utujil language and culture face a new threat: globalization.

In the early 20th century, it took dugout canoes a day to reach the shores of Santiago Atitlán from the port city of Panajachel. The journey required several men to paddle across the ten-mile lake, against the waves that Xochimilco — the feared northerly wind — brings. Now, motorboats leave every half hour, arriving in 20 minutes on days when the waves are calm. And a paved road connects the town to civilization. Every day, trucks arrive in the town, emitting clouds of smoke and delivering products from around the world.

The impact of globalization is clear in Santiago Atitlán. Secondhand American clothing stores are abundant, as are Chinese restaurants, and the main tourist street has signs in English and Spanish. Indigenous women line the city’s central park, serving chow mein on tostadas and other, more traditional foods.

Globalization has come partly because of necessity. There is more economic opportunity in serving tourists pizza and sandwiches than local foods that they may not recognize. Along the same lines, knowing a few English words can be advantageous. But the changes that globalization brings are present far beyond the lone tourist street and late-night food stands of the town.

I arrived in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, in 2018 as a United States Peace Corps volunteer. The irony of being an aid worker for the country that supported Guatemala’s oppressive regime during the civil war was never lost on me. I intended to tread lightly, but I quickly realized that the influence of the United States preceded me.
I first observed the impact of globalization on the Tz’utujil language soon after arriving at my host family’s residence. I was sitting at the dinner table with my host mother, Ana Leticia, her young children, and her father. As we ate patín — a local delicacy of fish in a spicy tomato sauce, wrapped in a leaf — I listened as Ana Leticia translated from her father’s native Tz’utujil to Spanish. At first, I thought she was only doing it for me. Then, I realized something: as Ana Leticia’s father spoke Tz’utujil, her children looked at the table or away from him.
I waited until the conversation slowed, then I asked Gustavo, Ana Leticia’s seven-year-old child, whether he spoke Tz’utujil.

“No, I just speak Spanish. I understand some of it, but not much.”

Then, Ana Leticia told me, “Most children his age in the center of town no longer speak much Tz’utujil. It’s a bit of a problem.”

The problem is two-fold. First, it’s impractical. Few people above the age of 60 can speak Spanish fluently. Most speak little to no Spanish. The same goes for younger generations in the villages outside of town. Near the town center, children born in the 21st century often consider Spanish to be their first language. And many children under ten speak no Tz’utujil at all. Hence, there’s a linguistic divide from city to village and across generations within the city. But when Leti told me that the language divide created a problem, I could tell that she wasn’t only talking about practicality.

For centuries, the Tz’utujil people have embraced an oral history. They trade stories, gossip, advice, and myth from grandparent to parent and from parent to child. These oral traditions constitute a vital component of Tz’utujil culture. Through these stories and myths, the youth learn how the lake comes alive, why the late-night pedestrians turn into otherworldly beings, and how conspicuous treasures found on the volcano can grant a lifetime of money and a world of stress.

While stories can be translated, they lose significance, weight, and meaning without the words that are unique to the Tz’utujil language. For the elderly, who embraced the language as one of the last remnants of their culture during the tragic Civil War, a child’s inability to speak Tz’utujil is more than an inconvenience — it’s a sign that their culture is forgetting them.

The systemic and systematic racism toward indigenous people in Guatemala has become more insidious since the Civil War ended. Schools have reverted to a Tz’utujil-first policy, but many ban children from wearing the traditional indigenous dress of the town. Guatemalan institutions emphasize the opportunities that having a better socioeconomic status provides, but they don’t mention that embracing a “better life” implies rejecting traditional cultural and linguistic values.

The use of the Tz’utujil language has dropped off further with the arrival of the internet and television. Having a computer and TV is a necessity for any family of means in Santiago Atitlán. Technology exposes children to opportunities, distractions, and distant cultures — values that parents and children cherish. So while parents are tilling their lands, in much the same way as their ancestors of centuries past, technology exposes children to the Spanish and English-speaking world. And with every television show, Spanish class, and computer game, children become removed from their native language.

Much of the disappearance of Tz’utujil can be attributed to the imported emphasis on socioeconomic status. Spanish allows you upward economic movement; Tz’utujil keeps you stagnant. By speaking Spanish, you can access jobs in hundreds of cities across Guatemala and the world. With Tz’utujil, you’re limited to five small towns. Thus, parents emphasize that their children learn Spanish to access more professional sectors, cities, and opportunities. At the same time, parents lament that their children are moving away from the former capital of the Tz’utujil people and that the culture seems to be slipping away with them.

As globalization divides the Tz’utujil people by socioeconomic class — those who can afford technology and education, and thus learn Spanish, as opposed to those who can’t — Santiago Atitlán faces another significant divide that results from a mix of globalization and machismo culture. Husbands and fathers often restrict their spouses and daughters to the house, limiting their social lives, educational prospects, and work opportunities. Machismo manifests in different ways, but the opportunities and respect given to men and women aren’t even. And globalization has made the disparities worse. 

While almost all Tz’utujil women wear the traditional handwoven huipiles and cortes of Santiago Atitlán, young men and boys wear counterfeit Ralph Lauren jeans, American-made second-hand shirts, and basketball shoes. When an indigenous woman wears modern American clothing, they run the risk of being berated and called xeñor, which is a derogatory word for foreigners. But when a man wears contemporary clothing, they look refined and masculine to the people surrounding them. Even when their shirts say I Love Pink in bejeweled letters.

Men take advantage of globalization, but women feel isolated because machismo culture doesn’t allow them to reap many of its benefits. Men frequently attend university in the capital; most women don’t. Men listen to reggaeton together, while women listening to foreign music seems to pose an existential threat to men. Globalization isn’t inherently at fault here, but it adds a volatile element to an already toxic mixture.
I recently spoke to Diego Petzey, a young community leader of Santiago Atitlán, about globalization’s effect on the Tz’utujil language. Petzey leads B’atz, a traditional weaving cooperative whose name means “threads” in Tz’utujil. B’atz teaches young children — boys and girls — the techniques and value of weaving traditional clothing. By learning the patterns, mythology, and techniques of weaving, children may come to understand, remember, and cherish the traditional culture of the Tz’utujil people.

Petzey is also a stakeholder in many other community efforts and organizations, and a mentor to many. He has taught me about the scars that the war left behind, how machismo affects the city, and how systemic racism constantly undermines community efforts. Petzey is a realist. He has high hopes, but he knows that his efforts in preserving Tz’utujil culture go against the tide of globalization.

Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Petzey whether he thinks Tz’utujil will be spoken in 100 years. He was silent for a few seconds, then he sighed. “At this rate, not a chance,” Petzey told me. “Maybe if something changes. But I don’t think so.” It hurt Diego to say those words, but I sensed an ounce or two of hope in his latter statement. I then asked him what could help save the language.

“The national government would have to yield to the League of Indigenous Peoples’ demands. And both public and private schools would have to encourage their students to speak in their native tongue. But if these changes don’t happen, I don’t think there’s any way to save the Tz’utujil language from extinction,” Petzey said.
There is hope, then, that the language can be saved. Like Petzey, many Tz’utujil people are helping to organize community efforts to maintain the traditions that haven’t yet disappeared. But their efforts go against the pressures of globalization and systemic racism, which seem like insurmountable challenges to the efforts of maintaining the Tz’utujil identity in the long run.