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Rise In Zapotec-Speaking People Results In New SDSU Language Course

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Thousands of Mexican natives migrate to California every year. Most speak Spanish, but others don’t speak Spanish at all. Now San Diego State University will teach the indigenous language of Zapotec, which is spoken by 350,000 people in Mexico.

— Thousands of Mexican natives migrate to California every year. Most speak Spanish. But others do not speak Spanish at all. Some speak an indigenous language called Zapotec. Now, San Diego State University wants to teach this language to others.

It's a warm Saturday afternoon in Venice, California. We're at a restaurant that serves up fresh Oaxacan cuisine and tasty margaritas.

It’s here where we meet Gabriel Martinez. He orders a rice, chicken and mole in his native language -- Zapotec.

Martinez wears a tan, Panama hat and round glasses. He's from a small, rural village in Oaxaca. Oaxaca is located in southern tip of Mexico.

When Martinez was growing up, he spoke only Zapotec. As a matter of fact he didn't learn Spanish or English until he came the U.S.

“Arriving in Venice at the age of 15 years old, I was totally shocked when I encountered the culture,” Martinez said. “For example, I was very surprised when I saw an African American person.”

Martinez says that's because poor villages in Oaxaca are typically isolated from each other, and the rest of the world, due to the rugged, mountainous terrain. That's also why Oaxaca is such a hot bed spot for indigenous languages.

Zapotec is one of the more common dialects.

Experts say up to 100,000 migrants come to California every year. One fact, one anthropologist coined the term Oaxacalifornia to explain the migratory pattern.

As more and more Oaxacan people come to the Golden State, more and more Zapotec-speaking communities are emerging.

The problem is many Californians assume these people speak Spanish.

“Migrants from Mexico, even second generation, don't necessarily speak Spanish,” says Romona Perez, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at San Diego State. “They may speak English along with an indigenous language. Many of these kids are coming into the U.S. into our school systems and are being spoken to in Spanish, but they may not even speak Spanish.”

Perez is developing the country's first Zapotec language program at SDSU. This is the first semester classes are being offered to students and the community.

Perez says this program is extremely important as more Zapotec-speaking people are ending up in clinics, courts, and schools.

“If you want to talk to them about what happened to them in a criminal situation, you need to go back to their language where they can express themselves. If you want to talk to them about their health, if they get hurt, the hardest thing to do is go to a hospital and say, ‘This is what I'm feeling.’”

Perez says Zapotec is a complex, difficult language because it's a tonal dialect, meaning one word can carry entirely different meanings based on how you stress certain syllables.

In that way, it’s similar to learning Chinese. An estimated half a million people speak Zapotec in Mexico, but it’s hard to teach it because it’s not a written language.

But perhaps the biggest obstacle in offering a class in Zapotec at San Diego State is that its not a mainstream language course. Most students opt to take Spanish or French because they think it will help them in the real world.

Shane McClain is a graduate student at U-C San Diego studying indigenous languages. He doesn't agree with people who think indigenous languages are somehow inferior.

“In a lot of ways its more precise, and there is less room for ambiguity,” McClain said. “The more you get into (the language), your world just opens up.”

That different perspective is what San Diego State officials hope will attract students to the program. They says it's not just about learning the Zapotec language, it’s about broadening students' understanding of a different culture.

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