Language and Loss

AIDS prevention tapes in Oaxaca’s Indigenous languages. Photo by Shawn Smallman. Tapes by Frente Común Contra el SIDA, Oaxaca, Mexico; courtesy of Bill Wolf.

When Kim Brown and wrote our textbook, we drafted one chapter on language that just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the text. Still, we’ve included the chapter for free online on this website, in the hope that faculty may use it. I became fascinated with language while researching HIV prevention strategies in Oaxaca, Mexico, one of the most linguistically diverse places in the Americas. How do you do HIV prevention work in rural communities in which the primary language is not Spanish? I knew the co-founder of an HIV prevention organization (Frente Común Contra el SIDA), which produced and distributed audio cassettes that gave information about preventing HIV in a plethora of Oaxaca’s languages. The NGO sent young people back to their communities to interview elders. With their linguistic advice they would create these tapes in their local language.

The great advantage of the tapes at the time was that the organization could give them out to people for free, and they would travel the migration pathways from Mexico as far as Chicago or Woodburn, Oregon. Some of the people at risk were young men from small rural communities, who were leaving the confines of home for the first time to work abroad. While there they would find new experiences and experiment with different behaviors. As they did so, these tapes could give them the information to keep them safe, in the language of their home. Now my friend is dead, and the organization is defunct or quiescent. Some of the tapes now sit on my office bookshelf, as I wonder if I should digitize them to preserve their information, as well as their record of different dialects and languages.

In North America, another region that embodies a similar linguistic diversity is British Columbia, but Indigenous languages there tend to be fading much more quickly than some of the major languages in Oaxaca. I recommend Jack Knox’s article, “A silenced tongue: the last Nuchatlaht speaker dies.” As the title suggests, Knox reflects on the death of Alban Michael, and what his passing represented in the broader panorama of the region’s languages.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

Mountains, Whistler, British Columbia, Canada. By Shawn Smallman
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