A Wikipedia page caught my attention lately, an article on the Languages of México. Spanish naturally came to mind and the vast majority of its 120 million citizens do speak that. I figured there were probably a number of indigenous languages as well and that was likewise true. For example at least a million people speak Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec people, either as a primary or as a secondary language primarily in central México. 12MC focused on the other end of the scale and went straight down to the bottom of the list to examine the least spoken of the 68 nationally-recognized Mexican languages.
The bottom three languages each had less than two hundred Mexican speakers. Sources varied on the exact number although each would be considered threatened or moribund, and possibly in danger of extinction.
I discovered a website previously unknown to me in the process, Ethnologue – Languages of the World. The source listed information more than seven thousand living languages. It became a great resource during my search and I’m sure I will return to it in the future.
Motozintla de Mendoza, Chiapas, México
Mocho’ (alternately Motocintleco, Motozintleco, or Qato’k) is a Mayan language found in the Mexican state of Chiapas, practically on the border with Guatemala. Two distinct dialects existed, in Motozintla (map) and Tuzantán (map). Ethnologue noted that this language was extremely endangered. It would be highly unlikely to encounter someone speaking Mocho’ in either of those towns by happenstance; it was spoken by "older adults" in "home only." There were no known monolingual speakers of Mocho’ either.
Kumeyaay Plaque by Steve R, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license
Kumiai is a Yuman language spoken by the Kumeyaay (formerly Diegueño) people. Yuman languages occupied a relatively small geographic footprint even during its heyday, covering modern Baja California plus portions of adjacent California and Arizona on the US side of the border. As an historical footnote, these were the people who stood on the shore greeting Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo when he landed at San Diego Bay in 1542, the first European expedition to the west coast of the future United States. An exhibit recognizes the Kumeyaay contribution at Cabrillo National Monument on the southern tip of Point Loma (map)
Currently 13 bands of Kumeyaay live in the United States and 4 live in México. The southernmost grouping resides at La Huerta, "located on the edge of a remote mountain wilderness area about 70 miles south of the U.S.-Mexican border, and 30 miles east of Ensenada" (map). The Kumiai Community Museum in Tecate attempts to preserve some of their cultural heritage.
Ethnologue estimated about 370 Kumiai speakers spread across both sides of the border. None of them were monolingual. Kumiai was categorized as moribund although efforts are underway to teach it to new generations.
Tribal Dancer by Henri Louis Hirschfeld, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license
Tohono O’odham, a Uto-Aztecan language, didn’t have many speakers on the Mexican side of the border although there were at least 14,000 speakers in the United States including at least 180 monolinguals. That was enough to qualify it as "only" threatened rather than moribund, exhibiting "vigorous" usage by people of all ages. In México, however, there may be as few as a hundred speakers. These people were once known as the Papago — a name that lives on in objects as diverse as a moth, a park, and a US Navy ship. That name was discarded in favor of Tohono O’odham because Papago had been foisted upon them by outsiders.
Tohono O’odham occupied an historical range throughout the Sonoran Desert, roughly southeastern Arizona through northwestern México. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the war between México and the United States in 1848 and then the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 established an international border directly through Tohono O’odham land. It wasn’t ever a problem until recently.
Initially, and for over one hundred years, the Tohono O’odham were able to pass freely over the border. However, in the mid-1980s the border was tightened in an effort by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to stop illegal immigration and drug trafficking. Consequently, a barbed wire fence dividing the reservation in half and increased border patrol has made passing across the border difficult for tribal members. Entry anywhere but official check points is illegal and the entry points nearest to the reservation are 90 to 150 miles away.
The Tohono O’odham people never recognized a border and moved freely amongst themselves, making it possible for them to maintain family ties and participate in festivals such as the annual pilgrimage to to Magdalena de Kino (map) in Sonora: "we do not see ourselves as living in the borderlands. That is the view of people who look on a map but not at our lives. The border does not define us." Tohono O’odham extend as far as 90 miles south of the border into México.