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Saving a Language, Saving a People

from the May 12, 2021 Bulletin

language art and culture

Sandra Gonzalez-Mora and Reynaldo Mora met learning Aztec dance. Their personal and professional partnership, as a writer and an artist, has created an award-winning publishing house, the Skillful and Soulful Press. Their books promote a love of language and encourage families to read and learn together. You can learn more about their independent press online and follow them on social media to stay up-to-date on their latest book projects.


Rey, You have written and drawn a trilingual counting book for very young children, Humingbird/Colibri/Uitsitsilij. Why three languages?!


Reynaldo Mora: Growing up, I was called “pocho” by Mexicans because my Spanish wasn’t fluent. And then Americans looked down on me because my English wasn’t perfect. Now I tell them, “I speak two invader languages fairly well!” Sandra and I want children to learn about the languages spoken on these lands long before any Spanish or English word was ever heard. For the first book in this series, from the many indigenous languages, we chose Nahuatl. Over 1.5 million people in Mexico speak Nahuatl today.


These trilingual concept books aim to celebrate indigenous languages and help families introduce their young children to the beauty of the spoken word in diverse cultures. Future books will highlight other languages including Otomí, Navajo, and Mayan, to name a few.


Besides the trilingual book, you’ve written two bilingual books for children age 4-8.


Sandra Gonzalez-Mora: Yes. I’ve been working in the field of early childhood education for many years, and in graduate school I did a research project on bilingual reading materials by Latinx authors that specifically introduce young children to the sophisticated vocabulary critical to their reading development. Finding books that did this introducing proved very challenging. So I realized I’d just have to write and publish them myself!


Do these children’s books serve a political purpose?


Sandra: These books are shifting the narrative that “English is best,” a uniquely American attitude. In Europe, children learn their mother tongue plus two other languages, at least. But here, immigrant kids are pressured to assimilate and made to feel ashamed of their parents and their parents’ culture. That isn’t healthy for children’s development or their family relationships.


Rey: We made a political decision on the spelling we chose for the indigenous words in our counting book. Spanish monks, during their colonization of the Mexica people, developed the “classic” Nahuatl writing system. We decided to use “Huasteca” Nahuatl, a system closer to the way the people themselves understand the language to be pronounced. By using “Huasteca,” we are reclaiming the language and that is powerful!


What do you see as the importance of language learning?

Sandra: Languages reflect the unique ways a people see the world, how they explain what they see, what’s important to them, what role they play in relationship to the rest of nature. Conquerors dominate by stamping out a defeated peoples’ dance, music, worship, farming — and language! The Aztecs had a written language similar to the Egyptians. They used glyphs rather than an alphabet. The Spanish burned many of these historic artifacts. When a language is lost, so are its people. But luckily, many indigenous languages remain alive and well, and we must make sure we keep it that way.


What has been the response to your books, from children and the adults around them?


Sandra: People today have become more conscious about the importance of our children being proud of who they are, more willing to see diversity within a school or a society as a plus. Our books have received an enthusiastic reception.


Rey: In keeping with indigenous beliefs about living in harmony with nature, we strive to minimize our carbon footprint. So we don’t print our books overseas. We print them in the US, and that’s getting a positive response. People would like us to sell the books in México as well, so we want to find a local printer there so we don’t have to ship them in. We’re also not selling our trilingual books through Amazon.

Rey, why did you choose the hummingbird to star in your story?


Rey: Hummingbirds, like our peoples, are migratory, traveling thousands of miles each year. In Aztec mythology, it is said that a worthy warrior’s spirit comes back as a hummingbird. Everywhere, people are in awe of these creatures, so tiny, so beautiful, so resilient. Like our children!


Do you feel your books can contribute to cross-border solidarity?


Sandra: The Zapatistas have a saying, “A world in which many worlds can exist.” No one country, culture, language needs to dominate over the others. You can live in multiple worlds if you choose, and you can explore your own roots and develop your own sense of belonging. If children can learn this, they’ll make a more peaceful world.

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