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Language is…the instrument of domination and liberation

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Source: The Government of the State of Chiapas










“Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation.”—Angela Carter

The following blog post was prepared in collaboration with Gustavo Guerra, Senior Foreign Law Specialist in the Global Legal Research Center (GLRC) at the Law Library of Congress.

As March is Women’s History Month and this year’s theme is “Women’s Education – Women’s Empowerment,” I thought it most apropos to highlight a current event where education resulted in the empowerment of women.  Also, if you’ve read my blog posts, many of them revolve around the subjects of language and culture.  The following is not an exception.

In recent news, an indigenous woman from the Mexican state of Chiapas was set free by the governor of that state after being incarcerated for nearly eight years.  (The photograph above features this woman and two other inmates who were set free holding an “Acta de Libertad” [Certificate of Freedom].) The news article states that she learned Spanish during her incarceration and was finally able to communicate the events that had transpired which had resulted in her imprisonment.  Although she was accused of killing her unborn child, it seems that her real transgression was her failure to speak and understand Spanish.  The woman is a Ch’ol Indian.  Many people from ethnic enclaves of Mexico live alongside Hispanics without assimilating their ways,  particularly their language.  This woman had gotten by in Northern Chiapas as an illiterate person who only spoke the Ch’ol language—an indigenous language derived from Mayan.

According to the press release issued by the Government of the State of Chiapas, the woman, incarcerated for delict of homicide upon a member of her family, was sentenced to 15 years in prison of which she served nearly eight.  When she was detained, she did not know how to read or write but nonetheless she was made to sign a declaration without legal representation.

With respect to the criminal procedure, which is also relevant to the  provisions surrounding her detainment, the following article from the Código de Procedimientos Penales (Code of Criminal Procedure) of Chiapas, Title II, Chapter VIII, Art. 186 states that

When the accused, the offended or the accuser, the witnesses or the experts do not speak the Spanish language, the judge shall appoint one or two interpreters who are of legal age (age of majority), who shall swear to translate [sic] faithfully the questions and answers that ought to be transmitted.  Only when an interpreter of legal age cannot be found, shall one of a minimum age of fifteen be appointed.

It should be noted that professionals who work as translators and/or interpreters make the following distinctions:  translation is the written rendering of a source-language text and culture into another, and may be produced with the aid of dictionaries and reference materials; interpretation is the oral on-the-spot facilitation of communication between interlocutors of two or more distinct languages and cultures, and without the use of dictionaries or reference materials.  For a more thorough explanation, see this entry from the Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition, prepared by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Irrespective of the criminal procedure, it is important to note that Chapter I, Article 3 of the General Law of Education of Mexico states that education shall be provided by the state through middle school.  This applies to all 31 states of the federation and the federal district.

There is also the General Law for the Linguistic Rights of the Indigenous Peoples.  Chapter I, Article VII of this law states that

The indigenous languages shall be valid, just as Spanish is, for any matter or transaction with the public sector, as well as to gain full access to administration, services, and public information.

The law also provides that the State, in this case Chiapas, shall guarantee the exercise of the rights provided in this article, as provided by the law.

For an interesting study of the General Guidelines for the Bilingual Intercultural Education for Indigenous Boys and Girls, click here.

If you are interested in seeing a complete listing of the languages that are recognized by Mexico, click here to see the Catalog of National Indigenous Languages of Mexico.  This includes languages groups and dialectal derivatives.

Comments (3)

  1. Thank you for this illuminating post.

  2. Sad to know that shecound not cummunicate to state her facts.

  3. We’re sooo thrilled to are familiar with your information!

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