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Mexican Indigenous Languages in US Classrooms: A Call for Awareness and Action

by Kendra A. Strouf - October 12, 2020

Today there are nearly half a million Indigenous citizens from Mexico residing in the United States. Discriminatory policies in the United States homogenize these culturally and linguistically diverse individuals, considering all people from Mexico to be Spanish speakers. However, Mexico is home to approximately 287 languages, many of which are not mutually intelligible. Federal law guarantees public education for all children, yet it does not guarantee linguistically appropriate education. As such, Mexican immigrant children who speak an Indigenous language are wholly neglected in formal educational spaces and can experience linguistic isolation. Our system relegates these children to a lesser status than children whose mother tongue is English and systematically disadvantages them to lead a life of poverty in the United States. These are the unintended consequences associated with immigration. Educators in the United States must have language awareness. Linguistically appropriate education is necessary; otherwise, the notion of free public education for all children is feeble. Students, families, communities, educators, and school districts can be advocates for linguistic and cultural rights for these students. We must simultaneously bring policymakers’ attention to this issue and implement grassroots, creative solutions in our own community schools.


There are approximately 11.3 million Mexican immigrants currently living in the United States. (Zong & Batalova, 2018) and an estimated 400,000 are Indigenous (Cengal, 2013), if not higher (See Appendix A). We use the terms Chicano, Latinx, or Hispanic to describe this population. Often inaccurate, these words homogenize and erase linguistic and cultural diversity (Triste, 2014; Sánchez & Machado-Casas, 2009; Hiroyuki, 2003; Pick et al., 2011; Yescas, 2010). By and large, U.S. society does not take into account that not all immigrants from Mexico speak Spanish.

Mexico is home to approximately 287 living languages, many of which are not mutually intelligible (Lewis et al., 2015). Among the largest numbers of Indigenous groups migrating to the United States are Mixtec, Nahuas, Otomí, Purépechas, and Triques (Pick et al., 2011). There are no adequate educational and social policies to support these linguistic populations. As a result, Indigenous immigrants in U.S. society often experience linguistic isolation (First 5 California, n.d.; Casanova, 2012; DeCoursey, 2015; Glick et al., 2013; Kovats Sánchez, 2020; Semple, 2014). Linguistic isolation in U.S. households is broadly defined as homes in which no person 14 years or older speaks English at all or very well, thus completely isolating the family from the public sphere, forcing them to rely heavily on others because of the language barrier or placing the burden of communication on young children (National KIDS COUNT, 2015; Cortés, 2015; Semple, 2014), affecting both cognitive and social development (First 5 California, n.d.; Casanova, 2012; DeCoursey, 2015; Glick, et al., 2013; Semple, 2014). It creates a separation between Mexican Indigenous peoples and the society to which they are denied access. Linguistic isolation leads to cultural and physical isolation as well (Semple, 2014; Canizales, 2014; Sesin, 2014).

Federal law guarantees public education for all children, yet it does not guarantee linguistically appropriate education. Children immigrating from Mexico who speak an Indigenous language are wholly neglected in formal educational spaces, relegating them to a lesser status than children whose mother tongue is English, and systematically disadvantaging them, creating a “permanent underclass” (Nevaer, 2012). These are the unintended consequences associated with immigration (Cummins, 200; Kerswill, 2006; Pick, et al., 2011). This brief report highlights challenges these students face, identifies examples of local education initiatives aiming to support children and reduce inequities, and finally calls for educators, communities, and policymakers to take action.


Often, schools are unable to provide appropriate education to all students, lacking knowledge, awareness, and resources (Kovats Sánchez, 2020; Loughlin, 2015). Teaching Spanish and English to young Indigenous students can be difficult as these children are still developing their native tongue (Gerety, 2014). The potential to lose their language, and subsequently identity, is a risk (Pick, et al., 2011). They also face challenges with regards to language maintenance as their languages can be perceived as a hindrance to overcome (Benson & Kosonen, 2013; Cummins, 2001). Furthermore, students may enter the education system with little formal education and lack literacy skills in their mother tongue (Canizales, 2013; García et al., 2008).

As migration patterns change, so does the landscape of our schools (Sánchez & Machado-Casas, 2009). The U.S. education system encourages acculturation and assimilation practices while suppressing Indigenous identity (Triste, 2014; Sánchez & Machado-Casas, 2009). Schools in the U.S. use terms such as English as a Second Language (ESL) or English Language Learners (ELLs) to label students whose mother tongue is not English. Some students and scholars assert that these terms stigmatize learners and view students as lacking or in an inferior position to the dominant linguistic group (Casanova, 2012; García, 2011; García et al., 2008; Wiley & Wright, 2004). Indeed, García et al. (2008) suggest emergent bilingual as a way to assert that the goal is not to ensure proficiency in English, but rather to develop proficiency in both languages.

A practice known as “tracking” (Casanova, 2012, p. 386; Triste, 2014, p. 152) is common, especially for non-native English speakers. Tracking refers to the process by which educators predetermine the course route for students, pre-defining and perhaps limiting their potential (Triste, 2014; García et al., 2008). Non-Spanish speaking Mexicans in particular experience such discrimination, especially in the educational sphere (Fox & Rivera-Salgado, 2004; Triste, 2014). This practice of separating learners physically and linguistically isolates students in the educational space (Casanova, 2012). Even worse, language-minority students could be inappropriately placed in special education (Connolly, 2019; García et al., 2008).

Few professional Indigenous language interpreters and translators exist (DeCoursey, 2015; Gerety, 2014), yet these services would benefit children as well as their parents or caretakers because challenges faced in the education system spill over to their homes. As students acquire the dominant language, the responsibility of translating from English to the mother tongue can unfairly fall to the children (Casanova, 2012). In addition, parents who do not speak English struggle to be engaged and involved in their children’s education (Cortés, 2015). For example, Mixtec immigrants from Oaxaca who live on Staten Island describe feeling isolated or unable to become involved if there is no interpreter available (Cortés, 2015). As such, students can be at a disadvantage due to the language barrier between their schools and families (Glick, et al., 2013; Triste, 2014).


Many programs exist in our education system to support Mexican immigrant students in transitioning to school in the United States. (Triste, 2014). Rarely do these programs have “cultural knowledge” (Triste, 2014, p. 153) relevant to Indigenous students; these programs often assume knowledge of Spanish (Triste, 2014). Yet, some educators and school districts are creating ways to educate their students from Mexico who speak an Indigenous language.

A school district in Watsonville, California experienced an influx of Mixtec speakers. Some teachers, lacking language skills, reported trying to encourage Mixtec students by incorporating their language and culture into lessons (Gerety, 2014). Literature points to another example, an Indigenous Mesoamerican community-based cultural program that aims to engage high school students to increase positive attitudes towards their own ethnic identity and their academic goals (Luna et al., 2015). This program implements a culturally relevant curriculum and incorporates critical race theory to “enhance cultural awareness” and Indigenous consciousness (Luna et al., 2015, p. 343). It focuses on Nahua culture, yet it is not explicitly focused on increasing ability in or maintaining the Nahuatl language (Luna et al., 2015).

A charter school in East L.A. provides mother tongue education to the local Nahua population (Fernandes, 2014). Students learn both Spanish and Nahuatl, in addition to English. Not only is the school meeting the linguistic needs of the student population, but the curriculum incorporates culturally relevant elements such as Mayan math strategies, Indigenous history, and Indigenous arts (Fernandes, 2014). The school has fought to stay open through threats of closure, largely through educator and community advocacy (Fernandes, 2014), demonstrating a grassroots approach and dedication to providing children with relevant and accessible education.

Parents and caretakers face linguistic challenges in interacting with their children’s schools. The Madera school district in California utilizes a Mixtec community outreach worker. This person’s role is to interact and communicate with students’ families (Fox & Rivera-Salgado, 2004). Some non-profits in the United States such as ‘We Count!’ help Indigenous adult immigrants integrate in U.S. society by teaching Spanish and then English (Sesin, 2014). While the focus is on integration to U.S. society, this nonprofit facilitates parents’ involvement.


Acknowledging and seeking to understand the diversity inherent in Indigenous students from Mexico is one step towards ending discriminatory policies and practices. Therefore, educators in the United States must have language awareness. Training to overcome our monolingual habitus (Hélot & Young, 2006) can occur for teachers and administrators, as there is a discrepancy among educators as to whose responsibility it is to educate Mexican Indigenous children and youth (Loughlin, 2015). We must acknowledge that these learners have distinct needs and take responsibility to provide them with equitable and linguistically appropriate education. Schools must take an active role in figuring out which languages their students speak and they must be held accountable for knowing the linguistic needs of their student population. It is imperative that educators cultivate language and cultural awareness within their own classrooms and learning spaces, as suggested by scholars (Hélot, 2011; Hélot & Young, 2006).

Efforts must be made to provide bilingual or multilingual (with Spanish as the L2) education in students’ mother tongue in order to support their educational development (Cummins, 2001). Neglecting to build language skills in children’s mother tongue is counterproductive, as language transfer can be two-way (Cummins, 2001). Creating space within the formal curriculum not only shows children that their language is valued, but that it is also an appropriate means through which they can learn in school. Alternatively, García et al. (2007) argue for plurilingual literacy practices, a shift from the described L1/L2 dichotomy that underscores that “languages and literacies are interrelated and flexible” and “that all literacy practices have equal value” (p. 11). This dynamic and fluid approach may be beneficial and realistic in plurilingual classrooms and societies. In addition, translanguaging would be natural in such settings, as students would not compartmentalize or “suppress” either/any language/s (Sánchez et al., 2018, p.3; García et al., 2007). Yet, in homogeneous contexts in which there are more students of a particular language group than another, it is possible that English (and/or potentially other more commonly spoken languages) would continue to dominate and reproduce the marginalization of Mexican Indigenous languages. In general, bilingual (or multilingual if Spanish is included as the L2) education may be the most effective way to ensure Mexican Indigenous languages are developed and utilized in the classroom. Plurilingual literacy practices may be more ideal, but perhaps only appropriate in classrooms and societies where all literacies are indeed valued as equal.

Additional programming, such as after-school programs and clubs can also provide a safe space for Indigenous youth (Pick et al., 2011). Developing, implementing, and sustaining culturally and linguistically relevant programming for Indigenous students can make a marked difference in their learning, as well as increase positive attitudes and social skills (Ladson-Billings, 1995a; Ladson-Billings, 1995b; Pick, et al., 2011). For example, after-school programs could incorporate culturally specific lessons, materials, or references in order to draw on students’ personal experiences and background knowledge (Pick et al., 2011). Staff can work with students to co-construct these programs and clubs in order to center students’ voices and cultivate an atmosphere of belonging, which is meaningful given that many schools “adopt assimilationist ideologies” (Simpkins et al., 2017, p.12), and would be particularly important if a “subtractive” (e.g., García, 2011; García & Gaddes, 2012; Lambert, 1975) approach to students’ L1 is taken in the classroom. Even with these efforts, Gast et al. (2017) point to the challenges of providing linguistically inclusive after-school learning and highlight the need for institutional-level change to effectively support students.

Districts should facilitate the hiring and training of interpreters and translators to allow Indigenous parents and caretakers the same access to the school space as dominant language speaking parents and caretakers, and to emphasize and validate the importance of maintaining and strengthening these families’ mother tongues. These programs should also target the local community, including teachers and school administrators, to increase awareness and cultivate understanding towards this linguistically isolated group.

Significant systemic changes are necessary to achieve equity in the formal school space. Following community-led examples, a few of which are documented here, we can implement creative, grassroots solutions in our own schools. We must find ways to cultivate compassion, empathy, and understanding towards linguistically isolated families in school administrators and teachers. Importantly, we must simultaneously bring policymakers’ attention to this issue to guarantee relevant education for the Mexican Indigenous student population in the United States.


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Appendix A

The U.S. census has not captured the growing trend of Indigenous immigrants to the United States (DeCoursey, 2015; Sánchez & Machado-Casas, 2009); trustworthy figures do not exist and given numbers of Mexican Indigenous immigrants in the United States are estimates. Further problematizing this issue is the fact that many Indigenous immigrants are undocumented, distancing them even further from their rights, thus exacerbating the already harmful effects of linguistic, cultural, and physical isolation (Amuedo-Dorantes & Lopez, 2015; Canizales, 2013).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 12, 2020
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23465, Date Accessed: 10/22/2020 8:13:23 PM

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About the Author
  • Kendra Strouf
    New York University
    E-mail Author
    KENDRA A. STROUF supports a research lab at NYU Abu Dhabi that focuses on early childhood education and developmental psychology. She was previously part of a research team at NYU Abu Dhabi that investigates early child development and well-being outcomes among Syrian refugees. Her research interests include early child development, language and literacy issues, and research as advocacy.
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