[Colloquium] “Like I always teach my little brother to speak Mixteco”: Language socialization, metalinguistic labeling, and youth agency in the California Mixtec diaspora

Mixtec (Otomanguean) refers to a group of Indigenous Mexican languages traditionally spoken in the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla; they are also increasingly spoken by large immigrant communities in California. As the result of anti-Indigenous prejudice and economic pressures encountered in diaspora, however, the Mixtec languages are undergoing rapid language shift to Spanish and English, making transmission to younger generations a key community priority. In this talk I analyze an interaction in which “Ita Ndivi”, a 20-year-old Mixtec speaker and community language activist, repurposed a documentary linguistics wordlist as a tool to create a language socialization environment for her 7-year-old brother “Ernesto”, a Spanish-English bilingual who is receptively trilingual in Mixtec but not yet comfortable speaking the language.

In the first portion of the talk, interactional analysis reveals the ways that Ita Ndivi creatively recontextualizes the elicitation wordlist to socialize Ernesto into Mixtec grammatical structures, culturally specific lexical items, and politeness formulas, as well as to co-construct his identity as an emergent Mixtec speaker. I then outline a metalinguistic labeling practice that members of the diasporic Mixtec community employ to make sense of local dialectal variation: the abstracted use of the term “Mixteco Alto” (literally ‘high Mixtec’) to refer to generic linguistic difference. I demonstrate how Ita Ndivi uses this metalinguistic label to account for the differences between her own pronunciations and her brother’s, and present Ita Ndivi’s own hypothesis about the unintended contributions that the label may make to accelerating language shift away from Mixtec. Finally, I conclude with a brief examination of how this metalinguistic labeling practice, as applied to Ernesto’s Mixtec pronunciation, can provide clues for the identification of meaningful sociolinguistic variation between Mixtec varieties spoken in California.