Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱: An Indigenous Mexican community in Lawrence is saving their language from extinction

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Indigenous languages are under threat. With up to 95% of the world’s languages expected to go extinct by the end of this century, generations’ worth of Indigenous traditions and history may be left a mystery.

That’s why a coalition of KU professors have teamed up with a local community of immigrants from Guerrero, Mexico, to reclaim Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱: one of many Indigenous languages endangered by colonialism and the cultural erasure it’s inflicted for centuries.

In 2018, Tamara Falicov noticed the new members of her service-learning program at Centro Hispano didn’t just speak Spanish. Instead, they spoke Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ (pronounced like meh-PAH), an Indigenous language of Guerrero, a coastal mountain state in southern Mexico.

When Falicov talked with the Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ families, they were concerned about their children not picking up the language. This created a kind of language barrier within families because some Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ youth couldn’t communicate with their grandparents back home.

They got in touch with Philip Duncan, a KU linguistics professor who works with Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱, and started working together on an online trilingual talking dictionary. This interactive tool includes words translated in Spanish, English and Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱, with audio clips on how to pronounce each one. The collaborative project also allows for speakers to submit their own recordings of spoken-word stories.

But the project’s meaning is much bigger than just creating the dictionary. It’s to celebrate the Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ people: not only facilitating their language reclamation, but also acknowledging their contributions to Kansas culture and educating others on their experiences.

A collaborative approach

Falicov and Duncan assembled their team with local Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ speakers, Centro Hispano, and other linguistics experts.

“We’re using a framework called participatory action research, which is inherently collaborative,” Falicov says. “The idea is to bring stakeholders together to work as a team to determine the needs of the community.”

Eugenia Policarpo, a Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ speaker and Lawrence resident, says the purpose behind why she’s working on this project dates back to her own childhood.

“I grew up talking to people for my parents. My mom doesn’t speak much, and I know that if my kids go to see her, it’ll be hard for them to communicate,” Policarpo says. “That’s the main reason I’m doing this work: because we want our children to be able to communicate with the older generations.” 

This initiative isn’t giving a voice to the Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ community; it’s empowering them to use the voice they already have. This is especially important for Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ speakers living in Kansas. It’s critical to the group to be able to pass down their culture, especially for those living away from their ancestral lands.

“We’re teaching people that everybody has something to say. And we’re calling on all [Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱] parents to make sure this culture isn’t just a mystery in the hearts of our kids,” Policarpo says.

As this project continues, Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ people living in Guerrero are carrying on a legal battle to defend their homeland against the mining industry. Even separated by 1,800 miles, the Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ people in both Mexico and Lawrence are united in their goal of reclaiming their heritage for future generations.

The program also includes an element of community outreach. Policarpo and Duncan have tabled at events such as the St. John’s Mexican Fiesta earlier this summer, where they educated attendees and handed out brochures with Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ writing and translations. They collaborated with Hubert Matiúwàa — a Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ poet, activist, and the winner of the 2017 Indigenous Literatures of America Prize — to share his poem “Ixe̱” (“Tree”) at the event.

Duncan believes the collaborative nature of this program is the key to its success. By bringing in diverse stakeholders to build the database, design the website, coordinate meetings, and more, he says the work is always ongoing and getting better over time.

This type of collaboration is also critical in keeping the focus where it needs to be: on the Indigenous perspective. According to Duncan, they’re trying to break the legacy of “extractionism” in the linguistics field.

“Researchers have sometimes just gone in, plucked some data, and been like, ‘See you later, community, I got what I need,’” he says. “The discipline has learned a lot over the last few decades about the role that non-speakers should play, especially in Indigenous contexts, and the ethics around that. Our approach has been to keep the focus on people and on notions of justice. That helps think about our priorities and whose needs are really being met.”

Getting funding

As Falicov and Duncan noticed their project gaining traction, they worked with Centro Hispano to apply for a Culture Preservation grant from Humanities Kansas (HK). Since it was founded in 1972, the nonprofit organization has pioneered statewide partnerships that uplift cultural diversity through stories and conversation.

According to the Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ project leaders, their work wouldn’t be possible without the support they’ve received from HK.

Leslie Von Holten, director of grants and outreach, says HK has awarded hundreds of thousands of grants to Kansas organizations. These grants, which range from $1,000 to $10,000, have generated a huge network of projects all tied together by one focus: the humanities.

“It’s so vitally important for Kansans to have a strong sense of belonging and to come together to share ideas, because that’s how we grow and become stronger together,” Von Holten says.

She believes it all comes back to the importance of conversation. That’s where the true patterns emerge.

“One person might tell her story and we can be empathetic to it, but then when we connect that story to other stories and reactions, those are the building blocks of community,” Von Holten says.

Looking ahead: Carrying on Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ traditions

The Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ project is evergreen. The dictionary is a living, ever-evolving resource that depends on people continuing to submit entries and recordings.

As the leaders work to ensure the project’s sustainability, they’re trying to attract more people from the Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ speaking community to get involved, even beyond Lawrence.

“I’ve talked with people in Mexico who also speak and work with the language, some of them in professional organizations,” Duncan says. “I’d love to see a trans-border collaboration. There’s already some interest, I just think we need these built-in tools to make it happen.”

Jordan Winter/Lawrence Times Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ is a tonal language, meaning the inflection with which a word is spoken can change its meaning.

Falicov added that beyond providing a dictionary, they want to lean into community building.

“Our hope is that as we open this up to the general public, we’ll host gatherings at the Lawrence Public Library and potentially bring a Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ poet from Mexico to perform,” she says.

With parents from Argentina, Falicov knows firsthand the importance of being multilingual. She believes her team’s partnership with Centro Hispano has allowed them to build relationships through trust and collaboration that will help the whole town thrive.

“Having access to multiple languages is so important for widening the public sphere and having broader conversations in our community,” she says. “It’s an incredibly valuable tool.” 

Language endangerment, which primarily affects Indigenous peoples, is a historical and ongoing issue driven by colonialism. Settlers tried to exterminate many Native lifeways through forced assimilation, which has caused lasting, generational consequences. But Indigenous peoples are now flipping the script through projects like this one.

By recognizing and challenging these external forces, the Me̱ꞌpha̱a̱ community is reimagining its future through the cornerstone of language. It’s a foundation to help bring the community together, honor traditions, and encourage younger generations to become speakers themselves. And it’s creating a model for other Indigenous communities to leverage digital resources to preserve more than just a language.

“I’m proud of this project, our heritage, and being here in Kansas,” Policarpo says. “I don’t want our roots to be lost.”

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Jordan Winter (she/her), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a 2019 KU grad with degrees in journalism and political science.

Check out her work at See more of her work for the Times here.

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