Working with NYC’s Department of Health and the Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Health Service, ELA launched a 7-week series of activities in East Harlem centered on indigenous food, language, and community. Led by Nahuatl teacher Irwin Sánchez, the project brought together Mixtec and Mam mothers to share recipes, transmit languages, and talk about health. These gatherings were part of a larger, ongoing collaboration with the Health Department which has also involved in-depth interviews with speakers of Mixtec, Mam, Nahuatl, Garifuna, K’iche’, and Kichwa now living in New York.
With speakers of as many as 800 languages, contemporary New York City is the most linguistically diverse place in the history of the world. Kexaptun — “a few words” in Lenape, the endangered indigenous language of New York City — is ELA’ ongoing project to collect and create poems about or set in the City, in as many of its languages as possible.
Kexaptun contributors from four continents who live in New York will perform and discuss their work, reflecting on their adopted home and the distance they have traveled to reach this “Babel in reverse,” a last-minute outpost for languages and cultures in an age of extinction.
Yusra Zaini, from north Sumatra in Indonesia, will sing pantun, or rhyming quatrains, in Acehnese. Kewulay Kamara, a finah (lineage-based oral bard) originally from Sierra Leone and now based in Queens, will perform his work in Kuranko. Nino Provenzano will read and discuss his Sicilian poetry. Zenaida Cantú, a Tlapanec (Me’phaa) speaker from Guerrero, will reflect on the realities of life as an indigenous woman in both Mexico and New York. Moderated by Ross Perlin.
Over the past year, ELA continued its mission to document linguistic diversity both in our hometown of New York City, a global language capital, and around the world. We partnered with government agencies, high schools, museums, community groups, language activists and Google to support dozens of languages from five continents.
In January, we launched a new hyper-multilingual poetry anthology with a series of workshops. In February, we started Lunaape classes with language keeper Karen Hunter, marking the first time that the indigenous language of New York City and the surrounding area has been taught in the city. In March, responding to attacks on our immigrant partners, we launched a series of ¡Conozca sus derechos! (Know your rights) videos in indigenous Latin American languages. April saw the release of our Google Cultural Institute exhibit. In May and June we began our ongoing intensive collaboration with the New York City Department of Health to better understand the linguistic, cultural and health background of indigenous Latin American communities in New York.
Through July and August, and all this year, the languages of two of Asia’s mighty mountain ranges, the Himalayas and the Pamirs, were a major focus — driven by the deep interest and digital savvy of our partners from these communities, our videos in languages like Mustangi, Dzhongka, Wakhi, and Shughni have been viewed tens of thousands of times.
In September, the family of the late Joshua Fishman, leading scholar of language revitalizations and the sociology of language, generously donated his vast library to ELA. In October, public events were a major focus — from the streets of Jackson Heights to a community bookstore in Washington Heights to St. John’s University in Queens. With support from the Brooklyn Arts Council, we began our project to record lullabies in a range of languages across NYC in November. In December, work has been progressing on our language map of the city, which we hope to share with you in 2018!
We hope to see you in 2018 — please help us make it all happen!
Working with communities on their languages is about more than just figuring out how the verbs work. Speakers of minority and endangered languages are marginalized both around the world and in New York City, with little access to the services that majority groups take for granted.
That’s why, earlier this year, ELA started working with the New York City Department of Health on a project to better understand and reach out to indigenous and minority Latin American communities in the city, who speak dozens of languages — including several that ELA has worked on, such as Mixtec, Garifuna, and Nahuatl.
Still at an early stage, the project aims to understand what language varieties are most spoken in the city. As the DOH wrote on their Tumblr site, the project is “part of our larger mission to address health inequities across ethnic and socioeconomic groups in NYC”, in order “to address the injustices suffered by the first Americans residing in what are now the five boroughs.”
Above: The first-ever Guelaguetza on Staten Island, a celebration of Oaxacan cultures whose name is derived from a Zapotec word that has been translated “reciprocal exchanges of gifts and services”.
New York City may be the most linguistically diverse place in the world, but that diversity began with Lunaape (also called Lenape or Delaware), a Native American language of the Algonquian family. Today, Lunaape is being revitalized in communities in Canada, Oklahoma, and elsewhere.
ELA is honored to host classes taught by Karen Hunter, who has been teaching and revitalizing her language for over a decade. It may mark the first time in 300 years that the language has been taught in the traditional part of Lunaape-speaking territory that includes NYC.
Classes are always the third Friday of the month, from 6:30 to 8:30 pm, at ELA’s office near Union Square (3 W 18th St, 6th floor). Classes are free and require no previous experience. All are welcome — if possible, please drop us a quick email to let us know you’re coming!
We’re excited to announce that we’re partnering with Google Cultural Institute to launch online exhibits of some of our projects. Through this new platform, we can bring even more photos, videos, audio, and information to you in a format that’s made to feel as if you’re exploring an exhibit at a museum.
Below is a preview of our first exhibit, Mother Tongues, a photography series created by Yuri Marder in collaboration with ELA and with support from the National Endowment of the Arts. The exhibit features photographs of endangered language speakers in New York, along with recordings and information about their languages.
ELA is proud to announce a new series of videos —“¡Conozca sus derechos!” (Know your rights!) — that respond to the new threats that immigrants and refugee communities are facing. Now more than ever, it’s vital that speakers of endangered languages know their rights and aren’t left out of the conversation. Our first four videos are in Nahuatl, Ki’che’, Totonac, and Tlapanec — all indigenous languages of the Americas that are now spoken in New York and other parts of the U.S., as well as in Mexico and Central America.
As is plain to see, it has been a tumultuous few weeks here in New York City. We take this opportunity to stand with the many other non-profit organizations, institutions and individuals around the country who have expressed their shock and dismay at recent events. We will repeat what has already been declared so many times: immigrants and refugees are the economic and cultural bedrock of this city. There simply is no NYC without immigrants and refugees.
We have been striving for the last 8 years to bring to light the cultural and intellectual contributions of NYC’s smallest linguistic communities. These communities are made up of documented and undocumented immigrants as well as refugees from all over the world. Some of our collaborators have come here fleeing genocide and others have escaped impossible economic conditions brought on by globalization and even climate change. Many of them are indigenous Americans and the inheritors of a colonial history that plundered their cultures and livelihoods. We believe they are the best of New York and their presence here, in turn, represents the best aspects of this country. Yet they are now collectively under attack by factions who wish to portray them as opportunists and security threats.
In this increasingly uncertain time, we can take mild consolation in knowing that history has seen worse. Indeed, the following Neo-Aramaic proverbs recorded with one of our collaborators from Iraq some years ago seem very apt for our current situation. We hope that the ancient wisdom preserved here can help inoculate us from the further shock and awe awaiting us in the weeks, months and years to come. They may try to take away our rights but they can’t take away our sense of humor. With that said, enjoy the United States of 2017 from an Aramaic perspective.
He came with the following simple philosophy: He who doesn’t have a dime isn’t worth a dime.
This is surely but a bluff, thought the people. After all, There are men who are men and there are men who are full of manure.
But the wheels were now in motion, and He who puts his hand on a plow doesn’t look back.
Not a week had passed and suddenly it seemed clear that, The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.
What guides this donkey? asked the masses, perplexed.
Orders made in secret and given without notice, but injustice cannot be hidden: Those who get pregnant in the basement, give birth on the roof.
The people have mobilized – taking to the streets, capitols and airports: Exhaust your feet so you won’t harm your heart!
A chief strategist was sent on the offensive, declaring: If you don’t see with your eyes or touch with your hands, don’t talk!
And while they succeed in driving some to the shadows, let us not forget: He who knocks on the door of others will get his door knocked.
And if nothing else works, there’s always the consolation of last resort: If it doesn’t get destroyed, it doesn’t get reconstructed.
As a registered non-profit organization, ELA cannot endorse political candidates, nor did we want to add to the ceaseless chatter during what felt like an eternal campaign here in the US. But there have been some points that we cannot in good conscience ignore without comment. In particular, one campaign has ruthlessly targeted Mexican immigrants as the root of this country’s economic problems. It would be cowardly, even at this late juncture, for us not to publicly defend our many indigenous Mexican collaborators who are among the first peoples of this continent and who have suffered untold horrors at the hands of a wide variety of malefactors, from the conquistadors to a neighbor who portrays them as the worst kinds of criminals while they merely struggle to survive.
It is no exaggeration that the multi-billion dollar service economy of New York City stays afloat largely on the back of indigenous Mexican labor under some of the worst working conditions in the US.
It is important to consider how and why our indigenous friends from Mexico and Guatemala ended up working in these conditions so far away from home.
After thousands of years of thriving agriculture, farming in Mexico has ceased to provide a viable livelihood. Climate change, overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, trade treaties such as NAFTA, the imposition of GMOs, and now gun violence from drug wars, have all conspired to make life unlivable. Sadly, every one of these destabilizing factors has been largely, if not completely, introduced from the North.
Mahmoud Darwish’s ‘On man’, could have just as well been written for those who have been savaged by one man’s campaign this election season:
They gagged his mouth,
Bound his hands to the rock of the dead
And said: Murderer!
They took his food, clothes and banners,
Cast him into the condemned cell
And said: Thief!
They drove him away from every port,
Took his young sweetheart,
Then said: Refugee!
As the Sioux and their allies are fighting to put an end to the theft of their land at Standing Rock at this very moment, it is important that we think about the displacement of indigenous people in its widest context this election day. This should include condemning the demonization of indigenous immigrants.
Our friend and collaborator, Zenaida Cantu, Me’phaa poet, sums it up best:
Ri mbrutu ika mbo ahun
gwa’da tsitsiya magajnu gini
Discrimination is the only weapon the mediocre can use to excel!
We’re thrilled to share “Mother Tongues and Queens” — a language map of the world’s languages capital!
The map shows NYC’s linguistic diversity in more detail than ever before, reflecting ELA’s work over the last 6 years.
The map is featured in the fabulous, just-released “Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas” edited by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, and was part of an exhibit at the Queens Museum. Thanks to Molly Roy for the cartography and Mirissa Neff for the photographs!
We’re currently planning maps of the other boroughs — get in touch if you want to help out!