Spaniards first arrived in the 1500s in what is known today as the southwestern State of New Mexico, bringing with them a now-antiquated form of the Spanish language. They encountered and then merged ̶ often by force ̶ with the Indigenous populations — particularly the Nahuatl speakers — and the languages melded and flourished in the rural mountain pockets and locations such as Ohkay Owingeh, also known as the San Juan Pueblo.
The dialect unique to New Mexico and southern Colorado has survived and thrived for 400 years but is slowly being eclipsed as the elders who speak it pass away and the younger generations turn to the English language prevalent outside those pockets.
Researchers like Associate Professor Damián Vergara Wilson, the coordinator of the Spanish as a Heritage Language Program at The University of New Mexico, are turning their attention to preserving and documenting the vernacular.
“The Spanish language, like any language, constantly evolves. There is a myth that we speak the Spanish of golden age Spain from the 1600s. While we do retain some words that are lost in other varieties, the language we speak is not an exact replica of that remote time," Wilson noted.
“Our mission is ‘Cuenta tu historia’ – ‘Tell your story!’ Language and identity are very closely linked, which is one reason it’s important to preserve it, because our way of speaking is part of our identity. It’s because that’s how we tell our stories and that’s how we talk about place, time, religious beliefs, culture, gossip. This is how we tell our stories.”
- Damián Vergara Wilson
Awareness of the endangered dialect and Wilson’s efforts is growing thanks to a recent New York Times article by Simon Romero, himself a native of the tiny village of Ribera about 50 miles from Santa Fe, in which he quotes the UNM professor. In April, Wilson was also interviewed by well-known Spanish-language news anchor Jorge Ramos for his show Al Punto on Univisión. The Associated Press and Telemundo also featured Wilson and his linguistic efforts
Wilson, who was raised with the vernacular in Ojo Caliente, a village north of Santa Fe, is among those trying to promote this linguistic legacy in his research and the classroom.
In his research, Wilson uses the term Traditional New Mexican Spanish (TNMS) with its unique characteristics nurtured in the enclaves of northern New Mexico, as opposed to the “Border Spanish” in the southern half of the state, which is more characteristic of the Spanish of northern Mexico. “TNMS” and “Border Spanish” were coined by previous UNM researchers Neddy Vigil and Garland Bills.
Examples of the old versus the modern include:
No je instead of No sé (“I don’t know.”).
Lonche, an Anglicism for “lunch.”
Ratón volador (flying mouse) for “bat” instead of murciélago.
Gallina de la sierra (mountain chicken) for “turkey” instead of pavo or guajalote.
Troca or troque for “truck.”
Muncho instead of mucho (“lots” or “much”).
Dende instead of desde (since”).
“Languages are constantly in flux, exposed to the flow of history,” Romero observed in a 2017 article.
“It is not just that they come down from these enclaves and encounter English. English is creeping into all homes,” Wilson noted.
In New Mexico, the debate about the value of the Spanish language became a hot-button issue when the Unites States colonized it.
“A huge debate in the territorial period erupted in newspaper editorials or letters to the editor, written primarily by Hispanics but also from Anglos, in which English symbolized progress and Spanish symbolized a refusal to become intellectually enlightened,” Wilson explained. “Opposite arguments positioned Spanish as a symbol of cultural maintenance and English as a sort of necessary evil.”
In 1907, President Teddy Roosevelt expressed his conviction that “We have room for but one flag, the American flag ... We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language ... and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people,” an ideology that intensified feelings that non-English languages were unpatriotic.
New Mexico becoming a state in 1912 was a bittersweet victory, Wilson noted. Suddenly New Mexicans were faced with English as a central language in education and paying taxes for schools that stigmatized the Spanish they had been speaking: “Many educators and speakers of the prestige varieties viewed New Mexico Spanish as archaic, rural, full of errors, and in need of remediation, and attempted to eradicate elements of the dialect in an attempt to teach us how to speak correctly.”
Spanish-speaking adults recall being stigmatized and punished in schools all over the state for speaking the language they spoke at home. Many people questioned why they would transmit the dialect if it had so many negative ties to things like education, economic well-being, Americanism, and progress.
“People still think they are doing their children favors by not teaching them Spanish, both immigrant populations and ones with long histories in the U.S.,” Wilson said. “Educators will tell them a word is wrong. There are a lot of New Mexico words educators have attempted to eradicate. Education instills that there is one ring to rule them all, but there isn’t necessarily one right word.”
Even putting aside, the stigma, language grows, evolve, change, and die.
“Some linguists call the U.S. a language graveyard because of all the languages lost here, be they Spanish from prior colonists, Native American languages, or immigrant languages,” Wilson noted.
Some scholars estimate that TNMS will disappear within 50 years.
“Shift happens. Shift is going to happen,” Wilson said. “Older speakers do not fully transmit a dialect or language to younger speakers when that dialect becomes viewed as lacking in value or when it becomes a symbol that challenges prevailing ideologies.”
TNMS is being overwhelmed with English as the young people move out of the community or otherwise engage with the outside world, including the Internet and TV.
Wilson is teaching a new generation of scholars to appreciate the traditional community language and attempt to preserve it. In Wilson’s Spanish as a Heritage Language class, students develop an appreciation of their heritage language. They learn about cultural connections, sharing experiences, background, and linguistic knowledge with one another.
“Certain evolutionary forces we can’t stop but at the same time there are a lot of people feeling this and they don’t feel right about it…,” Wilson explained. “You get a lot of students coming into the Spanish as a Heritage Language program and they can understand their grandparents who still speak this wonderful dialect… You see this when the younger people hear the grandparents speaking about something like Christmas presents and the younger people say ‘Oh, they don’t want us to understand,’ and they do understand but they can’t speak it.”
The Spanish that they bring with them is promoted as a valuable resource, Wilson said.
“The Spanish of their communities is honored as a venerable variety of the language. We go so far as to propose that the Spanish that has been preserved in New Mexico should be considered a national treasure for its uniqueness and its perseverance.”
So why bother to try to preserve the old dialect? Wilson explained:
“Our mission is ‘Cuenta tu historia’ – ‘Tell your story!’ Language and identity are very closely linked, which is one reason it’s important to preserve it because our way of speaking is part of our identity. It’s because that’s how we tell our stories and that’s how we talk about place, time, religious beliefs, culture, gossip. This is how we tell our stories.”
Image: Library of Congress: Kitchen scene in Spanish-American home near Taos, N.M., Taos County.