Obies Using Languages: Jacob Firman ’16

Jacob Firman is a senior majoring in Comparative American Studies at Oberlin College.

Describe the role of Spanish and/or indigenous languages in the communities you lived in this past semester.

Last semester, I participated in the Mexico Solidarity Network’s Mexican Social Movements program. While in Mexico, we learned from three of Mexico’s and Latin America’s most important social movements including the Zapatistas, Consejo Nacional Urbana y Campesino (CNUC), and El Frente Popular Francisco Villa Independiente (‘Los Panchos’). MSN filled a gaping hole in my education. At Oberlin I learned how to critique and analyze the system but I had no sense of how to change it. Coming out of the program, I feel an unprecedented sense of purpose, clarity, and direction. For the sake of this interview, I’ll focus on my experience in Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico.

In Oventic the dominant language is Tzo’tzil which is of Mayan origin. For most of the community as well as the guests, Spanish is a second language.

What are some notable phrases (i.e. idiomatic expressions) that you learned?

The preservation of indigenous languages is closely tied to the preservation of indigenous cultures and worldviews.

One of the most fascinating parts of Tzo’tzil is in the way it is grammatically organized, there are no objects. Everything is described as a relation between subjects. This structure reflects their worldview of relationships based on mutuality and interconnectedness as opposed to objectification which marks dominant U.S. culture.

The word am’tel describes all work that is necessary for maintaining life such as farming, cooking, cleaning, childcare, weaving, building, and healing. Whereas the word kanal refers to labor in the capitalist sense i.e. working for a boss, alienated from your labor and your community. The conception of labor in am’tel reflects an equal valuation of all kinds of labor including domestic labor which is often undervalued in our society.

Describe any challenges you faced in speaking Spanish: being perceived as a gringo speaking Spanish or feeling uncomfortable because of mistakes you made.

We were never referred to us as gringos or extranjeros by folks in Oventic. Instead they referred to us as internacionales (internationals) or compañeros. In their minds, an extranjero is someone whose heart and mind are distanced from than them, a factor which doesn’t necessarily have to do with where they are from.

Describe the role of music and singing in the communities you lived in this past semester.

Singing played a vital role in the community. At least once a week, we would come together and share songs ranging from anthems of rebellion to songs about moco (boogers). This was a way to collectively remember their history of struggle and keep its spirit alive while also finding ways to laugh and smile with each other.

Photo courtesy of: Jacob Firman. Jacob is third from the right in the photo above.



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