Standing on the beach in Brazil, a Portuguese speaking country, my friends and I roll our eyes and strain to stifle our laughter as the family of American tourists behind us attempts to brush away a persistent beach peddler. How bad were they? Frankly, typing a tilde over the “n” in their pronunciation of español would be quite generous. As the joke goes, “What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks only one? American.”
A multitude of reasons exist why Americans are monolingual. That’s not the point: What is exasperating is the idea that everyone south of the border is brown and sólo habla español.
Setting aside Portuguese (which is the most spoken language in South America), there are literally thousands of indigenous languages that have sizeable amounts of native speakers. The three official languages of the Mercosur — the trading bloc that consists of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay — are Portuguese, Spanish, and Guaraní. With nearly five million speakers in Paraguay (itself a Guaraní word), Guaraní is a derivative of the language of the Tupi tribal group. In Bolívia, Evo Morales’ first language was Aymara, which is co-official with Spanish and Quechua, the original tongue of the Inca Empire. Some estimate that Quechua has nearly 10 million speakers. Closer to home, Mexico City’s Mayor Marcelo Ebrard launched a 2006 initiative to have all city employees learn Nahuatl, the indigenous language of the Aztecs.
The mythos surrounding native peoples is deeply entwined with the cultural identities of many South American nations. While the numbers of indigenous communities are small, a million or so in Mexico – a million or so in Venezuela, their impact on countries’ “founding stories” is irreplaceable. In many parts of the Amazon and Tierra del Fuego, some tribes of indigenous people have never encountered Western civilizations. Experts estimate that more than a hundred such tribes may exist in South America alone, representing tens of thousands of people. Due to their very nature, protection for these groups – or “uncontacted peoples” – is often limited. Due to the paramilitary presence in parts of Colombia, Venezuela, and Peru, the ability of these countries to provide proper surveillance and protection of these groups in severely curtailed. Last year, a tribe was completely annihilated by Peruvian drug traffickers seeking to establish a path through the rainforest into Brazil. The soulless massacre of the outgunned tribe (broken arrows and machine gun casings were found at the scene) led one Brazilian official to deem the episode “genocide.” Clearly, protection of these groups is inadequate. The line between permitting tribal autonomy and providing basic protections has been crossed. One might argue that this full-scale hemoclysm represents more than the elimination of a people: It is a direct affront to the cultural bedrock of the nations themselves.
A greater appreciation for the cultural commodities these countries possess should be made a priority. The number of tribes that remain uncontacted is, in its very nature, fated to decrease. These groups offer a face of Latin America that is broader than that which currently occupies the imagination of our hapless American tourists. It is a face that has more linguistic diversity than anywhere else on the planet; as such, it represents an anthropological treasure that can never be replaced. Perhaps someday we can hope for global adventurers with greater awareness of what exactly what land they are treading.
For now, I’d settle for tourists learning to conjugate verbs.