Language Expertise Is Not a Bounded Experience

By: and Aldo Anzures Tapia

July 17, 2018

The University of Pennsylvania has established a partnership with the Caste War Museum in Tihosuco, a Mayan community in Quintana Roo, Mexico, which has been materialized as the Tihosuco Heritage and Preservation Community Project. As an originally conceived public archaeology endeavor, this project has responded to the needs of the community by bringing expertise and resources that could benefit from the partnership. As one of the “language experts” in the project, I have especially and emphatically challenged my imposed position of expertise, and conceived my collaboration with the community as a bottom-up effort where we are constantly re-negotiating the leverage of power and expertise through participation, communication, and dialogue between my research agenda and the needs of the Caste War Museum.

During the last 3 years, in collaboration with the cultural promoters of the Caste War Museum, we have been designing different learning experiences and materials that range from summer workshops for children ages 3 to 14, a trilingual approach to the museum (Maya, Spanish, and English), as well as designing bilingual comic books based on the lives of the Caste War leaders. During all these activities, our discussions, besides having a clear aim of finishing the materials, revolve on what time, timelines, and deadlines mean as we complete our tasks, as well as how “language expertise” is constructed through dictionaries, the role of academic credentials, and the process of aging.

Bety and the author proofreading the last version of the comic book. Photo by Alonso (Tihosuco’s high school student).
Caste War Museum’s cultural promoters working on 2017’s comic book. Photo by Aldo Anzures Tapia.

In other words, we have explored some ideas about language expertise, such as how dictionaries are supposedly right in the way they show the meaning of words; how a credential, such as an undergraduate degree in linguistics can “give knowledge” to people in regards to how languages work; as well as how, as you become older, you “know more” about the language. We have questioned these assumptions in order to give strength to ourselves, and believe that we are all language experts even if (1) we have not created a dictionary or know all the words that come in one; (2) we do not have a degree in Mayan linguistics or linguistics at all, or (3) we are not abuelitos (elders). We have embraced these ideas, many times difficult and challenging, just as we have embraced some of the most-beloved pieces in the Museum.

Hugs and laughs with our old friend in the Museum. Photo by Aldo Anzures Tapia.

For example, after three years working on Maya-Spanish bilingual comic books, we are becoming risk-takers in our understandings and actions of how languages are not bounded in our speech and writing. Thus, our literacy products, such as the comic books, started, for the first time, to show how languages could be mixed. Therefore, this year, as we were finishing the comic book on Manuel Antonio Ay, the Caste War’s first martyr, we realized that we were showing the struggle of the Caste War, but not the clash of languages in our writing, the frustrations in the process of our writing, or the struggle that Manuel Antonio might have had as he was questioned by the government, or the ways he could have used his languages to rebel against the government.  Hence, we decided to mix languages (a process that in some academic circles has been conceived as translanguaging); an action that we still do not know if our readers will like (or will agree with), but that we, as authors, are happy with, since it reflects the ways we see Maya and Spanish speakers and languages.

Snapshots of the boxes where we started to “mix” languages for the first time; not necessarily respecting the Maya or Spanish version of the comic, but the nature of how we thought Manuel Antonio was questioned by the Mexican government in the 19th century. Photo by Aldo Anzures Tapia.

We made a huge step in our understanding of languages as roads that intermingle in our lives and could not be separated. Although now we just assigned one language to one person, we know that the challenge for next year is to write the comic book in a way, where one character can use both languages at the same time, just as we do it in our daily practices. These insights in our collaborative process have been very rich and thoughtful; and it has allowed us to become language experts and play with our languages as we draw, think, modify, discuss, and laugh as we work in OUR comic books.

The Caste War Museum’s director collaborating with the cultural promoters on the final versions of the comic. Photo by Aldo Anzures Tapia.

Our collaboration and friendship has grown as our understandings on the challenges of reclaiming Maya in the town and opening spaces for it have expanded too. Hopefully by next year, we can realize some of our translanguaging dreams as we develop the fourth volume on the Caste War–a version that will talk about the war overall, instead of its main protagonists.