Pomona Junior Helps Revive Dying Guatemalan Language

This summer, Rodrigo Ranero PO ’14 will return to his home country of Guatemala and, with the help of grants from both the Strauss Foundation and Davis Projects for Peace, will contribute to a collaborative effort to reclaim the Xinka language. His work this summer is part of a project he will continue throughout his senior year, entitled “The Reclamation of Xinka: Returning the Language to the Community.”

Xinka is one of two non-Mayan languages in Guatemala, a country which boasts a total of 23 languages. Xinka is spoken primarily in southeastern Guatemala. Its impending extinction in Guatemala is what sparked Ranero’s interest.

“When I started thinking about this project, I thought [Xinka] was still spoken, but by very few people, so that’s why I got interested,” Ranero said.

Ranero, a linguistics major, said he realized linguistics-related work in Guatemala was lacking after a conversation with a friend in which the two brainstormed ideas on applying their knowledge in the field.

“I thought of what I could work on over there, and I thought of Xinka. I applied for a SURP [Summer Undergraduate Research Program] grant last year to do field work on the language, because I thought there were still a few speakers left [and], because according to official census and data, it said that there were about 100 speakers left. So I received the SURP grant, and it wasn’t until after I got it that I received a reply from the [former] linguist who worked [on Xinka], and she told me there wasn’t any work to be done because the language was extinct. But she told me the organization she worked with, COPXIG [Council of the Xinka People of Guatemala], was looking for someone to help them out with this reclamation effort. I had my SURP money, so I went and looked for the organization, proposed that we collaborate, and they accepted, so that’s how it started,” Ranero said.

After two months of meetings and discussions with COPXIG on how to approach the reclamation effort, they decided to design and write pedagogical materials to teach the language from scratch. They then proposed to the Guatemalan government that these materials be used in schools in the area and the government approved their proposal.

“The output of last summer was this first book on how to teach the language, and that set the basis for me to be able to apply for more funds from Davis and Strauss,” Ranero said.

Ranero has received a grant of $10,000 from the Davis Projects for Peace organization, which will go toward the writing and publishing of two more advanced language books on how to teach Xinka.

Although Xinka has been disappearing since the era of Spanish colonization, the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996) resulted in the persecution of many minorities and resulted in discouraging the use of many indigenous languages.

The Donald A. Strauss Public Service Scholarship Foundation has awarded Ranero an additional $10,000 “to expand the coverage of our effort to other areas where Xinka was spoken, to expand it to a neighboring state, and work with other Xinka communities there. [We also want] to bring the language outside of the classroom. If there are other community members who are older and who are also interested in learning Xinka, they are also able to use the material and to connect with COPXIG,” Ranero said.

Students from 14 schools in California, including the UC schools, Pomona College, and Occidental College, are eligible to apply for the Strauss Foundation’s scholarships.

“Each year [the schools] nominate three candidates who have an idea for a community engagement project to carry out over their senior year,” Ranero said.

Students are mentored throughout the year by a member of the Strauss Foundation’s Board of Trustees.

As for this summer, Ranero will spend the first month and a half of his summer working with COPXIG in writing the next two textbooks. Then he will lead workshops on how to teach the language.

“[Teachers] have to learn how to use the material and to learn the basis of Xinka,” Ranero said.

“At the end of the summer, we’ll be in touch with other Xinka organizations to start a collaboration with them so our project can be expanded. They’ve already shown interest and are expecting us to come to them. Throughout the year, I’ll be writing [to] the Xinka and knowing about how the project is going and how the workshops are working out. And then over winter break, I’ll go back and do a mid-year assessment of the project and work out how the workshops will be continued for the other half of the year,” Ranero said.

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