New Mexico is losing an accent that is not spoken anywhere else in the world
For more than 400 years, New Mexican, the dialect of the first Spanish-speaking settlers, has survived in the remote mountains of the state. But its end may be near.
What are we doing here
We explore how America is defined one place at a time. In a small town in northern New Mexico, some residents still speak the country’s oldest dialect of Spanish.
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CUESTA, New Mexico — When seniors gather at Cynthia Rael-Vigil’s Café in Questa, New Mexico, a town nestled in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, they sip lattes and lavender lemonade while gossiping in Spanish.
If a visitor from Madrid or Mexico City is sitting at the next table, he will have a hard time understanding your strange accent. But Spanish speakers four centuries earlier would have recognized unusual verb conjugations, even though they may not have been funky pronunciations or words of English and Native American origin.
For more than 400 years, these mountains have welcomed a kind of Spanish that today is found nowhere else on the planet. Even after its territory was absorbed by the United States in the 19th century, generations of speakers somehow kept this dialect alive in poetry, songs, and everyday conversation on the streets of the Spanish enclaves dotted across the region.
Just a few decades ago, the New Mexican dialect was still at the forefront of Spanish-speaking media in the United States and was featured on TV shows such as variety show val de la eau, which was broadcast nationally in the 1960s. Authors for publications such as The Hurricane have peppered the dialect into their songs. But these items, as well as the impressive collection of Spanish-language newspapers that once thrived in northern New Mexico, have largely disappeared.
Places where the melodic sounds of the dialect can still be heard at times, such as Rael Vigil’s cafeteria, are rare. In places like Alburqueque, New Mexico’s largest city, the dialect was overshadowed by Spanish for a new wave of immigrants, especially from Chihuahua in northern Mexico.
At the same time, there are questions about whether the rural communities that for centuries nurtured the New Mexican Spanish language can survive much longer in the face of a myriad of economic, cultural and climatic challenges.
said Rael Vigil, 68, who traces his ancestry back to Organ Expedition in 1598 that claimed New Mexico as one of the most remote domains of the Spanish Empire. “When a treasure is lost like this, I don’t think we realize it’s gone forever.”
New Mexican Spanish speakers in Cuesta, a town of about 1,700 residents near the state border with Colorado, tend to be 50 or older. Even in his own family, Rael Vigil sees the language slip away: his 11-year-old grandson doesn’t speak Spanish at all.
He said, “He has no interest.” “Kids his age are masters of the internet and all of this in English. I sometimes wonder, isn’t my generation doing our part to keep the language alive?”
I grew up in an adobe house in Ribera, a town near the Pecos River, and we spoke a bit of New Mexican Spanish, just enough to make ourselves understood, but not as cool as some of my classmates. Some of my earliest memories are of listening to my grandmother speak in dialect, while she flipped tortillas with her fingers on the wood-burning stove.
Although she was born in New Mexico and spent most of her life in the state, my grandmother barely spoke any English. Now she is gone and the region, along with the people of her generation, has lost a linguistic treasure that we have heard for centuries.
New Mexican Spanish is often described as a sample of Golden Age Spanish (17th century), imported directly from the Old World and protected in some way by isolation. According to linguists, this description may contain some truth, but the origins and evolution of the dialect – which they see as descended from North Mexican Spanish – are more complex and nuanced than legend.
It is believed to have taken shape around the end of the sixteenth century, when a linguistically and ethnically mixed colonial campaign prevailed in this region as part of European competition for the New World, years before the first settlement was established in the United States. Standing of an Englishman, at Jameston, Virginia, in 1607.
The colonizers included Europeans from Spain, Portugal and Greece but also Mexican-born of mixed race of indigenous people, Europeans, Africans and indigenous people who are believed to be from Tlaxcalan and spoke Nahuatl, the lingua franca of the Aztec Empire.
The settlers relied on the supply caravans known as the behaviours To maintain links with Mexico City. But the small colony will remain completely isolated from the outside world over a period of several years, which has led to comparison with some places in the Andean highlands or southern Chile, where Spanish developed in similar isolation.
Damian Vergara Wilson, a researcher at the University of New Mexico who specializes in the state’s unique dialect, said he compares the Spanish Empire’s northern suburban settlement to a space colony. “What if we go to Mars in a spacecraft and lose contact with the other speakers?” Wilson said. “This is what happened here. There was very little contact.”
While speakers of the dialect can usually carry on a conversation with people who more commonly speak Spanish, those who still retain New Mexican can sound vastly different. (Linguists often call the New Mexican dialect Spanish or the Spanish dialect of the upper Rio Grande, in contrast to the Mexican-influenced southern Spanish of New Mexico.)
Where it took root, in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, speakers use words like Flying mouse bat and Sierra chicken To refer to a turkey or turkey.
They incorporated original words like Shimal (shield) Nahuatl, chimayo (Obsidian flake) from Tiwa W cipolo (búgalo) from zuñi, as well business (a job or work)xmas (Christmas or Christmas), Sanamagun (despicable person, undesirable person) and many others in English.
Speakers conjugate creatively, using odd endings in verbs, and tend to exude an “s” sound in many words, a bit like the “h” sound in English or the “j” sound in Spanish. For example, they will say “I don’t know where the box is” instead of “I don’t know where the house is“.
Lens Niels Becky, a linguist who completed his doctoral studies at the University of New Mexico this year, was formerly at the University of Ghent in Belgium—known for its strong Spanish language program—and told colleagues about the dialect he found in New Mexico.
“They seemed awestruck by everything,” said Becky, who would cycle between remote towns doing field research on New Mexican Spanish and often camp out under the stars.
“I was like, ‘Wow, are they doing this?'” “Wow, do they do that?”
The dialect has managed to survive nearly two centuries since the United States acquired New Mexico in 1848, making it the oldest variety of Spanish transmitted without interruption. But while immigration from Latin America pushed the number of Spanish speakers in the United States to more than 41 million, the fate of New Mexican Spanish—and the region in which it thrived—took a different turn.
Economic forces fueled an exodus from the northern cities of crumbling, aging adobe houses. Other threats, such as the largest wildfire in New Mexico history, which swept through the Spanish homeland a year ago, and the worst drought since before Spanish settlement, revealed the fragility of these traditionally remote places. In the face of extreme weather, it is exacerbated by global warming.
Despite the difficulties, some people in the area are trying to memorize the dialect.
Julie Chacon, executive director of the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage District, an organization in Alamosa, Colorado, grew up speaking New Mexico Spanish in the nearby town of Capulin, where the dialect came across the state line from southern Colorado in the 19th century. He is now collecting word-of-mouth accounts the oldest And the work of manuals to teach the dialect. It also runs a children’s camp focusing on the traditions of the region.
Daniel Lee Gallegos and his band Sangre Joven from Las Vegas, NM are holding Facebook mass sessions for expats New Mexican And Carlos Medina, comedian and musician, delights in creating the hilarious accent.
“The language will absolutely survive,” said Larry Torres, a linguist who writes a bilingual column for Taos News and Sante Fe New Mexican newspapers. “It may not be the same language our ancestors knew, but we use a 15th-century form of Spanish with 21st-century English.”
Others are not sanguine about the dialect’s chances of survival, at least not in the form in which it has been known for centuries.
Mark Waltermeyer, a professor of linguistics at New Mexico State University, said he expects New Mexican Spanish to survive for at least another two decades, if only because people in their 50s still speak it.
But, he said, after that time, it’s hard to see a future for al-Hajj. However, this does not mean that the Spanish language will disappear in New Mexico. “It’s just been replaced,” he said, referring to the arrival of new immigrants from Mexico with “another kind of Spanish.”
Simon Romero is a national correspondent covering the US Southwest. He was the Times’ chief correspondent for Brazil and the Andes and an international energy correspondent. @employee