mexican English

Multiculturalism in Mexico

© GETTY Our first post in Mexican English month comes from Macmillan Editor Sharon Creese, who conducted academic research on the language and politics of South America before taking up her current role.


So, we’re into Mexican English month. This is going to be a tricky one, given the number of languages that actually exist in Mexico; there are the traditional Mayan laguages (spoken by around five million people across Central America), plus at least another 60 indigenous languages, like the famous ‘Mexicano’ (Nahuatl). And then, of course, there’s the official state language of Spanish. Throw in some English and you’ve got quite a concoction going on!

Language is something of a hot potato in this part of the world, not least for the role it can play in issues of social and political exclusion. Mexico has fared better than some of its neighbours in having set in place legislation to establish the ‘linguistic rights’ of its people, but in practice, many still remain excluded by the mere fact that they are not fluent in Spanish. You’ll still find official websites with English versions, but no indigenous-language version, so I, as a foreigner, have more chance of understanding the machinations of the Mexican state than many of its citizens do.

The efforts of certain high-profile political activists have brought the plight of indigenous peoples to the world’s attention in recent years, particularly Subcomandante Marcos of the EZLN (Zapatista movement), who campaigns for equality in the Chiapas region of southern Mexico. The Zapatistas’ slogan is Words are our Weapon and though the main thrust of their work is economic rather than linguistic, there are undeniable links between the two. Home to ancient Mayan ruins, Chiapas was already a tourist destination, but the EZLN’s fight has consolidated that (not that it’s necessarily the safest of places to go!) and brought English into the mix as well. For the local indigenous community, English has little relevance once you get beyond ‘tourist-speak’ (two cervezas por favor mate!), but Marcos himself has made sure his message gets out in English as well as Spanish, to maximize the audience.

Mexico, like a lot of South America, is so multicultural that any time you enter into a political or social discussion, you’ll inevitably end up mixing your languages together. There are certain things that just don’t lend themselves to translation – you have to revert to the ‘original’ language for that word or idea. So your conversation will be peppered with, at the very least Spanish, English and Mayan, words ‘borrowed’ to and from each language in order to talk about a place that is easily as fascinating as its linguistic landscape.

And it’s that fascinating mix of languages and cultures that’s going to make Mexican English such an interesting and colourful one, so if you’ve got something to say, come on, get Commenting below, or drop us a line about submitting your own blog post.

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About the author


Sharon Creese


  • Hello; it’s exciting to see that Mexican English features this month. I am from Guadalajara, and I noticed that you referred to Nahuatl as ‘Mexicano’, and I’ve never heard anyone call it that. ‘Mexica’ would be a word used to talk about the indigenous groups of Central Mexico, so I wouldn’t be surprised if someone employed the same word with reference to the Aztec language. But not ‘Mexicano’.

    Another thing, a note to the readers: No Mexican would ever think of their country as a South American country; I know that most of the world think of it as South America because of the ethnic/cultural/linguistic/historical connections, but geographically it is above the equator; therefore it is part of North America (Remember NAFTA?).

    Looking forward to the blog updates.

  • @Ramiro. Thanks for your comment. In academic circles, Nahuatl is also know as Mexicano.
    Most Mexicans would actually consider themselves Central American, not North American. Don’t forget the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was what sparked the Zapatista movement. What I should have said, though, was ‘Latin America’, rather than ‘South America’ – thanks for pointing it out (I’ll leave it though, so these comments make sense to other readers!)

  • @Sharon. About “Most Mexicans would consider themselves Central American, not North American” is inaccurate, actually is the opposite; even at school they tell us that one quarter of Mexico is in Central America (Chiapas falls in that quarter), while the other three quarters are in North America. About the causes of the Zapatista movement, they are rather complex and I wouldn’t say that NAFTA was the main one.

    Maybe your sources come from Chiapas. Let me just clarify that there are many “Mexicos”, Chiapas is just one of them. It would be appropriate to call “Central American” to the people from Chiapas, but that is not true for most of us.

    ahhh… and I agree with Ramiro, it was a nice surprise to see “Mexican English” this month.

  • @Rafael. Thanks for you comment. I’ve studied Mexico extensively, but I didn’t grow up there. There’s always some discrepancy between an academic’s interpretation of what they see, and the actual lives of those born in the area (and, indeed, between the interpretation of different academics!), though clearly, research strives to minimize that.

    It’s good to get input from people ‘on the ground’, so whilst I stand by my post/comments based on my existing research, I’m delighted to hear different viewpoints.

    I hope you enjoy (and continue to get involved in) the rest of the Mexican English month!

  • Dear Sharon,

    It is always fascinating for us to know how such a mix of languages and cultures influence the native people’s character and how they can enrich themselves amidst that multicultural landscape.

    Thanks for your attention.

  • Dear Sharon:
    I also would not agree on the comment that “Most Mexicans consider themselves Central American”. Some Mexicans undoubtedly do, although as Rafael points out, there are many “Mexicos”. Indeed, this topic is tricky and complex. For example, I am a resident of Mexico state, living a mere 15 minutes away from Mexico City. Mexicans from this area definitely would not define themselves as “Central American”, but probably not as “North American” either. In this region at least, the ancient pride of the Mexicas (or Aztecs, as you probably know them) lives on in the back of people’s minds. This people, or “chilangos”, believe that they belong to a special part of the American continent, neither north nor south, that is called “Mexico”, and that this Aztec name means “belly button of the moon”…and that therefore Mexicans are the people that reside in the center of the ancient universe.

  • @Sharon, “In academic circles, Nahuatl is also know as Mexicano.
    Most Mexicans would actually consider themselves Central American, not North American. Don’t forget the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was what sparked the Zapatista movement.” I didn’t know about Nahuatl being spoken of as ‘Mexicano’, thanks for pointing that out. Funnily it reminds me of the “Spanish vs Castellano” discussion before (I’m thinking of other Mexican languages like the Mayan family or Zapoteca, for example) 🙂 –



  • I am a Mexican myself, born in Southern Mexico, raised in Northern Mexico and living now in Mexico City. No Mexican – not a single one – from any of the many regions, backgrounds and social classes existing in this country would ever consider him/herself to be “Central American”. That is totally wrong and misleading. Mexicans think of themselves as “Mexicans” first and then, probably,as “Latin Americans” but never as “Central Americans” (most Mexicans have no idea of what Central America is). Apart from that, I studied applied linguistics (majored in Romance languages) but have never heard of a Mexican linguist refering to “náhuatl” as “mexicano”. Second terrible mistake in this article.

  • No, most native words in Mexican Spanish do not come from Mayan. Most come from Nahuatl. Mayas are not even the largest native culture in the country, as they are concentrated in the south-east. There are more Mayans in Guatemala than in Mexico.

  • I studied languages and even there, at that time, linguists from different parts of the world never referred to Nahualt as “Mexicano” this is a terrible misconception from yourself, and maybe from old resources. Also, I have never met or heard any Mexican, even from the southern-est part, to refer to themselves as Central-americans. I agree that this will certainly mislead people who are not aware of this situation.

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