Languages and People Disappeared

Rough hands gripped mine. I stared down, uncomfortable, at the yellow and silver Formica table. "Tat nupal," the voices began, "tey tinemi tic ne ylhuicatl." In a run-down tract house in the weedy suburbs of Washington, D.C., five Salvadoran refugees began their evening blessing over our meal. "Our Creator in heaven," they pray in Nahuat, one of the indigenous languages of El Salvador. As a poet in a time when languages are being lost at a rate equivalent to the rain forest, I clung to the edges of the words, the narrowness of their sound, their rhythm like wind in high trees, never expecting to hear them again.

John Sayles’ newest film, Men With Guns, not only includes dialogue in Nahuat, but in Tzotzil, Maya, and Kuna, as well as Spanish and English. "Language is one of the main gaps between people," Sayles says about his characters. "If everyone was speaking English, the story wouldn’t make as much sense." (The subtitles, by the way, are clear and excellent.)

In his understated way, Sayles’ movie mission is about making sense. He does so not in a rational, superficial, or always socially recognizable way, but on a very human and spiritual level, digging at the question of how to shore up faith and uncover meaning in daily life.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1998
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