Latin America

Why indigenous languages are dying out in Latin America

Cristina Calderón, who died last week, was the last surviving speaker of the Yaghan indigenous language. Around Latin America, countless native tongues are disappearing from existence

languages indigenous Traditional public wood carvings depicting natives of the village of Caleta Tortel. Photo: Shutterstock
Traditional public wood carvings depicting natives of the village of Caleta Tortel. Photo: Shutterstock

When she died last week at the age of 93, Chilean ethnographer Cristina Calderón took with her the Yahgan language. She was, alongside her sister Úrsula — who died in 2005 at 84 — the last full-blooded member of the Yahgan people, an indigenous ethnic group of nomads whose traditional territory includes Chile’s southernmost islands.

Ms. Calderón had been declared a Living Human Treasure by the Chilean government and UNESCO, and her death was mourned by President-elect Gabriel Boric, who takes office on March 11. “When my sister Úrsula passed away I was left alone, with no one to...

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